UP FRONT: THE SELLOUT TIMES THREE

Written by Jon Asher.

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asher05.jpgWhen the economy went south in 2008 almost every American went through at least some emotional and/or financial anguish. Some lost their homes and retirement savings, while on the business side some companies were forced to close their doors. Most tightened their belts and continued moving forward. Some of the nation’s largest financial institutions continued to rake in huge profits while going to great lengths to hide their legal and ethical transgressions, some of which were the tipping point for the financial crisis in the first place. It could be said of at least some of those institutions that greed caused them to lose sight of their publicly stated ethical standards. The result is they may never recover the trust the public once had in them. The National Hot Rod Association has acted in the same manner.

The result of the behind the scenes wheeling and dealing that the NHRA has undertaken with at least three companies has resulted in an ethical lapse of astounding proportions. They’re the kind of lapses that were unlikely to have happened under the leadership of founder Wally Parks. If anything, Parks had a pristine vision for the NHRA that included high standards, fair competition and honesty in dealing with the racers, sponsors, media and fans. Those standards have been effectively trashed by recent developments.

The first ethical lapse was an indicator of things to come when carburetor manufacturer Barry Grant bought legality for his products by sponsoring the Pro Stock Challenge. Grant’s Demon Carburetors had been deemed illegal time and time again by the NHRA Tech Department and the suspicion is that a rival aftermarket manufacturer was behind the banning of Grant’s carburetors. There’s no doubt that they viewed Grant as a threat to its Pro Stock racing business, with a lawsuit partially based on an alleged patent infringement ultimately playing a role in Grant’s business going under.

Regardless, before that happened Grant stepped up to the plate to sponsor the Challenge in exchange for NHRA accepting his products as legal. In addition to buying his way into the game Grant was also informed by NHRA that he would receive notice months in advance if the organization even began thinking about bringing fuel injection to Pro Stock.

So, what Grant really bought was two things: Legality for his existing products, and advance notice of a possible rules change in time for him to bring the appropriate product to the market.

The second sellout came when NHRA granted the Army the exclusive right to gather names of potential recruits in exchange for sponsorship of the Youth & Education Services program. I’ve written extensively on this topic for both RACER Magazine and CompetitionPlus.com, so won’t go through it again. Here are the hard, cold facts: The NHRA is correct in stating they aren’t keeping any branch of the military out of team sponsorships. However, despite the best efforts of a number of very sharp racing and marketing people, every branch of the military that’s been approached has declined to become involved because without the ability to gather names for later home recruiting visits, all they’d be doing is spending money to have their name on a car. No branch of the military is going to sign up a recruit in the pits. It takes the all-important home visit to seal the deal, and if you can’t gather names, there’s no way to do the critical follow-up. And that’s the way the Army wanted it (and I’ve long since outlined, in detail, how beneficial to the Army the sponsorship of the YES program is).

Just for confirmation, two legendary racers, Kenny Bernstein and Shirley Muldowney, each got close to major military sponsorships, but were turned down at the last step of the process because of the name-gathering restrictions. Bernstein was involved with the Air Force, while Shirley was working with the National Guard. The Guard people told Ms. Muldowney they thought they could make the program happen because the Army is a sister service. Uh-uh. The Army saw the Guard as a recruiting rival, so refused to allow the name-gathering. Instead of going drag racing the Guard went Nationwide Series racing.

The latest situation is by far the most egregious. The National Hot Rod Association’s dealings with Harley-Davidson eclipse the term reprehensible by a wide margin. In exchange for the naming rights, i.e., the sponsorship, of the Sportsman Motorcycle Series, and an extension of their status as the Official Motorcycle, Harley-Davidson was granted unprecedented “rights” that absolutely, positively and without question resulted in much more than an unfair advantage for a single team. It resulted in a “racing” season that all but destroyed one of NHRA’s core professional categories, all for Harley-Davidson’s dollars. It’s safe to say that corporate greed on the part of NHRA has resulted in a loss of credibility from which they may never recover.

Why, after witnessing what NHRA knowingly allowed Harley-Davidson to do, would any other motorcycle manufacturer even consider getting involved with NHRA? That NHRA is either blind to that, or simply doesn’t care, is evident in their failure to respond, either verbally or in writing, to the letters they’ve received from aftermarket companies and manufacturers seeking involvement in the class and series.

In the 60-plus year history of the NHRA the organization has never allowed a potential sponsor to dictate the “rules” under which they’d participate. Uh, wait a minute. They did exactly that with their exclusivity of name gathering for the Army, and exactly that with their acceptance of Barry Grant’s carburetors for sponsoring the Challenge.

So, by allowing H-D to dictate that they only wanted Vance & Hines to run their exclusive parts NHRA wasn’t setting any precedent, because they’d already sold out at least twice previously that we know about. But one wonders how many more deals like that have been made that we don’t know about.

Almost as offensive as the H-D arrangement was the organized lying about parity in the motorcycle class that NHRA officials perpetrated on anyone foolish enough to question what was going on. Despite the obviousness of the disparity in the class that any moron with a set of eyes could see, NHRA continued to spread the lie that parity existed. That parity did not exist in the real world became evident with two articles that appeared within hours of one another on CompetitionPlus.com. The first (http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/22480-nhra-deems-psm-class-to-have-parity-considering-rules-changes-for-2013) quoted NHRA officials stating that parity existed. Five or six hours later NHRA announced a new motorcycle rules package for 2013 (http://www.competitionplus.com/drag-racing/news/22484-nhra-announces-2013-engine-combination-package-for-harley-davidson-and-buell) that also included the telling addition of 10 lbs. to the dominant Harley-Davidsons of Vance & Hines. The only possible conclusion that can be drawn from this is that NHRA was well aware of the performance disparities between the Harleys and every other motorcycle, and added the 10 lbs. in the hopes of possibly silencing an ever-growing number of complaints.

Want more proof that NHRA knew the parity story was baloney? How about this quote from the September 19 release: “We have been working on a long-term solution for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class for the last several months.” So, during at least a three-month span NHRA repeatedly and aggressively tried to convince racers, sponsors, fans and the media that there was parity in the class when they knew that was not the case. In other words – and it’s difficult to explain this in any other manner – they were knowingly lying to everyone they tried to convince of the parity that didn’t exist. If that isn’t the truth, why were they still touting parity mere hours before the rules announcement?

The only explanation we can find for NHRA’s organized lying is their desire to protect their financial arrangement with Harley-Davidson at the expense of integrity. The money was more important than their reputation in the world of motorsports. People left with the impression that Harley-Davidson bought and paid for the Pro Stock Motorcycle class and championship have the correct impression, because that’s what’s happened.

In the almost 50 years I’ve been writing about NHRA Drag Racing I can’t remember another single instance where the organization allowed one team access to parts that weren’t readily available to other competitors. There are dozens, maybe hundreds of other Harley-Davidson racers out there, yet there have been none in NHRA competition. Why? Because none of those hopefuls had even a prayer of getting their hands on the exclusive parts that only V&H have access to. From the beginning those parts were only available to Vance & Hines, which was Harley-Davidson’s choice. Worse yet, an NHRA official has been quoted as saying that even if a competitor showed up with a bolt-by-bolt copy of a Vance & Hines Harley they’d never let it get past tech. Nice, level playing field there, eh?

What NHRA enabled H-D to do would be akin to Ford telling NHRA that in exchange for becoming the Official Car they didn’t want anyone but John Force running a Mustang in Funny Car, or anyone in Pro Stock other than Larry Morgan running a Ford.  Oh!  And both competitors must be allowed to run 600ci engines.

I want to make it clear that I have the utmost respect for both Terry Vance and Byron Hines. The same goes for Eddie Krawiec and Andrew Hines (although Krawiec’s suggestion earlier this year that if others worked as hard as his team does they might be winning instead of whining was ill-advised and backfired badly). Both are excellent riders and racers, and in Vance and Hines they have the best management team in motorcycle racing.

These guys can’t be faulted for what they’re doing, which is taking the tools handed to them by NHRA, “tools” that only they have, and winning with them. Throughout this entire sordid affair I have never heard a single racer or member of the media finding fault with the Screamin’ Eagle team. Every bit of animosity has been aimed directly at 2035 Financial Way in Glendora, Calif., because it’s been NHRA that has put this team in such a superior, virtually untouchable position.

Yes, it would appear that motorcycle racing in 2013 will be markedly different than it’s been since last fall, when the Harleys began their win streak. But despite those changes, the hundreds of racers and aftermarket people who have been negatively impacted by NHRA’s lying and obfuscation of the truth aren’t going to forget how they were treated, talked down to as if they were children, and pretty much ignored.

Three times – and there very well may be more – the National Hot Rod Association has decided money means more than ethics; that the bottom line is more important than integrity. And, with the possible exception of Grant’s sponsorship of the Challenge, each time the racers, fans, media and sponsorship communities have actually paid the price for NHRA’s reproachable behavior. Like, what did you think of Pro Stock Motorcycle racing this year? Close and exciting, wasn’t it? Great watching those cars sponsored by the Marines, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and the National Guard isn’t it?

It would be nice to think that at least a few NHRA executives are hanging their heads in shame over these sellouts, but they aren’t. The NHRA is shameless. The organization is insensible to disgrace.

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