RACERS, NHRA SPEAK ABOUT HOUSTON SPORTSMAN CANCELLATION

Written by Bobby Bennett.

houston pits 04

houston pits 03The message was delivered via the Royal Purple Raceway public address system at the O’Reilly NHRA SpringNationals shortly after eliminations began on Sunday. This was the first known time at a Mello Yello Championship Drag Racing Series one of this sort had been uttered.

The announcer, as instructed by NHRA management, declared because of oversaturated grounds and in many instances flooding, the event had been cancelled for those classes ranging from Competition Eliminator to Super Street. The difference in this decision is even though one round had been completed in some categories, the ruling meant for some racers the event had never happened.

The nearly six inches of rain which fell on the track, located outside of Houston, came nowhere close to dampening the spirits of those racers as much as the decision to act as if the event didn’t happen.

“It broke my heart when I found that out,” professional sportsman racer Brad Plourd admitted. “They could have drug the cars out, even if it took 15 hours, it was the right thing to do. We could have raced on Monday. That was the best opportunity for them to do the right thing. I know the pits are terrible. This has happened more than half of the times I have been there. Why can’t the NHRA make the track owners step up to the plate and tell them we aren’t coming back? It’s not like the NHRA doesn’t have the power.”

Plourd never heard the announcement and had no idea until checking social media.

“I had to find out about it on Twitter,” Plourd added. “There was no sorry … anything. Just the way they go about this stuff. I love drag racing and it’s my passion and all I want to do. The least they could have done was have a drivers meeting.”

houston pits 06To individuals like Stock Eliminator racer Austin Ford, he feels the NHRA sportsman racers get the short end of the stick on a regular basis, and wasn't shocked at what transpired last Sunday, April 28. Ford said he believed the decision was made long before the announcement.

“I don’t know that this decision really hurt NHRA,” said Ford. “Just my opinion, but I believe they knew on Sunday morning they were going to cancel us. They had on the schedule to race at 8 AM and the track was already dry. I stayed at the track and the track drying started at 5:45 AM or so. I think they knew at that point they were going to cancel us. No one wanted to answer any questions. They didn’t want to tell us that because they didn’t want everyone packing up their stuff to leave and causing a scene.”

Graham Light, NHRA VP of Operations, said the decision was one the sanctioning body explored every option for a better resolution but in the end, all reached a logistical dead-end. He added some of the decisions would have only pushed overwhelming situations on others.

“When you get into a predicament like this you have to evaluate your options,” Light said. “The majority of the sportsman pits were flooded and in some instances there were motorhomes and trailers up to their axles in mud. There was no way they could get them out for running Sunday. Looking forward at the weather forecast, there was more of the same for Monday as there was Saturday. We all know how the torrential storms come through Baytown. Monday [at the time] was a question mark.

“Even with that, the likelihood of getting all of the cars out of the pit area on Monday was almost impossible. If anyone was out there on Monday and saw the mess they had, winching trailers and motorhomes out of the mud, they would understand we couldn’t have run everyone on Monday. It wouldn’t have been fair just to run the ones who could get out of their pits.”

What created a groundswell of controversy was a number of professional teams stayed over to test on Monday, adding salt to the wounds of those displaced by the decision.

Monday, according to Light wasn’t an option for running the canceled categories, and running later in the week wasn’t either.

houston pits 08“There were sportsman racers who were headed to Atlanta,” Light added. “Then we discussed the next Division 4 race which was at No Problem [Louisiana] and that didn’t provide an option because of the extra activities. They were having shootouts and such and would have a typically large car count. To fit in the amount of running left to do, and with what they had to do, would have affected that event.”

Light said his team also considered bringing the sportsman racers back for the Baytown divisional event later in the year.

“That event is the week before the Dallas national event [in September] and we know from history when there is a points race the week before or in close proximity, you get an extremely large car count making the event unmanageable,” Light said. “We did on Sunday morning talk to a number of racers and asked a few to do some surveying and to see what kind of response they got. The report we got was inconclusive. Some felt it was a good idea and others didn’t.”

Eventually, Light said, he determined the situation as a no-win.

“I think regardless of what we did, whether it was waiting until everyone could run, moving to another or doing what we did – you just weren’t going to fit some schedules. We knew there would be disgruntled people and unfortunately we cannot control the weather.”

Light also said his team intended to start racing early on Sunday morning but hopes were dashed early largely due to the overly saturated grounds and “weepers” [rain percolating up through the track], making the track unavailable early.

“We did what we did based on the input from a number of racers, what we felt was the best,” said Light. “It just didn’t suit everyone’s schedule and I don’t think there was one that will.”

houston pits 09Light added, with the exception of those who had raced and been eliminated, both their entry and insurance fees will be refunded. However, Light added none of the drivers will be forced to claim the race in points competition.

Brad Plourd might understand the NHRA’s reasons but these are of little solace to he and his fellow sportsman racers who give up a lot to participate in these national events.

“I know what they are trying to do, and a few days later, stepping back and looking at it, I don’t agree with the cancellation or the fact they are essentially shooing us away at the drop of a hat,” said Plourd. “We travel so far and don’t have big crews and people to drive for us. We drive ourselves. We spend a lot of hours behind the wheel, not to mention a lot of money. I’m a professional sportsman racer but I feel bad for the working class guy who works all week and takes vacation time to go racing. It’s a bad deal all the way around.”

While the majority of sportsman racers believe NHRA is largely to blame for what they feel was a bad decision, they also believe Royal Purple Raceway shares responsibility in not providing a facility capable of withstanding inclement weather for the sportsman racer.

Craig Anderson, an NHRA Division 4 Super Gas racer, said he finds it hard to roll into the facility, notice the upgrades to the facility and yet the area where the majority of the sportsman racers pit is untouched. He’s on the fence with his decision to race at Royal Purple Raceway next year. His situation wasn’t as dire as some of his fellow racers but admits a trip to the local Lowe's for plywood, mats and tarps was made.

“That’s a nice facility and holds a good divisional race but when it comes to a national with all of the classes, there’s just not enough room,” Anderson said. “Then you get inclement weather, and I cannot tell you how many times people have been stuck in the mud. I guarantee you that’s why they canceled the race; is because there was no way racers could get to the staging lanes without creating a huge mess and this is not to mention damaging their car and tow vehicles. It’s a shame what some people had to park in. If you’re going to have an event this big, you should provide parking which will withstand the weather.”

Ford, who lives within an hour of Royal Purple Raceway and considers the track his home facility, said after this experience, he is also  contemplating not running at the facility again.

houston pits 02Photo by Scott Spies“This track is 30 minutes from my house,” Ford added. “I can absolutely guarantee you that if it looks like rain, I’m not going to do it. It’s a joke. The problem is now they have done this and supposedly going to get away with it. Now they’ve opened the door to do it again. It’s like the court system, once there is a precedent, it happens again. I wouldn’t be surprised at all. It was a bold decision. I don’t know who made the decision, but it was bold. They might have had to think this time, next time they won’t.”

Seth Angel of Royal Purple Raceway sympathizes with the displaced racers but said the track’s hands are tied monetarily when it comes to paving the sportsman pit area.

“We wish that everyone could be parked on asphalt, and it’s no secret our family is in the paving industry,” Angel said. “At the end of the day, the economics of owning a drag strip doesn’t allow for us to pave miles and miles of pit area. We’ve made improvements over the years and will continue to do so. But when you have your biggest weekend of the year, have 450 cars, all of which are not on paved asphalt you’ll have these kinds of situations.

“It’s happened at NHRA owned tracks and this [flooding] isn’t the first time it’s happened to sportsman racers and likely won’t be the last. It’s a problem, there’s no doubt and we will keep making improvements in the coming years. We just can’t do it all at once. We cannot spend three or four million dollars paving a sportsman pit area that we use one time a year. The economics of our business simply doesn’t allow for it. And I believe the racers can understand that.”

As Ford said earlier, he believes the decision to cancel the event sets a dangerous precedent. Plourd echoes his sentiment.

“It doesn’t feel right and even though I know the pros are the show and they bring in the television deal, I get that,” Plourd said. “I don’t have a problem being the red-headed step-child. When we are there, the least they could do is show us some respect. I have to tell you, this felt like we got b****-slapped.”

houston pits 01Plourd said he’s emailed Graham Light, but as of this date has not received a response. He believes in instances like the Houston cancellation, the sportsman racers need a liaison.

“My peers have no one to go to but Graham,” said Plourd. “They say there are these committees and that is – is a bunch of bulls***. They have no power and I have no idea who they are. I just don’t get it.”

Anderson confided at the time of the interview, he was in the process of penning a letter to newly appointed NHRA Division Director Trey Capps. Like Plourd, he’s doubting the viability of a committee in light of what transpired at the Houston event.

“What I don’t understand is we have the driver’s committee and a meeting should have happened for our best interests, I thought this situation was why we had the committee in the first place,” said Anderson. “We wanted to get the opinion of a collection of people, the majority and not just a few and the best for NHRA. What’s best for us was important too.”

Light feels this decision doesn’t set a precedent and in the past NHRA has made different decisions, all based on what each situation afforded - such as when rain in Gainesville sent sportsman racers to nearby Orlando to finish the race.

“Ideally, what we want to do is complete every race and ensure everyone has an enjoyable time,” Light said. “Sometimes there are elements out of our control preventing us from doing that. This can be caused by a number of things we have no control over. Anyone who was in Houston saw the downpours and lightning we faced and what it did to the pits; that is out of our control. It was not a good situation and I felt really bad for those people who had hundreds of thousands of dollars-worth of equipment parked in the mud.

“When you are in our position you must play the cards you are dealt. We made the decision we felt was the best. There have been some complaints and others who felt we did the best we could under the circumstance. There was just no way we could please everyone.”

And, by the interviews conducted by CompetitionPlus.com, the overwhelming majority were not pleased.

 

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