Not that it was mentioned or celebrated at last month’s Arizona Nationals -- it should have been part of the pre-race ceremonies -- but the Grand Canyon land is commemorating 100 years of statehood. With the race’s future unclear after next February, however, NHRA and promoter Charlie Allen need to spend at least 100 hours thinking about what this event is supposed to be.
And can be.
In case you need to be brought up-to-date: As I originally reported in the Arizona Republic, Allen’s lease with the Gila River Indian Community expires in the spring of 2013. Allen says there’s a “1,000 percent” chance next year’s Nationals will be staged at Firebird International Raceway. But all bets are off after that, because Allen hasn’t been making any negotiating progress with the Community, which owns the wildly successful Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino across the road. Click here for AZ. Republic Article
The Community also owns the land upon which Firebird sits, near Chandler, not far from Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. Allen’s existing deal includes a seven-year lease option at “mutually agreeable terms” but his attorneys have been making less headway than Larry Dixon trying to land a suitable new Top Fuel ride.
If the lease isn’t extended -- and that appears increasingly likely -- Allen’s Plan B is a potential new location on non-Community land. When I talked with him about it on AZ Nationals weekend, he declined to reveal the exact location, other than to say, “It’s south of here (Firebird), on the freeway, a little over 15 minutes away, before Casa Grande.”
He added a new facility likely would include a road course and lake for drag boats. But here’s the kick-in-the-rear for Arizona fans -- it wouldn’t be ready before 2015, meaning no race in 2014 -- at least. Allen said he’ll make a go/no go decision on the project before next year’s Nationals, “based on the economy.”
I asked Graham Light, NHRA’s senior vice president of racing operations, if there were any other suitable facilities in Arizona. He said no. I asked if anyone other than Allen had made a recent, serious proposal for an alternate track. He said no. Light called Allen NHRA’s “partner” and added, “of course we’d prefer to work with Charlie, whether it’s here (Firebird), or a new site.”
“This market is huge,” said 15-time Funny Car champion John Force, who has a record eight Firebird wins. “I pray Charlie will go down the road and build another racetrack. “We cannot lose this market.”
So that’s that part of the story.
The other part is based on the assumption Allen will either get his Firebird lease extended or go ahead and build a new dragway.
NHRA, for years, has touted the Phoenix Valley event to its sponsors as proof drag racing is Big Time and showcased in major market areas. But the truth is the sanctioning organization acts as if the race were in, say, Dinwiddie, Virginia.
As an almost 18-year resident of Scottsdale, I’m sick of the third class treatment NHRA gives to my home Nationals.
Once again, President Tom Compton and communications VP Jerry Archambeault, to name two, couldn’t muster the energy or motivation to make the arduous 376.8 mile trip from Glendora to Chandler. In a business world where appearance means everything, that’s how it looks from this vantage point.
Once again, there was no serious in-market pre-race media event. NHRA hasn’t really made an aggressive effort since February 2008. It so happened the day of a nice luncheon with Jack Beckman and Del Worsham occurred exactly as the Phoenix Suns were introducing Shaquille O'Neal to the local journalists after a blockbuster trade. That was just plain old bad luck -- not an excuse to stop trying.
Once again, there was no title sponsor. With the very useful exception of a Ford dealers’ radio campaign, featuring Force, offering two free tickets after a test drive, there was zip local promotion.
Once again, the Arizona Republic -- I do that reporting along with Mark Armijo -- was the only major mainstream media outlet in the state to offer weekend-long coverage. But the downtown Powers-That-Be significantly reduced the number of stories from what we did for last October’s Countdown event, which should have the red lights and piercing alarms sounding throughout NHRA HQ. I’ve said for years Compton & Co. need to get over here and personally outreach to the sports editors, directors and other decision makers. And then invite them out to stand on the starting line and feel 16,000 horsepower blast up through their feet. Of course, that hasn’t happened.
To be fair, I have to admit I was surprised by the very good spectator turnout for all three days, despite what I consider to be high ticket prices. Allen told me attendance would be north of last October, when he switched dates to avoid conflicting with NASCAR at Phoenix International Raceway. Allen now calls that a “mistake.”
It’s clear Arizona fans like drag racing in February, especially in Chamber of Commerce-type weather conditions, which we’re usually blessed to have in these parts. Quality competition -- and Courtney Force advancing to the semifinals -- surely sent the ticket buyers home happy.
It all combined to make me wonder -- again -- just how BIG the Arizona Nationals could really be if NHRA acted like this was one of the nation’s top destinations. One, by the way, with a sponsor-friendly demographically diverse population.
The way NHRA treats this event is a big burr under my saddle. I’d hate not to have drag racing here. But if NHRA isn’t going to put the effort into the Arizona Nationals befitting one of America’s most important markets, then it might as well go back to Dinwiddie.
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