WHAT REALLY HAPPENED ...
by Steve Earwood, Dave Densmore, Former NHRA Publicists
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was previously published in the CompetitionPlus.com War Stories competition.
I’m always amused when I hear drag racing fans, racers or officials talking about how, in the history of the entire high speed universe, there never has been a strike or a boycott of an NHRA national event. If you believe the conventional wisdom, pro racers simply don’t have the fortitude to effectively rage against the establishment.
It’s an interesting theory and there’s a lot of data to support it. I mean, it is really hard to get pro racers to agree on anything. Sit in a meeting with four or more pro racers and they can’t even agree on refreshments and drinks.
However, the declaration that there’s NEVER been a boycott of an event run by the guys my partner always has called the High Sheriffs, simply isn’t true. I know, because I was there. So was my press relations partner, Dave Densmore. The year was 1981 and the site was State Capitol Raceway outside Baton Rouge, La.
Of course, who WAS there wasn’t nearly as important as who WASN’T.
That would be all the big Funny Car names of the era including Raymond Beadle and the “Blue Max,” Kenny Bernstein and the “Budweiser King,” “240 Gordie” Bonin, Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, Mike Dunn, the late Tripp Shumake, Billy Meyer, Gary Burgin and Dale Pulde. They all were “no shows.” Same for all the usual “field fillers.” No nitro Funny Cars at all. None.
Billy Meyer, as I recall, was the negotiator for the Funny Car group with Dallas Gardner on the NHRA side. Beadle, who was coming off his second straight NHRA championship, was like the unofficial Sergeant-at-Arms, working the phones and “suggesting” that no one break the picket line or slide in at the last minute to grab the winner’s purse on a single – or something like that.
It was somewhat contentious except for the fact that it was the Cajun Nationals, which never was one of the NHRA’s stronger events. Supposedly, it was purposely selected because, while everyone was upset with the purse structure, nobody really wanted to hurt the NHRA long term.
Anyway, that’s what was going on when we rolled into town a couple weeks early, which was the routine back then. Our bosses at NHRA met with us and wanted to print 10,000 “info sheets” to be handed out to spectators to inform them there was the possibility that there would be no fuel Funny Cars at the race but that we still would have Top Fuel, Pro Stock and so on.
Densy and I vehemently opposed that strategy because it was a clear violation of a theory we had developed at Denswood, our marketing company. For purposes of political correctness, let’s call it “The Stinking Foot Theory,” which states basically that just because your feet stink, there is no obligation to inform everyone of same. Let ‘em find out on their own.
Besides, we knew the clientele in Louisiana. We had worked a lot of races for Norman “Moose” Pearah, who owned the track. Cajun Nationals fans come to party, to hear and smell some nitro, and drink beer. We could never have gotten away without having Funny Cars in Englishtown or at the California races or, certainly, Indy, but Louisiana? Heck yeah, we thought. We can get away with no Funny Cars in the bayous. It’s all about location, location, location and location turned out to be the only flaw in the boycott strategy.
In hindsight, I’m sure those disgruntled Funny Car racers, many of them clients of Densy’s at the time, should have picked a stronger event for their “job action,” one with a more knowledgeable core audience – or they should have just hired a PR professional to articulate their grievances. Heck, they should have talked to me and Densy. We weren’t that happy with NHRA policy either, to be honest.
Fortunately for the company, though, they didn’t do either and the race went off flawlessly with a record crowd and a total of two (that’s 2) spectators who asked about the absence of the Funny Cars. A pair of truck drivers came to the tower and asked, “where’s the Blue Max?” We told them, “they sat out this race.” The guys nodded and wandered off to watch Jerry Gwynn win the Alcohol Funny Car title in a field that also included Ken Veney, Frank Cook, Paul Smith (not the one who tunes fuel cars), Jon Barret (who was runner-up), Gary Southern and Kris Krieger. As a side note, Frank Manzo won the Alcohol Funny Car world championship that year. Go figure!
One more thing, on Thursday of race week, when we made our rounds to the local media, Sam King, the Executive Sports Editor of the State Capitol Journal, the Baton Rouge newspaper, showed us an anonymous press release – with no contact information – that he had received regarding the boycott.
We simply shrugged it off, told him some disgruntled racers must have submitted it; that Funny Car was just one of several pro classes competing in the Winston Series and that, despite the assertion in the press release, there would be Funny Cars at the Cajun Nationals. We didn’t volunteer that they’d be Alcohol Funny Cars because, once again, that would have violated the aforementioned “Stinking Foot Theory.”
The truth of the matter was that “the Kingfish” only came out to the races because he knew we’d make sure he had fun and we wouldn’t make him look stupid. He came out, he had fun, he didn’t look stupid, he saw Funny Cars and he never once mentioned the word “boycott” in the paper.
Bottom line, the NHRA and Moose saved the money from the Funny Car purse, Densy and I looked like we knew what we were doing and the Funny Cars ultimately got their purse increase.
Oh yeah, and Moose made a big show of buying a ba-zillion carat diamond for his then wife with the money he saved from the purse. Turned out later, it was cubic zirconium – but that’s another story.
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