Charlie Harmon looked into and around the grandstands at Route 66 Raceway and liked what he saw.
The fans at the drag race were standing three rows deep along the fence, and were spread out in the sparsely populated grandstands.
During the NHRA Route 66 Nationals, weeks earlier, this kind of attendance would have delivered adverse ramifications.
However, for Harmon, this was a good sign his series is healthy.
Harmon is the front-man for the National Muscle Car Association, a series which specializes in street-legal themed drag racing. He deemed the recently completed NMCA/NMRA Super Bowl of Drag Racing to be a bona fide success.
Harmon, along with business partner Steve Wolcott, also operates the National Mustang Racing Association. The Joliet race joins the properties together for one event making this one of the more popular street legal drag races.
“I think their capacity is over 30,000 so it’s tough for us to come in two weeks after an NHRA (event) and try to compete with that level, but we couldn’t be more tickled as to the way the community has accepted the event,” said Harmon. “We have had some challenges because we have been forced to make changes and in the event business, one of the biggest obstacles is you have to develop destination timing. That’s how events grow; they are on the same weekend the same time of the year.”
Certainly this event is no Bowling Green, Kentucky, one of the more successful events, but for Harmon it’s impressive nonetheless. Building the Joliet market and the combination NMCA/NMRA Super Bowl tradition has been tough in July.
“NASCAR has moved their date a number of times which has forced us to move, they’ve got the NHRA date that they have had to move this year which has forced us to move,” explained Harmon. “It’s exciting to see that we’ve had this level of success on a new day, new time of year and you know I think if we can establish this timing, the destination, Chicago is a great place in the summer, we’ve got a lot more potential. So what you see today you will see a lot more of if we are able to get our wheels turning.”
The business model has primarily been the back gate [racers, in industry talk] first, but signs such as Joliet presented, the front gate [spectator] might be on an upswing. The NMCA/NMRA’s back gate is so crucial because it fuels many niche markets which must be filled; hence the reality 21 classes were in competition during the Joliet event.
Harmon admits the large contingent can be challenging for his race operations officials and while combining some elements might work well, the effects are not good for the long term.
“We could in the short term improve the bottom line, but how do you want to judge success?” asked Harmon. “Do I want to judge success by what I’ve got in my bank account or do I want to judge success by what we are able to do with the sport long-term?”
Harmon has already had to make some of those tough decisions by making his intentions known regarding a few of the popular classes, namely the NMRA’s Super Street Outlaw and the Drag Radial divisions, on both series. The three will merge into one and will be run under the same rules package.
“You have to make some difficult choices, because you can’t be everything to everybody,” explained Harmon. “But there’s a reason that we have each of these classes out here and it’s not just because the participant wants to compete in this type but there’s industry behind it. There’s aftermarket behind it and there’s a reason and I tell you, if we were in the event business to make our money off the people that come in and the entry fees, based on at the end of the day, that’s not going to happen.”
Harmon admits his group has felt the sting of the economy and believe it or not, the loss of similar race series over the years. The loss of those series, such as the NSCA and the former Fun Ford Series (which has now been resurrected) has held a large role in the decline of traveling, purpose-built race cars.
Adding to the challenge was the increase of gasoline prices, first sparked by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
“The pool of people that were able to travel a series, shrunk considerably and the markets moved and we had to move with the market,” admitted Harmon.
The most significant move was to the west coast, ironically for the California-based NMCA/NSCA series. Harmon and his series teamed together with the National Hot Rod Association and purchased a licensing fee to absorb the Unleashed Series. Both series were largely contested east of the Mississippi but with the arrangement, the newly organized NMCA West series began to tread in territory largely serviced by Mel Roth’s Pacific Street Car Association.
“So far it’s been real exciting and I’m thrilled to say that we were ultimately thrilled with our Bakersfield debut,” said Harmon.
The road to the west opened with a major hurdle in the loss of Fontana Dragway.
“I have a four race series to launch and I lose Fontana, and it blind sides me,” Harmon admitted. “NHRA came to our rescue and they offered us Pomona. That don’t come cheap but you know, it’s still quite a privilege to be there at Pomona. We’ve had some things and some controversy with Phoenix, the Speedworld facility. I’m hoping we will have those resolved very quickly.”
And before the rumor mongers begin to spin talk of a feud with Roth, Harmon is ready to stop the chatter.
“There’s not a feud, we respect what Mel’s done and respect what he has and the bottom line is like we talked about this and if I can articulate, especially on the NMRA side, we are feeling the pains of Fun Ford not being around because there were more people, more exposure, more interest and there were more cars out there. When you knock it down to small block Fords. You’re cutting the segment down pretty considerably so, it’s no secret, we’ve struggled because the level of opportunity for those Ford enthusiasts has decreased and they’ve taken up direction.
“To maintain the market share, we need Mel, we need Tim Rigby, with the West Coast Hot Rod Association, we need the PSCA because if I’m the only thing out there, the same thing you are going to see, these guys are going to go a different direction or they’re going to go fishing, hunting, golfing, boating, quad running, sand dunes, everything there is to offer out there. There are a lot of opportunities out there so we need the PSCA and the others.”
Harmon needs them, if only to secure more of the market share he witnessed in Joliet.
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