UP FRONT WITH JON ASHER: IT REALLY IS OVER FOR PRO STOCK
In 2005 we published an editorial entitled “Pro Stock’s In Trouble: Who’s At Fault and What Can Be done About It.” It was one of the few two-part editorials we’ve ever run. Along with an outline of the then current situation in Pro Stock was a chart that succinctly outlined the declining entries in the class over the three-year period from 2003 to ‘05. It’s with more than a little irony that we note that in 2003 17 of 23 races had more than 30 entries, and three had in excess of 40. Because that editorial was written at mid-season, we can report that in the first half of 2005 only two of 12 events had 30 or more entries. That steady decline continues today, as evidenced by the significant number of races that have failed to attract a full 16-car field both this year and last.
The following year we proposed “Pro Stock Saturday” in another editorial. It was a plan with solid backing from the media, but little understanding from the racers themselves, who failed to grasp the media opportunities presented by their being the headline attraction on race-day Saturdays. It would have made them the headline stories in the Sunday newspapers, to say nothing of their being the stars on local sports programming the evening before. Based on the reaction we heard from too many racers, it was apparent that they failed to grasp the trouble the category was sinking into – oblivion, really – so nothing changed.
A year ago we offered up “When It’s Time To Admit It’s Over,” in which we said that not only were Pro Stock’s best days behind them, they didn’t have many “days” left at all. Naturally enough, the handful of remaining Pro Stock competitors scoffed at our prediction of imminent doom and continued along their merry way, totally ignoring the reality of their precarious situation. They can ignore it no longer, for NHRA is about to announce a reduction in their schedule of a half dozen races for 2018.
Rather than keeping the category on life support for another year or so NHRA should do what the overwhelming majority of trackside observers feel is necessary, and pull the plug on this moribund category right now. To avoid facing another losing lawsuit as NHRA did with their horrific handling of the end of Pro Stock Truck, rather than announcing a reduction in the number of events they should let everyone know that 2018 will see the last of Pro Stock as we now know it. Next season could then include a 24-race farewell tour in which the three dozen hard core fans who remain wedded to the class could cry their hearts out 24 times.
Here is the behind-the-scenes reality of Pro Stock. In the not-too-distant past a senior NHRA executive had a meeting with the Pro Stock team owners in which they had the audacity to say words to the effect that “we’re just a bunch of rich guys trying to have some fun, so leave us alone and let us do what we want.” Never mind the fact that drag racing is about the fans and not the competitors, this stunning view of themselves spoke volumes about the disconnect between this handful of men and the reality of drag racing.
Here’s more reality. Despite what they might say publicly, behind the scenes virtually everyone involved with Chevrolet’s motorsports program cares not a whit about Pro Stock. All they care about are their CoPo Camaros and their entries in Factory Stock. Pro Stock is not a “real world” category, Factory Stock is.
As far as Ford is concerned, professional drag racing means nothing as they, too, sink their dollars into class and Factory Stock competition. And Dodge? After their reprehensible treatment of Allen Johnson, who, with his father, Roy, gave them two solid decades of winning both on the track and on the promotional circuit, it’s hard to think of them in any manner other than negative after they unceremoniously kicked them to the curb. And they appeared even more out of touch after their abortive attempt at replacing the Johnsons with Erica Enders-Stevens and Jeg Coughlin, Jr., only to see both desert the Ram to return to the BowTie brigade a year later.
Further, there was a meeting in Detroit a while back in which potential rules packages and more were presented to the Big 3. We’ll give you one guess which group wanted things so much their own way that the meeting ended with no consensus on much of anything.
Want more harsh reality? Fuel injection should have come to Pro Stock 10 years ago, when it would have made a difference – maybe. Now? Nobody cares – including drag racing’s fans, who demonstrate their disinterest by continuing to flee the grandstands by the thousands when Pro Stock comes to the line.
Remember the big deal that was made out of forcing the teams to turn their cars around in the pits so that the front ends faced the fans? It must have been a joke, because one team immediately built massive rolling tool boxes that they placed between the engine and the fans so they still couldn’t see anything. Now, with the advent of fuel injection every team removes the front end bodywork and places that in front of the cars, which pushes the cars that much further away from the fans. Fan-friendly? Hardly.
Remember the “new” wheelie bar rules that were supposedly designed so the cars would leave the line with the wheels up for a better show? How’d that work out? It didn’t. Oh, wait. Let’s be fair. A few cars do leave the line with the wheels up – all of maybe two to three inches. Wow, what a show!
Here may be the harshest reality of all – the lack of major sponsorship across the category. Based on signage, what we know about sponsorships and, we admit it, rumors, there may be no more than four “real” sponsors in the category – and one of them may not be very “real” at all. If marketing geniuses thought Pro Stock could deliver a good bang for the buck, they’d be there. They aren’t, and that speaks volumes.
And please. Let’s stop with the all the rumors that Pro Mod is going to replace Pro Stock. It’s not going to happen, for numerous reasons. Here are a few of the relevant ones. First, the competitors themselves want nothing whatsoever to do with a 24-race schedule. In point of fact, they’ve apparently already agreed to a 12-race slate for 2018. Second, Detroit loves Factory Stock and intensely dislikes Pro Mod, and with a very valid reason – the cars in the category. While we all love the diversity of makes, models and years of production, let’s face it, Chevrolet isn’t selling any split-window ’63 Vettes these days, so why should they care? They don’t, and neither do Ford or Dodge.
But none of that really matters. What matters is the future, and the future isn’t Pro Stock, it’s Factory Stock, which has everything Pro Stock was supposed to have had, but certainly hasn’t for the last quarter century – a real connection with the people filling the grandstands.
A senior NHRA official expressed his concerns about Factory Stock from the performance perspective when he said “They’re just too slow.” Historically, so was Pro Stock in its earlier configurations, but so what? The racing – and the show -- was terrific, the cars were usually competitively matched, and drivers like Bill Jenkins, Dyno Don Nicholson, Dandy Dick Landy and others became legendary for the way they handled their wheelstanding machines. Did anyone care that the cars ran in the eights, then the sevens long before they hit the sixes? They did not. Now, does anyone today care that a modern Pro Stock car runs well down into the sixes? They do not, not when there are only 13 of ‘em instead of 16.
And the most important factor in the popularity of Pro Stock in that bygone era? They put on one helluva show, whereas today’s cars do crappier burnouts than Super Stockers, and leave the line with the front wheels glued to the ground. They could run in the fives and it wouldn’t make any difference because there is no show. They are boring to watch. Boring. It’s more exciting trying to get a driver’s autograph back in the pits, which is where the fans head when Pro Stock runs. It’s a joke to all but those 13 or 14 drivers.
Factory Stock is everything Pro Stock isn’t. The cars are actually somewhat close to stock, while current Pro Stocks are ground-up engineering exercises that carry highly modified bodies that don’t appear close to anything you’d buy at a dealership. But, if Factory Stock is to succeed NHRA will have to be vigilant in their enforcement of the rules and must be absolutely dictatorial in refusing to accept any modifications proposed by the racers in the guise of “safety” or worse – performance improvements. Opening up the wheel wells for bigger rubber must not be allowed. Wheelie bars can’t be anything more than they are now. Exotic multi-thousand dollar shocks absorbers can’t be allowed under the premise of helping the cars “hook” better. These cars can actually spin and smoke the tires leaving the line unless you really know how to set up your car, and that’s the way it should remain. The emphasis now is on the word “stock,” and it must remain so. Even though we know big-money team owners will come to the class their heavy wallets shouldn’t be determining the winners, as is often the case in Pro Stock. Talent should win out, nothing more, nothing less.
The real beauty of Factory Stock is that people like us can actually buy one of these cars through a factory-authorized dealership. The fans watching know this too, and when they turn to their buddies and say, ”My Mustang’s just like that one,” they’re speaking the truth. In that bygone era of Pro Stock’s glory days the fans could actually identify with the cars, but a modern Pro Stock car is as relevant to the real world as is Adam Sandler’s acting to an Academy Award.
Up to this point NHRA has done an abysmal job of promoting Factory Stock. In fact, from the outside it would appear they’ve been determined to sabotage rather than promote the category. How many of us go to Indy on Thursday, when class eliminations begin? Hands, please. Okay, I count four, no five, people who do. Not a very good turnout. When I pointed this out to a senior NHRA executive he replied by telling me there was no time to showcase Factory Stock in a more impactful manner. That is total BS. Any race schedule can be altered to maximize exposure for one class over another, so Factory Stock could easily be elevated to superstar status, if NHRA wanted to do so.
If NHRA really wanted to promote Factory Stock at Indy they could do so via schedule modifications that don’t appear to be all that complicated. Qualifying should take place Friday (when we acknowledge that most fans don’t arrive until late in the day for the one evening pro qualifying session). The first round of eliminations should take place between the two fuel qualifying sessions that evening. The second should take place between the fuel sessions on Saturday evening. The quarter finals should be staged Sunday right with fuel qualifying and/or the Traxxas race, with the semis and finals some time on Monday. By scheduling the racing at approximately the times suggested the grandstands should be as full as they’re going to be. Quite obviously, if there’s a real belief in the category it’s going to need some television time and a heavy presence in both National Dragster and on NHRA.com. We’ll do our part at CompetitionPlus.com with as much coverage as we can manage.
Factory Stock is the future. Pro Stock is the past. It’s time for both NHRA and the few remaining millionaires fielding these boring, enthusiasm-sucking machines to admit what everyone else already knows. It’s time to announce the Farewell Tour 2018, and elevate Factory Stock to the top of the doorslammer ladder.