DAVE DENSMORE SPEAKS (COMMENTARY): - SINCE NO ONE WILL ADDRESS THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM ...
C’mon. Somebody’s gotta say something here. I simply cannot be the only person capable of seeing the elephant in the room. It’s a little room and despite what you may think, it’s not a pink elephant. It’s a regular African elephant. You know. With the big ears and the great memory.
It remembers, for instance, a time when the NHRA smugly scoffed at the plight of other sanctioning organizations which had to pay “appearance fees” to get pro racers to compete in their events. “Heaven help us if we ever have to resort to something like that” I believe was the NHRA mantra.
The fact is the world’s largest sanctioning body always has taken great pride in its “open” events. Come out, try to qualify and race for the posted purse. Nothing more, nothing less. The same opportunity if you’re Tony Schumacher, Scott Palmer or Don “Mr. Magoo” Sosenka.
But that was then. Today’s reality is that the NHRA is paying racers to participate – only it’s not compensating the box office stars of the sport like the old AHRA and IHRA but rather anybody with a set of frame rails, a supercharged engine and a half barrel of nitro.
In this, the season of live TV coverage, when FOX network is making a major commitment to the sport, when the NHRA is making new hires to sell straight line speed to mainstream America, when sponsors are asked to make bigger and bigger investments, there is a frightening dearth of race cars.
Oh, don’t get me wrong, we’re a very healthy sport when you look at the top eight to 10 teams. In fact, Top Fuel and Funny Car may be more competitive than at any time in history. However, if not for the NHRA’s clandestine work between races there would be more than a few tour events in which we would not have full fields in Funny Car or Top Fuel or Pro Stock. Only Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Modified seem to be healthy enough to function without artificial insemination.
Although Glendora has taken steps to be very creative in how accommodates those racers that currently fill out its 16-car fields, trust me when I tell you that there is something afoot when racers without the Schumacher and Force and Kalitta budgets start showing up at races so far from home, especially races they’ve never run before.
I don’t question the motivation. I think it’s damned important to have full fields, but at what cost? The show sucks in the opening rounds and I’m not talking about the TV show. They do the best they can with what’s out there. I’m talking about the actual what-people-pay-good-money-to-see show; the racing itself.
The old rules apparently have either been waived or deep-sixed altogether although, for the life of me, I can’t recall anything being said about it. I remember – and I’m sure the elephant would, too, that in order to make the show, regardless of the number of cars on the grounds, one once had to go from starting line to finish line at least one time during qualifying. You had to put a number on the board.
I guess that no longer is the case. It looks like if you show up, you get in. I wouldn’t rat out any of my sources at this late date but, trust me, incentives are being exchanged here. Racers are being told that at the very least they’ll get first round loser money if they drag their hot rods to places they’ve never been before.
I’m not saying that the practice is unnecessary. We need full fields for TV. But just be honest about it. Just say, things have changed. This is something we never thought we’d have to do but for the good of the sport, yada, yada, yada. Instead of pretending nothing is wrong.
There’s a lot wrong and it could get a lot wronger. This sport is just one medical emergency and one last straw away from losing a third of its fuel cars. Enough said. We’re in a crisis situation that no one seems willing to acknowledge, must less address.
There are only two ways to increase participation in this sport’s featured categories. One is to reduce the cost. The other is to raise the purse. At some point the NHRA has to pay more than lip service to the first option because I know it’ll be a cold day in hell before it tries to raise purses to a level that would stimulate participation.
I don’t have the answers myself but I know who does. The racers themselves.
The problem is, getting racers to agree on anything is harder than getting Republicans and Democrats to do so. Someone needs to take all the smart people in this sport – racers and officials – and lock them in a room until they hammer out a plan.
The guys who might have been able to make that happen – Paul Candies and Raymond Beadle – both are gone. So is the guy who always had what I thought was the best plan, Dale Armstrong. The guys who are left need to put on their big boy pants, grow a pair and make some decisions that will insure our future while we still have one.