FRANKLIN EXPLAINS HOW VMP LANDED NHRA NATIONAL EVENT
Despite the 49th annual NHRA Summernationals being all set to run this June at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park, track officials there announced mid-January that effective immediately the facility would no longer host drag racing events. The unexpected news out of Englishtown, NJ, not only ended nearly five decades of tradition at one of the most storied and prestigious events on the NHRA trail; it threw the premiere schedule for the world’s largest motorsports sanctioning body into sudden disarray.
Step forward Tommy Franklin, who last October with his wife, Judy, purchased Virginia Motorsports Park (VMP), with an offer to take over the June 8-10 race dates at a facility that last hosted an NHRA national event nine years ago.
“Basically, when the Englishtown race dropped out we reached out to NHRA at the same time they were looking for something to fill the hole, so it was just great timing,” said Franklin, who also is co-founder and now principal owner of the all-eighth-mile Professional Drag Racers Association (PDRA). “When we got involved with VMP, we knew it would take something like that for us to even have a chance at bringing NHRA back on the schedule here, but we definitely didn’t plan on it.
“I mean, we know it’s a great facility, and it has a great history of NHRA racing, so we obviously would’ve liked it to happen, but we had absolutely no inkling at all that it could happen and definitely not right now. But it turned out to be just kind of the perfect storm because we were doing some improvements to the race track already and then the Englishtown deal happened and thankfully the NHRA wanted to replace that race, and it all came together in a very short time frame.”
As a longtime Pro Modified racer himself, Franklin said he’s also excited to confirm the E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod series will be a part of his track’s newest, biggest event. However, he has no plans to compete in NHRA Pro Mod himself at this time.
“The biggest thing is I’m in love with the PDRA,” the current back-to-back PDRA Pro Nitrous world champion said. “The real issue, though, is there’s just no time to add something more. We’re working hard, I’ve got a great staff with me, and we’re just trying to make things happen and build something that’s great here.”
Franklin said he personally entered into negotiations with NHRA Chief Executive Officer Peter Clifford, President Glen Cromwell and Sr. Vice President of Racing Operations Graham Light.
“They were actually very welcoming to us reaching out and of course they have responsibilities on their side regarding sponsor fulfillment obligations and things like that as well. So really it was just good timing,” Franklin said.
The NHRA’s relatively recent experience with the more than 500-acre facility just south of Richmond also made coming to an agreement that much easier, he added, with the announcement made Jan. 30, exactly two weeks after the initial E-town disappointment. “The focus was really on making sure the business plan would work for everybody and going on from there. It really happened kind of fast.”
Franklin said after learning about improvements already underway at VMP under the leadership of facility general manager Allen Carpenter; the NHRA execs didn’t even ask for any special considerations or changes.
“I kind of just told them everything we were already doing and I think that pretty much-satisfied everything they wanted. We’re redoing the race track’s surface, which is probably the biggest thing; we’re doing some lighting upgrades; we’re addressing the water drainage issues that the track has had in the past; and most of the other things are cosmetic, just cleaning up, painting and basically putting a new, fresh face on the place.
“It’s all in process right now. The race track has been milled up and the plan is to have new concrete in place for the full quarter mile by the first week of March (previously only the first eighth mile was concrete). Tentatively, February 12th will be our date to start pouring, give or take a few days for weather. We’re excited. We think it’s going to be an excellent surface.”
Franklin stressed, too, that bringing the NHRA’s biggest stars back to VMP is about a lot more than just adding another event to a schedule that already includes an NHRA Division 1 Sportsman race, two PDRA nationals, a visit by the Menard’s Chevy Show, the Fun Ford Series and a host of other drag bike, sportsman and bracket racing events.
“This area is a market that I think has missed having an NHRA national event because I think we all know this is real drag racing country anyway,” he stated. “It’s not like we’re trying to place something here that’s unwanted. I think everyone is equally excited about the NHRA coming back to Virginia Motorsports Park this June.”