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ONCE AGAIN A FOLLOWER INSTEAD OF A LEADER

 

NHRA has just announced a major change in the points system beginning with the 2007 POWERade Series season.  The change, with its blatantly obvious connotations of NASCAR’s Chase to the Cup scenario, was apparently instituted without any study or even research into how the sponsorship community has been reacting to the stock car racing program. 

Before we get into the specifics of the NHRA plan, here’s what’s been going on behind the scenes in NASCAR.  And, lest you think we’re making this up out of whole cloth, please know that while we have some personal ties to the roundy-round community’s media people as well as some of the racers, the information we’re going to impart has been well documented in any number of print and/or electronic publications.  It’s also been widely discussed on various television programs devoted to stock car racing.
           
At first blush the Race to the Chase concept was embraced by both the racers and sponsors – until the first time the actual Chase to the Cup portion of the season began. That’s when individual team sponsors found out how Chase-heavy the coverage was destined to be.  It was evident in everything from pre-race publicity through each event’s television coverage and on to the post-race reports, both published and broadcast:  No matter what NASCAR had promised, the harsh reality was that the 10 cars and sponsors who’d qualified for the Chase to the Cup received the overwhelming amount of coverage, with the lone exception being that fortunate non-Chase-qualified driver who managed to win one of the final 10 races.  But even then, with Racer X out in front of the field, the announcers were constantly talking about how the Cup contenders were faring, and the constant graphics that crawled across the screen featured the contenders in special colors so you wouldn’t lose track.  Special graphics were often inserted listing just those 10 Cup contenders, helping to emphasize the perception that they were the only ones who truly counted.


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Never mind that the ultimate 11th place finisher in the points was racing for a million dollars (and when drag racing will have one of those remains a mystery), it was almost irrelevant.  If your car wasn’t in the Chase for the Cup your main hopes for strong media coverage lay in either winning the race, or in crashing spectacularly, hopefully taking out a Cup contender or two along the way.

Oh! When one of those Cup contenders would fall by the wayside due to a crash or mechanical failure of some kind, they’d be immediately interviewed, with almost every question concerning what the incident had done to their Cup chances.  And then there’d be the expected points update, And where Racer Y had fallen to in the standings by finishing 36th.

The sponsorship community paid very close attention to these developments, and didn’t like what they saw then, and like it even less now.  Just ask UPS how they felt when Dale Jarrett failed to make the Chase, or how Budweiser and Dupont felt last year when Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jeff Gordon were given minimal exposure during those final 10 races despite their continuing to be among NASCAR’s most popular competitors.

When sponsorship negotiations began for the this year numerous sponsors reportedly had their Race for the Chase financial plan. Sure, they’d agree to sponsor Racer X for $15,000,000 (yes, we said fifteen-million dollars!), but the sponsor would hold back $3,000,000 (in some cases reportedly more) until the Race for the Chase had been decided.  Be among the 10 drivers to qualify for the Chase to the Cup, and they’d get that final three mil.  Miss, and accept the fact that your sponsorship deal had been reduced by 20 percent.

Could the same scenario take place in NHRA drag racing?  Absolutely, because following the NASCAR model, is a major sponsor going to be pleased when his team is not among the Elite Eight following the race at Maple Grove, particularly knowing that no matter how well they may perform coming down the stretch, a final round finish isn’t going to be good enough to dominate the television broadcast or the post-race coverage in “National Dragster.”

Suppose the non-championship contender defeats one the Elite Eight in that semifinal round?  We’ll bet dollars to donuts that Dave Reiff is going to be interviewing that race loser, not the guy going to the finale.  The same scenario is a likely outcome of the final round.  Win or lose, the exposure’s going to go to the championship contender and his sponsor, not the other guy.  And if the championship contender wins the race, you can forget the runner-up and his sponsor.  Oh, sure, they’ll be mentioned, but the rest of the story is going to be about how the Elite Eight fared in each pro eliminator.           
Drag racing can be a very fickle endeavor, as every competitor knows.  This week’s Number 1 qualifier is next week’s DNQ.  The combination that today cranks out four runs in the 4.4s without a single scorched piston tomorrow won’t run 4.80s without blowing the crankshaft through the oil pan.  Doubt that?  Ask any hard core fan who’s been around longer than a week, or any professional driver or tuner and they’ll tell you that’s just the way things are.
                      
Let’s use two-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher and tuner Alan Johnson as our guinea pigs for a little crystal balling, with this year being a perfectly good reason for selecting them.  Both are exceptional talents, of that there can be no doubt, but let’s face it, for most of the first half of the season they couldn’t hit their, uh, couldn’t find the groove without a seeing eye dog.  While Alan struggled just to get Tony qualified, teammate Melanie Troxel and tuner Richard Hogan, a Johnson protégé, were dominating the points list with final round appearance after final round appearance.  Then, and rather dramatically, Alan figured things out and Tony started winning.  Why Hogan’s combination was suddenly no longer a winner is fodder for another discussion, just as why Alan’s suddenly caught fire is the point here.  Before everyone realized it, Melanie was being nominated for impressive (and much-deserved) awards while she was dropping down the points list like a rock, and Tony was climbing up it to challenge Doug Kalitta for supremacy like an Atlas ICBM booster.

Now let’s extrapolate forward to the summer of 2007.  Once again, and very uncharacteristically, Alan Johnson, Tony Schumacher and the U.S. Army-backed fueler have struggled through a largely forgettable season.  Forget victories, a win for this team is just making the show on Sunday.  When the tire smoke finally drifts away from the Toyo Tires Nationals at Maple Grove, Schumacher and Johnson have earned their first win of the year.  More importantly, from the moment the gates opened they’ve dominated, with the best average elapsed times of any car in the class.  Alas, that elusive victory has left them 9th in the standings, and out of the vaunted Countdown to the Championship.          
Not in the least hindered by this news, Schumacher and Johnson go on to dominate Indy (as they’ve done in the past), repeat in Memphis, settle for the runner-up spot in Dallas and then reel off three straight wins to close out the season. 
          
In past seasons their remarkable charge would have dominated the headlines and television broadcasts and the U.S. Army would have been among the happiest of sponsors.  Not so in 2007, because better than 85 percent of the media exposure, including the pre-race hype, has been devoted to the Countdown to the Championship contenders.  Schumacher role has been reduced to that of spoiler,nothing more.
          
Somehow it’s going to be hard to convince us that this same scenario couldn’t impact someone like Greg Anderson or John Force, and how are Summit and Castrol going to react if this did happen?  One can only guess, but our guess is they ain’t gonna be real pleased!
          
NHRA should be leading the way in motorsports.  It’s small enough to do it, yet at the same time big enough, with enough broad-based corporate influence, to carry it off, yet time and time again they meekly follow instead of taking the leadership role.  If NHRA made this decision in any way based on the NASCAR scenario, and it’s hard to think anything else, they certainly weren’t paying attention to the negative press and corporate reactions to the NASCAR format.  Yes, NASCAR has enjoyed increased TV numbers since instituting the program, but there’s also been a significant fall-off in viewership after the 10 Cup contenders have been determined.  NHRA’s TV numbers are such that a change in the points format is unlikely to produce dramatic changes.
          

Maybe NHRA is right.  Maybe this will result in tighter and more exciting points races, for surely there have been too many years with the only excitement at the Finals being who’d win the race, because the titles had long since been decided.  But NHRA president Tom Compton’s statement of today, that “…we have by far the most intriguing and suspenseful battle for any championship in all of motorsports” is ludicrous.  All NHRA has at this point is a plan that once again follows the lead of NASCAR, and to what end?


 

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