It is only 9 a.m. in New York City, but it’s already been a busy morning in what promises to be another hectic-yet-profitable day for Eddy Hartenstein and Tom Compton, the chairman and the president of NHRA Pro Racing, which has sped past NASCAR as America’s No. 1 racing series and is riding the wave as the country’s hottest sports marketing property.
The two execs hurry to their dragster-long limo after a very positive breakfast interview with editors of the Wall Street Journal. The Journal is readying a Page One story on how drag racing, the most American of all American motorsports, has zoomed to national prominence after Hartenstein’s HD Partners bought NHRA in a $121 million deal announced five years ago this month. Warren Buffett was quoted in Forbes last week as praising NHRA’s forward-thinking and innovative business plan. Hartenstein and Compton are flooded with invitations to be featured speakers at business conferences -- CEOs everywhere are asking, “How did you do it?”
(Rumor has it Compton -- hotter than an exhaust header among CEO headhunters -- just iced an offer to become commissioner of the National Hockey League. He couldn’t afford the pay cut.)
Corporate America has fallen in love with the straight-line sport. Ford, GM, Chrysler, BMW, Toyota, Honda, Mazda, Hyundai and Nissan have factory-supported teams, making NHRA the biggest and most important racing battleground on earth for the automakers. Porsche -- yes, Porsche -- is studying it. Apple, Starbucks, Panasonic, AT&T, FedEx, General Electric, Lowe’s, Subway, Exxon Mobil and Walmart are among the series’ newest sponsors. The legendary beer wars have returned, with Budweiser and Miller again backing prominent teams. And now a record number of fans are taking sides in the burger battles, with McDonald’s vs. Wendy’s in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes. Jegs.com says the drag racing boom has quadrupled its mail order business.
The Coca-Cola Co. has poured the full might of its sports marketing department into its Full Throttle series sponsorship. A revolving 10-year contract extension was recently signed. The Top Fuel and Funny Car champions now each receive $2.5 million from the $10 mil points fund in both classes. The U.S. Nationals alone pays $1 mil to win for the nitro machines. Car owners -- including new entries from Roger Penske, Rick Hendrick, Tony Stewart, Richard Childress and McLaren -- are cashing big tire company checks as Firestone and Michelin have joined Goodyear on America’s strips. Joe Gibbs is back with two cars in every class and James Stewart on a Pro Stock motorcycle. Dale Earnhardt Jr. says he’s thinking of following in Kurt Busch’s tire tracks and leaving NASCAR for a full-time Funny Car ride.
Compton and Hartenstein, who when in New York stay at an NHRA-owned apartment that takes up an entire floor at Trump Tower, make a quick stop at NHRA’s satellite office near Madison Ave.’s powerful ad agencies. Then, it’s on to New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport to board NHRA’s Citation X jet for Detroit, where the Michigan governor will help unveil the new $25 million Motor City Quarter-Mile.
NHRA has invested heavily in marketing research and thus all tracks have been modernized to appeal to the new fan generation that is more tech savvy than car crazy. Big screens replay runs in 3D HD and behind-the-scenes videos from the pits. Segment times and speeds are instantly transmitted to smart phones. Spectators order food, buy souvenirs and interact with sponsor displays from touch screens at their comfortable Club Level seats.
Compton takes a call from Bruton Smith. Demand for tickets means grandstand seating capacity in Las Vegas and Concord will increase to 100,000. Hartenstein gets a text message confirming ABC -- which with ESPN won a high-dollar bidding war over NBC, CBS, Fox and Turner for NHRA’s television rights -- will show final eliminations of six Nationals live on the ABC network. The 4-Wide Nationals runs in prime time on a Monday night. Graham Light E-mails Compton that Don Schumacher and John Force are again asking for a waiver on the four-cars-per-class rule because they have so many sponsors who want a piece of the action.
Honestly, who would have thought all of this possible a short five years ago? I was one of what was said to be about 100 pencil-sharp financial analysts and ink-stained journalists who listened to the announcement via conference call that amazing and historic day in May 2007. I admit it: I rolled my eyes when Hartenstein, the former DirecTV chairman, described himself as a “fan . . . I just like stuff that goes fast . . . we’re not just financial hacks.”
But HD Partners Acquisition Corp.’s willingness to pay about $100 million in cash and around $11.5 million in debt and liabilities for NHRA’s professional racing assets, commercial rights and the four NHRA owned tracks plus Pomona’s operational lease demanded our full attention. The thunderous news was the most important in NHRA history since 1975, when Winston began its 27-year series sponsorship. Eddy H talked of schedule expansion to new facilities in sponsor-desirable markets. He delivered. This year’s Full Throttle schedule features a robust 26 National events. NHRA is in a position to pick-and-choose where it races and, therefore, each and every dragway has been upgraded to include media facilities befitting a professional sport and paved pit parking for all teams. It’s believed at least a half-dozen other promoters are preparing bids and sprucing-up their properties.
HD Partners fueled the growth by spending millions more dollars. Their investment has paid-off Big Time.
Gary Scelzi might be Hartenstein’s biggest cheerleader. Long unhappy with NHRA’s lack of promotion, the nitro champion had told me just a few weeks earlier, “I don’t know if NHRA has the capital to take this to the next level. I don’t know that it’s as important to them to go to the next level. I don’t see, I don’t hear, what it takes to do that.”
Now, everyone in the sports marketing world sees and hears NHRA’s roar. Jon Asher just wrote a CompetitionPlus.com column praising Hartenstein and Compton “for bringing Wally Parks’ vision to its ultimate fruition.”
By evening, Hartenstein and Compton are back in California, for a Hollywood dinner meeting with Steven Spielberg. The Academy Award winning director has $200 million from Disney Studios to make an NHRA-theme movie. Tom Cruise is set to play the lead and Reese Witherspoon is signed to co-star as the circuit’s trophy queen. (Jennifer Aniston wanted the part.) Witherspoon already has lunched in Beverly Hills with Linda Vaughn, who will serve as a technical consultant.
Entertainment Tonight and People magazine have gotten wind of Spielberg’s project and are requesting comment from NHRA’s NFL-sized PR department, based at the company’s massive new Los Angeles headquarters building. There are support offices in New York and Chicago. Fortunately, Hartenstein realized his investment was worthless unless he brought in the right people, with the right plan. So the PR operation is headed by the well-respected former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer. Hartenstein also created the position of Chief Creative Officer to infuse drag racing with fresh, vibrant ideas.
Fleischer has a “hot list” of key media types he regularly calls just to say hello and maintain good professional relationships. It’s working. The Full Throttle tour has a traveling press corps of about 50, representing major news outlets from sea-to-shining-sea, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times. NHRA’s leather-bound media guide is much in demand. Ruth’s Chris proudly hosts pre-race media luncheons. There are lavish cocktail parties every Nationals weekend, allowing racers, media and sponsors to mingle and network. Ultra-aggressive in-market promotions give some lucky fans the chance to join them.
Drivers regularly guest on talk and entertainment shows. Courtney Force is a contestant on Dancing With The Stars. Ron Capps chatted with David Letterman the other night. Tony Schumacher was on with Rush Limbaugh last week. Jack Beckman has been cast as a castaway on the next Survivor and is preparing by swallowing larva eggs whole at the Don Schumacher hospitality area.
Experts on social media report that NHRA is the topic of more Tweets, and has spawned more Facebook pages, than any other sport.
By 9 p.m., Hartenstein, Compton and Spielberg are toasting their collaboration with Dom Pérignon in crystal flutes, under a magnificent full moon. For NHRA Pro Racing, the future could not look brighter.
But, then . . .
The sun came up. Upon awakening, I remembered that HD Partners’ buyout of NHRA went up in smoke. The dream was over.
Oh, what might have been.
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