SUSAN WADE: MEMORIAL DAY OBSERVATIONS THROUGH DRAG-RACING FILTER

Written by Susan Wade.

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"This is no battle, no waged campaign. This is pastime. We must be devout in our observation of the pain that allows us to laugh, the fallen who allow us to run, for those who never returned that we may now come together. This reverence we commemorate is a sentiment heavy on our hearts. This reverence we do not take lightly.
 
"We dedicate our longest march to the endless march of our United States Armed Forces. They landed on hostile shores so we could run on the beach. They battled machines of fascism so we could use fast machines for play. They charged into the unknown so that we may know freedom.
 
"What once was Decoration Day is now our day of memorial. But for this weekend and this time, we stand not in a state of grief but in reflection and proudly state, 'America, united, shall endure. "
 
- Ken Squier-narrated tribute to America's military, aired on SPEED TV Sunday
 

While watching Sunday's broadcasts of the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600, a number of comparison and contrasts between those two events and their presentations and drag-racing leaped off the television screen.
 
One of the finest moments of the day was SPEED's showing of the quoted-above tribute to our U.S. Armed Forces -- excellent editing, excellent images, and moving words that captured the day's meaning.
 
However, we give resounding boos to both SPEED and FOX -- both wonderful networks, so no nasty online posts or letters, please -- for not airing live or taped footage of Antron Brown's and Tony Schumacher's side-by-side burnouts at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Is NASCAR afraid one two-minute focus on drag racing will spoil their hyped race? The NASCAR commentators certainly didn't mind talking positively about the Indianapolis 500, so how hard would it have been to throw a bone to drag racing?
 
FOX, SPEED and ABC (which aired the Indianapolis 500 broadcast earlier in the day) did use some commendable creativity in capturing the history, anticipation, and excitement of their respective events.
 
For example, those network producers an behind-the-scenes "techno-magicians" smartly incorporated bold, strong classical music to set the mood for the messages they conveyed. Sweeping panoramic footage of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and a lined-up NASCAR field at Charlotte, for example, had musical accompaniment that, at least subliminally, signals to viewers, "This is important." Drag racing has its moments that deserve trumpet fanfare and timpani rolls. Let's hear more of that on ESPN.
 
NASCAR coverage has its Hollywood Hotel, with hosts Chris Myers, Darrell Waltrip, Michael Waltrip, and Jeff Hammond. Why not bring back a pre-race show with a separate group from play-by-play announcers Mike Dunn and Paul Page?
 
With Candlewood Suites' marketing partnership with Kalitta Motorsports and signage on Dave Grubnic's dragster, perhaps the hotel brand would want to sponsor  "Suite Talk" or "Short and Suite" or "Suite 16" for 16 minutes of pre-race chatter. NASCAR proves its security by having candid Kyle Petty on its panel of pundits. The NHRA could hire Competition Plus feature "S#*! Scelzi Says" star Gary Scelzi to fill the Petty role -- or maybe Warren Johnson.
 
And who doesn't love the Gordon Pipers, the bagpipe and drum band that has been a fixture at the Indianapolis 500 and its festival activities for the past 50 years? Every race day morning at Indianapolis, they march through the garage area, playing the famous "Scotland the Brave," just as they always materialize in Victory Lane doing the same as they join the winner (who, appropriately this past Sunday, was Scot Dario Franchitti).
 
The Charlotte Fire Department Pipe Band picked up the tradition as NASCAR borrowed it from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So how cool would that be for the Gordon Pipers to perform at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis? Not many have worn kilts to a drag race, but it's time to start the tradition.
 
Speaking of tradition, certainly the Indianapolis 500, as the most famous auto race in the world, is steeped in tradition, including the singing of "Back Home Again In Indiana," the release of multi-colored balloons behind the tower, the playing of "Taps" and the jet flyover, and the winner's swig of milk after taking the checkered flag. The Coca-Cola 600 is developing it own traditions, most notably its pre-race salute to the troops.
 
Kudos to the NHRA for the moving 10th-anniversary tribute to the victims of and first responders to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway last Labor Day. The parade of vehicles (fire trucks, police cars, Ride of Valor bikers who honored the victims of Flight 93) up the return road accompanied several speeches. One was from retired Sgt. Maj. Tony Rose, who survived the attack at the Pentagon, another from Debra Borza, the mother of the youngest victim and hero of Flight 93. Like at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway every May, the sound of "Taps" wafted over the legendary racetrack.
 
Every qualified pro-class driver/rider helped to unveil from the top of the Wally Parks Tower a 60-by-30-foot banner that read "09-11-01: We Will Never Forget." The moment was beautiful, even if it was a beauty born of heartbreak. It  made us proud.
 
How wonderful it would be to see the NHRA, which has a rich history of honoring our servicemen and servicewomen, do something that profound and meaningful at every Mac Tools U.S. Nationals.
 
Lucas Oil Raceway never looked more beautiful than it did that September 5. But it was clear after watching the two broadcasts Sunday, from Speedway and Charlotte, that the facilities each had a sense of grandeur, something most drag-racing venues don't have.
 
In fairness to drag-racing facilities, they do the job. And nothing ever can compare in magnificence and majesty to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It's just an architectural treasure, a stupendous whole far more than the sum of its industrial steel, cinder-block, concrete, asphalt, grass, and glass parts. Charlotte Motor Speedway, with its stadium-like splendor, has different dignity all of its own.
 
Even though drag-racing facilities, by and large, are clean and tidy with adequate towers, the problem, visually, is the adequacy. Seven-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher, who has more victories than any other driver in the headliner class and even more top qualifying starts than victories, said, "I don't want to be 'pretty good.' That's what everybody is, 'pretty good.' " The track operators and owners ought to feel the same way.
 
That opens a whole can of worms and generates several storyline tangents -- not the purpose or the intention of mentioning it. The reason to bring that up is to say that everyone understand these operators don't have the budgets to build "Taj Ma-hauls," or opulent palaces of speed. But how about fresh paint and bright-green grass, maybe some plants or flowers, or even some more brightly painted, easy-to-read sponsor signage?
 
 burnout 01Drag-racing legend Don Prudhomme said years ago that as a team owner, he made notes while watching broadcasts about the way the racetracks present themselves on TV. If he shared his notes with anyone, they didn't pay any attention. Prudhomme could make the same observations today about those same facilities. Think of paint and flowers like cosmetics and what Helena Rubinstein said about women holds true for dragstrips and their operators: "There are no ugly women, only lazy ones."
 
The Indianapolis 500 has something no other car race has -- a parade! The Mac Tools U.S. Nationals could use a parade. But the NHRA might have to take a public-relations lesson from its counterparts at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway about how to attract and invite, as well as promote, celebrities.
 
Both the Indianapolis Motor Speedway/ 500 Festival and NASCAR get it right when they select their Grand Marshals. They get somebody famous, not somebody who's a regional muckety-muck at series official sponsor 3M or the clerk who sold the most IZOD polo shirts at the local mall.  God bless those folks, but they wouldn't sell tickets. And reaching out to genuine celebrities is a way to attract media attention, sell tickets, and ignite a buzz (add in social media activity today, as well). NHRA, think about it. You have product that sells itself. It shouldn't be hard.
 
Drag racing has at least one thing better than the other two major forms of motorsports:  driver accessibility. No matter whether it's the garden-variety points race or it's the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals or the Finals at Pomona, Calif., drivers visit with the fans -- the pits are open to all -- and pose for pictures and sign autographs. The NHRA has IZOD IndyCar and certainly NASCAR unquestionably whipped on that count. And when it arranges track walks, the NHRA draws handfuls of drivers who walk the distance and talk with the folks from the grandstands -- and seem to enjoy doing it.
 
But the one area in which drag racing lags embarrassingly behind is purses. Franchitti earned $2,474,280 from an overall purse of $13,285,815 for winning Sunday's Indianapolis 500, and last-place finisher Jean Alesi, who lasted only nine laps, took away $251,555 -- more than the NHRA Top Fuel or Funny Car series champion will earn for excellence throughout the 10-month season. Kasey Kahne, who won the Coca-Cola 600, raked in $355,675. Rookie Josh Wise, who brought up the rear at Charlotte Sunday, got $84,290, $34,000 more than a nitro winner at most NHRA events. Do we need to appoint Don Garlits as chairman of a committee to accomplish increased payouts?
 
But the NHRA can take heart, for it has something in common with Americas' most popular form of motorsport, NASCAR, if Darrell Waltrip is correct. Waltrip said in the pre-race coverage from Charlotte, "We woke up today with caviar from Monaco. Then we had milk in Indy. After this Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte, it's going to be beer and barbecue, baby!!!"
 
At last -- NHRA is on a par with NASCAR.


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