MICHAEL KNIGHT - LOOKING BACK ON THE BUSINESS OF DRAG RACING IN 2016
I’ve been in the repair shop for much of the year. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t been paying attention.
So, I present my annual Top 10 list of the most important stories in the business and politics of the 2016 NHRA season.
10. 50 Years of Funny Car: It was a nice storyline and promotional point, providing discussion among drag racing fans, and content for NHRA’s website and TV shows. Plus some nice historical car displays. Was this message pushed aggressively enough to specifically advance the national popularity needle? Hard to tell.
9. No Longer Banging the Drum: Anthony Vestal, NHRA’s longtime media relations director, left the sanction for a position at Bristol Dragway. Scott Smith, based at Lucas Raceway Park, replaced Vestal. Elon Werner, the 2014 Jim Chapman Award recipient for excellence in motorsports public relations, departed John Force Racing in December. No replacement named as yet. Terry Blount, the former Dallas Morning News and ESPN.com sportswriter hired by NHRA in July 2015 as PR and communications vice president, departed in early December. Blount was touted as The Man with many media contacts who would get non-motorsports journalists to write and talk about the Mello Yello series. Unclear to me if that happened. Vestal, Werner and Blount cited being closer to home and spending more time with family as reasons. Good luck to all.
8. Brittany Wins!: In her fourth Top Fuel season, this John Force daughter at-last held-high a Wally – three times – with the Big Time help of Alan Johnson serving as tuning consultant to crew chief Brian Husen. Brittany also brought in Monster Energy drink as her sponsor. Sister Courtney, however, struggled to sixth in Funny Car points with just one national event win plus the Traxxas Shootout as the new Chevrolet Camaro bodywork debuted mid-season. Courtney has Advance Auto Parts as her new primary sponsor for next season. Nothing would help NHRA march further up the national media ladder than the Force sisters going on long winning streaks en route to class championships in 2017.
7. The Mello Sponsor: Sadly, the same applies to 2016 as it did in 2015. (Yes, I know, there was a new logo. BFD.) So I’ll copy and paste the same words. This annual “honor” has been well-deserved by The Coca-Cola Co. and Mello Yello for continuing to treat its NHRA title sponsorship like an unwanted step-child. The one constant has been the lack of enthusiasm and meaningful activation and marketing support for the series. My yearly question: Why bother?
6. Crowd Pleasers: NHRA announced a Sunday sellout at Somona Raceway and Saturday all-seats-sold attendance at several other national events. Good for the promoter, NHRA, teams and their sponsors. Looks good on TV, too, a not insignificant factor. All involved will be hoping for more in 2017.
5. Finally for Capps: After four runner-up placings, Ron Capps threw-off the tag as “best driver never to win a championship” by taking the Funny Car title. Don Schumacher Racing went 1-2-3-5 in the class with Tommy Johnson Jr., Matt Hagan and Jack Beckman trailing their teammate. Capps has the kind of personality, and sponsor NAPA has the kind of advertising budget, to take this long-awaited moment and run with it.
4. Power Players: While Peter Clifford completed his first full year as NHRA president, back in the pits, behind closed transporter doors, there was plenty of talk about the major influence of vice presidents Ken Adelson and Linda Louie. Veteran TV producer Adelson came aboard to run broadcasting and digital content as the new Fox Sports era began. He decided what the TV audience saw and how it saw it. Adelson’s power within the walls of the Glendora headquarters came as no surprise. But, according to industry insiders, Louie -- an NHRA employee since 1999 -- emerged within the Clifford regime as a more significant player in terms of setting and enforcing policy across all the company’s departments.
3. Dodge Debacle: Think about this . . . A pair of factory Dodge Darts, fielded by Richard Freeman’s Pro Stock titlist Elite Motorsports team, driven by class champions Jeg Coughlin Jr. and Erica Enders. It sure looked good on paper. On the track, it looked like a disaster, as the Darts rarely had the performance to get past the second round. By season’s end, Freeman had split with Dodge, and the cars were for sale. Oh, what might have been.
2. Pro Stock on the Brink: Competition Plus’ Jon Asher had the courage to write in a July 13 column what many others thought. It was time, he reasoned, to wave a checkered flag over a once-great class. I refuse to criticize excellence, which is what owner Ken Black’s Summit Chevy Camaros showed at the dawn of the fuel-injected era that included elimination of hood air scoops, the (false) prospect of front ends pointed toward the sky because of new wheelie-bar rules, and more fan-friendly pit area requirements. But here’s the truth: As Jason Line and Greg Anderson traded wins, fan interest in the already challenged category faded like light blue paint under a blazing sun. The competitive depth of a typical field was cut at least in half by a few owners willing to spend ridiculous thousands of dollars on parts and pieces unseen and uncared about by ticket buyers in a quest to save a few .0000s. Beside Chevy’s slicker-looking Gen 6 Camaro SS body, what’s new to look forward to in 2017? Finally, let’s get this straight: Asher has seen more, done more, knows more than 99 percent of his critics within and without NHRA. When Ronald Reagan was president, some White House aides tried to restrain The Gipper’s natural instincts, an early attempt at Political Correctness. The president’s friends knew better. They famously advised, “Let Reagan Be Reagan.” When it comes to drag racing commentary, I say, “Let Asher Be Asher.”
1. TV, TV, TV: It’s a no-brainer the debut of NHRA’s new self-produced TV package with Fox Sports was the most important biz story of the year. The numbers, as announced by Fox, for the 24 events: 634,000 average viewers (+ 24 percent over 513,000 on ESPN/ESPN2 last year); four events (Las Vegas, Atlanta, Englishtown and Indianapolis) topped one million viewers; four more had at least 750,000 viewers. The audience also trended younger, up 47 percent in the coveted 18-49 demo (162,000 vs. 110,000) and + 43 percent among those 25-54 (218,000 vs. 152,000). While a few TV industry insiders questioned the data at the margins, there is no arguing the Big Picture was positive. Fox’s early-season NASCAR schedule provided a useful lead-in, which eroded once NBC took over NASCAR races in July. Showcasing the U.S. Nationals and a few other races on the Fox over-the-air network (not cable) and more live racing were other Big Pluses. Can the momentum build in 2017? Off-camera there were grumblings about two of the microphone holders, Ken Adelson going significantly over budget, and his autocratic leadership style resulting in formal complaints by the rank-and-file production personnel. In some ways, Year 2 of NHRA’s Brave New TV World will be more important than the first.
P.S. – As this is written, the stock market has been on a torrid bull run, with the Dow, S&P and Russell indexes at record highs in the month after Donald Trump was elected president. If The Trump Rally continues – yes, there will be volatility – even at a reduced pace, combined with his pro-business policies and middle-class tax cuts, and if oil remains in the high $40-to-low-$50 a barrel range thus keeping gas prices reasonable, that should benefit NHRA and all of motorsports. Stock gains converted to cash could mean some team owners will be able to stay on the tour. Less taxes should mean more ticket sales as people have a few more dollars to spend on entertainment – as long as NHRA and its tracks compete aggressively for that so-called disposable income. At the start of 2017, the most important person affecting the Business of Drag Racing is President-Elect Donald J. Trump.
Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500