NHRA COMMUNITY GOES INTO PROBLEM-SOLVING MODE FOLLOWING NEWS OF ENGLISHTOWN EXIT
Jessica Hatcher has served barely five months as the NHRA’s senior director of public relations and communications. So she thought the news that Old Bridge Township Raceway Park was discontinuing drag racing was some sort of office prank. After all, the historic Englishtown, N.J., event in June – on center stage in the New York City mega-market – was on the schedule for the 49th time.
“I looked at the calendar to see if it was April Fool’s Day. That was my first instinct. I thought, ‘That isn’t right. You’re just pulling my leg,’” Hatcher said.
But the news was no joke. And it left the NHRA scrambling to react, just as it left longtime employees and loyal racers from New York and all throughout New Jersey stunned, saddened, and asking, “What’s next?”
A continent away, in Southern California, that same sense of shock rippled through the NHRA headquarters at Glendora. However, Hatcher said, “From the very moment we heard the news, everybody went into problem-solving mode.
“There was no sort of anticipation that this may be coming down the pike,” Hatcher said. Consequently, she said, “There are a lot of things we’re still evaluating. There still are a lot of things that are being worked out. I got a lot of texts saying, ‘What is the NHRA going to do?’ We aren’t quite sure yet. There are a lot of things to consider here.”
She said, “It can’t be evaluated overnight.”
Hatcher was in Kansas City to attend the West Central Division banquet, and Graham Light, the NHRA’s senior vice-president of racing operations, is overseas. Others are traveling, as well. But Hatcher said when the sanctioning-body executives reconvene in the office this next week, “We need to discuss and determine what the timeline looks like [for finalizing a plan to address the Englishtown void in the schedule]. Honestly, it’s like anything in drag racing: the faster the better. That’s the way we have to approach this.
“The timing for something like this is never ideal. Certainly when we’re coming up on our first event of the year and we have a lot of things in the works, that sort of exacerbates the problem,” she said.
Hatcher did say that several racetracks approached the NHRA, offering to host a national event to fill the June 7-10 slot that had been earmarked for the Summernationals at Old Bridge Township Raceway Park. However, she declined to reveal which tracks made the overtures or where those tracks are located.
“When we first got the news, [the thinking at Glendora] was ‘This is a really tight timeline. We will just move forward with these 23 events. We were looking at adding another event to the schedule. However, several tracks contacted us since this came out and have asked us to consider adding their track to the schedule,” Hatcher said.
“I think there was a feeling internally that ‘Hey, you know what? We have tracks that are excited to have another event at their facility or their first event at their facility.’ And that’s really exciting, That was cool to come out of this and have such a positive response from our community,” she said. “That sort of speaks to the resilience of our community. Racers will find a way to race. And we are a resilient bunch, if nothing else. That was really exciting to see.
“Whether we can actually get that done logistically in 2018 . . . it would be tight,” Hatcher said. “Just knowing all the planning that goes into organizing and orchestrating an event of that magnitude . . . there area lot of moving parts. While we’re really excited about that and we’re looking into it, it might not be for 2018. But those are things we want to consider for 2019, especially with those tracks that are so eager to step in.”
So if anything positive has come of this crushing news for Northeast racers and fans, it is the spirit that has shown itself in collective brainstorming.
“What’s so cool about our community – when it comes to things like this, everyone kind of bands together,” Hatcher said. “What’s interesting to me is that the racers that I’ve spoken with and the fans that I’ve spoken with have not said, ‘What are you going to do?’ They’ve said, ‘What are we going to do?’
“Yes, we are the sanctioning body, and there are times we have to be that governing voice. When it comes to things like this, everybody pulls together, and we are all talking from the same point of view, in that ‘What are we going to do? How are we going to do this? Here’s a suggestion. Have you thought of this? Have you thought about this?’ All of the different voices and thoughts and questions are all coming from a very passionate place,” she said. “Drag racing is so important to us: What are we going to do to make this situation better or come up with the best possible action plan moving forward? I love to hear that so many people are bringing up different points.”
The NHRA has a broad spectrum of considerations as it decides whether and how to replace the Summernationals.
Among them are:
Where can the NHRA recapture the metropolitan New York market? NASCAR and IndyCar have not been able to establish a presence there in any meaningful and lasting way, while NHRA has for nearly 50 years. So will it target America’s largest city and its suburbs for a racetrack or add a perfectly appropriate track that might not be anywhere near there and leave the Big Apple, at least for now? That would fill a slot on the schedule, but it wouldn’t help the Northeast drag-racing community and industry.
Hatcher: “That’s where we’re still really in evaluation mode. The New York market is very big for us. But there are so many different factors that come into it before we even begin to evaluate geography. However, we clearly have to evaluate geography.”
How hard would it be simply to substitute another event for the Summernationals?
Hatcher: “The Pro Mods and the Pro Stock Motorcycles [were set to appear at Englishtown as part of their more limited schedules]. What do we do to adjust their schedules? It not only affects our Mello Yello Series, but it also affects our Lucas Oil sportsman series. And we’ve got to be very conscientious of that, whatever moves are made. Our sportsman racers are the foundation of our organization.”
Eddie Krawiec made a chilling prediction. He said, “New Jersey is not ready for the amount of street racing that is going to happen.” How critical is it for that market to restore some venue for racers to stay safe and not take competition to the streets because this track is not operating the dragstrip?
Hatcher: “At this point, unfortunately, we can’t go back [to Raceway Park] and say, ‘You didn’t think about this. Why don’t you reverse the decision?’ Unfortunately, we weren’t given that opportunity to have that conversation. But it’s something to think about as we go into communities where we’re talking about our national events and our divisional events, we’re talking about how ‘This track keeping illegal street racing to a minimum.’ Let’s determine how we can work closely with the police to be sure that we are part of the solution in that community. Those are the things that will keep the community interested in having us. We need to look at those things. I think that’s a really good point that Eddie brought up. It doesn’t surprise me. He’s a very smart guy. I certainly hope for the safety of the state that that’s not right, but it’s an interesting point.”
Contracts, too, surely play a role in the conclusion the NHRA will reach regarding this new gap in the schedule. Sponsors are paying for and expecting to be represented at 24 races. Their immediate reaction to the startling news from Englishtown hasn’t been public, for the most part. But it will need to be addressed – along with probably a dozen other aspects.
It’s all fresh for the NHRA and its sponsors, racers, and fans. But passion and collective, inclusive discussions seem to be woven into the mix as the NHRA tackles this latest challenge.