In case you missed it on Competition Plus.com, we're sharing their recent piece featuring (SGE approved) Whit Bazemore's take on the state of North American drag racing. We found Whit's comments worthy of your immediate consideration, so are posting them here, as a courtesy. Please scroll down to view Part Two of this unprecedented Double Feature. Thank you.
GROW OR DIE
Apparently, drag racing is dying a slow death. Ask anyone even remotely involved, and you will hear a multitude of reasons why and even more reasons about what needs to be done to save it. The fact that so many people see a perceived problem means the problem is real. Truth is, you don’t have to be a marketing genius or the world’s best tuner to see the problem, although I bet most tuners actually couldn’t care less. It isn’t really their job, anyway.
The metrics used to measure health in the sport are steadily trending downward. The number of spectators, television viewers, race cars, teams and sponsors are all down. The number of dollars the remaining sponsors are willing to spend, the number of feet in the length of the track and the number of races that count toward the championship: all down. You get the idea. Even ET numbers are steadily decreasing, which is part of the problem. The only number increasing is the cost to participate.
This is not meant to be a slam of the NHRA, although ultimately they do control the rules, marketing, and sales, all of which affect the appeal of the sport. But the big team owners also have a strong say, and unfortunately they have historically often put their own well being before the well being of the sport itself. It is a very shortsighted approach.
My thoughts are presented as a conversation starter. Like you, the readers of Competition Plus, I love the sport; we all have passion, and we all want it to be as successful, healthy and entertaining as possible. But, some of these thoughts might be unpopular among my friends who own teams, or tune competitive cars, and even among some of you. That is all okay.
The metrics of reaching and communicating to the consumer have drastically changed in the past five to ten years, and are continuing to change – almost daily. We live in an entirely new world. Painting a racecar and getting a 5 to 1 return via television exposure is no longer effective. Getting a 2 to 1 return is a total joke. Now is a great opportunity for NHRA and the sport to create change for the better, to be progressive instead of reactionary, and lead one of the most American and exciting forms of motorsports into the future of this new world. It is time to recapture the core audience while at the same time, put the sport in front of a potential new audience, ideally to drastically increase it’s value. Now is an opportunity to look far into the future and define where the sport can be in three, five, ten and even 20 year’s time. To actually define what the sport is, who watches it, and who gets to play and why. One thing is almost guaranteed: the sport, as it is today with the current rules package (which defines the entertainment product), as well as how it is currently marketed, will continue to have a very limited appeal and reach.
Some numbers are sobering. Compare two Ford athletes: Ken Block, professional rally driver, and Courtney Force, one of the most promote-able young stars of the NHRA, arguably second largest form of Motorsport in the U.S.
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Block: 4,127,319 59,700,357 San Francisco Gymkhana 345K
C. Force: 35,775 B 95,231 ESPN-Nude shoot 53K
Obviously, a big rethink about television, marketing and our audience is in order. How to market our sport to gain “eyeballs” in this new world is a big subject and a conversation for another article. Instead, this addresses my ideas for improving our product, which is actually the first step to improving its reach.
The NHRA Product:
Let’s look at the fuel classes. Is our product all it can be? My answer: No! The biggest reason, in my opinion, is credibility. The sport just does not have the credibility it once had. Consider:
· The fans don’t respect the drivers as much as they used to.
· Many (but not all) drivers are boring corporate clones (this has been talked about ad nauseam without affect).
· The cars are seen as easy-to-drive. Lots of rookies are instant winners, driving for big, well-funded teams without having much, if any, experience. When marketable, seasoned veterans are passed over or replaced by novices, it says something about the value placed on today’s drivers.
I believe improving the product begins with the drivers.
Our drivers have to have credibility and ideally be superstars. At the very least, they have to be relevant. Yeah, the sport itself is a draw, like all sports, but the biggest sports in the world revolve around superstars. Look at golf, soccer, tennis, F1, football, cycling, and apparently, rallying! Look at NHRA in its heyday. We had - and worshipped - Garlits, Shirley, Snake, Goose, and Bernstein, among others. I would venture that all of these still have more name recognition than all but one of today’s racers.
People relate to people, they feel emotion and identify with other people, they want certain people to win – or lose. There absolutely must be that bond. The public has to care about the result, not just come to see a race, but come to see who wins, and who loses. This is so critical, yet so misunderstood and overlooked.
And today, unfortunately, the drivers are the most irrelevant they have ever been.
How do we fix it?
The first step to making the drivers more relevant is to make them matter more. The cars must become harder to drive. A driver’s talent and value has to be measured by more than just being able to press a pedal a few .01’s quicker than the next guy. The public just doesn’t relate to that, plus we don’t do a good job of explaining it anyway. While fuel cars are as quick as ever, (but not really quicker… a certain Matco Funny Car ran in the 3’s to 1000ft way back at the World Finals in 2001) I can tell you they are more automated, more forgiving and easier to drive than ever before. It is really hard for a driver to screw up a run these days. A driver can’t smoke the clutch out of it (with the car barely moving when the clutch is let out so that the crew guys have to push the car through the water box), and they can’t destroy it on the burnout because the throttle stops are set so low the things can barely smoke the tires, meaning today’s drivers have zero throttle control. Zero. You also can’t lock up the clutch at the wrong time, shift at the wrong time or hit the fuel lean out too soon. Hell, you can’t even forget to set off the fire bottles if it is on fire, or gasp, opt to drive to the end of the Gainesville track without pulling the chutes run-after-run just because you want to go faster for longer. No, the car pulls the chutes – and shuts off - for you. I understand the reasons why this is in place, but there has to be a better option that allows the drivers to drive the way they chose to, while still offering an incapacitated driver some sort of protection.
Unfortunately, all of these automations insinuate that today’s drivers are so untalented they can’t do this stuff on their own. Today’s rules have created a perception that fuel drivers are idiots, incapable and easily replaceable monkeys, and everyone knows it. Some drivers, in fact, are not very good, but the rules allow them to still exist, and “just be so happy to be here.” Ugh. And worst of all, the track is only 1,000 feet long. How brave does one need to be to drive a fuel car today to 1000 feet? My opinion is not very. For sure, in spite of the awesomeness of the car’s performances, fuel drag racing is a very neutered version of its once glorious self.
Apparently, the American public agrees, as does the hardcore drag racing fan. No matter how quick, loud and fast the cars are, is that enough to return the sport to health and to a growth model? No. The fans vote with their time and their money, and they have voted.
Many of these changes have been made in the name of safety. But I know I am not the only veteran who thinks this stuff has gone too far.
Of course, safety is a great thing. I fought to make tracks safer for most of the later part of my career. Ironically, it was an uphill battle that did not endear me to many. Racetrack safety is a black and white issue, and that means compromise is not an option. For example in 2006 many teams were testing in Topeka on Monday after the race, yet there was only one safety person at the last turnoff, wearing an open-faced civilian fireman’s helmet with–get this–gardening gloves. You can imagine what I said to the guy. A funny car driver stuck in a fire for any stupid reason would have died, as would a Stock class racer, because the track was woefully unprepared. I didn’t have the horsepower to get anything done, other than to have the local fire truck move to the other end, and I decided another full pass was out of the question for me. Personally, I was disgusted at the time, mostly because no one else seemed to care.
Now, we race to 1,000 feet, have auto-shut off everything and the teams have spent huge sums of money on safety equipment, but I bet even today, like at Englishtown in 2008, there are still moments similar to that day in Topeka, where simple responsibility can make a bigger difference than any equipment added to a car or any shortening of a race track. It is common sense.
Safety changes should not be made at the expense of the sport itself. It is a very fine line; drag racing is dangerous. It is and it always will be. If a driver can not hit the chutes, fuel shutoff, and fire bottles at 320 mph while in a raging inferno with the tires burning off, then maybe they shouldn’t be in there in the first place. And when things do go wrong, as they inevitably will, the track should be as safe as possible, the personnel should be trained and prepared and the driver’s own ability should come into play.
I digress. So what changes would make the driver more relevant? Simple:
· Slow the cars down. Just a little. But not in an artificial way. You have to slow them down, but at the same time, make them more exciting to drive – and watch. Not just slower and more boring. Not with a rev limiter. Instead, take away a lot of down force. Prep the tracks less. Put the cars more on edge. Make funny cars look more like real cars, which does two things. First it creates more fan and corporate interest, and secondly, it aids in reducing the downforce. Maybe have a smaller, harder tire. One mag of limited power. Less wing on top fuel cars. It is so easy and such common sense. What is the downside? They will go slower, and be much harder, but way more fun to drive. The cars will be “looser,” will float around some, and will actually require more steering input on almost every run. Yes, these are similar to the nostalgia rules, but so what? Bring it. Along with a return to the quarter mile. It goes without question.
Make the driver responsible for locking up the clutch. You can have as many stages as you want, so long as they are non-automated; the driver has to do it. This is very important. Bad drivers won’t be around very long, opening the door for good ones, and new guys, perhaps some guys like Adam Sorokin. People want to see the best drivers competing and that, in turn, gives the sport credibility. Maybe John Force has won 16 championships because he IS the best pure driver, with the best team, but under these proposed rules, there would be no question. One thing for sure, “average” drivers would win way fewer races and certainly not any championships. When “not very good” drivers win championships, as has happened a few times, it has a very negative effect on the sport. It calls the credibility of the entire sport into question. As it should.
Average the qualifying times. This is so simple and it would have a huge impact on the excitement of qualifying. No more shutoff runs. And, most likely a few of today’s fuel car drivers would crash during the course of the year. But this would certainly add a lot of excitement and drama, and definitely showcase real talent. The fans would identify more with real talent as opposed to today’s faux, manufactured and overly marketed perception of talent. It comes back to the credibility issue. The cool thing is the really hungry, yet inexperienced, driver would have to work harder to learn the skills required. Hunger and desire would play a bigger role, the way they used to. Yes, I mean Courtney. She would excel sooner rather than later, I think. Same, probably with Alexis, but some others might not be so willing to apply themselves.
Make throttle stops and pushing the car forward illegal. In fact, make the driver do everything once the car has started. No one should be allowed to touch the car except to fix a leak or address a minor mechanical problem, much like it has always been.
Drivers who have earned a place in the sport based on merit are more likely to speak out and allow their personalities to show through like the in old days, when Tharp, Muldowney, McCulloch, Prudhomme, and just about everyone said it like it was. It was way better entertainment, for sure. Remember Senna? Earnhardt Sr.? How about Snake after losing? Those guys were not insecure about losing their rides. The few remaining hired fuel drivers of today could be replaced in a moment, and because the cars are so automated, they would hardly be missed. It is by design. Believe me when I tell you they are very, very aware of this. Anyone with a few million can most likely have their jobs and they know it. And when it happens? Well, Dixon, Dunn, Cory Mac, Troxel, me, Bernstein Jr, and many others can tell them where to get the best deal on a new television, so they can best keep up with their old rides. The irony is that outgoing, and even controversial personalities, drivers with real stories, end up being an asset to a team, and to the sport as a whole, because fans can relate to them and latch on - or off - as is sometimes the case. Villains, too, attract fans and a following. The driver with a personality and a story becomes more relevant. And perhaps the “black hat bad guy” is most important. Yes, I know.
These are my ideas to make the sport more exciting, and the drivers more relevant.
You can’t manufacture rivalries, like the ESPN producer and announcers try to do these days. No faking it. It doesn’t work. It’s not credible. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work.
Take the Hofmann and Force rivalry for example. It was real. Real hate was involved. Hate is an ugly word, but you know, the truth is the truth. It was the same with me. I hated the diving and I hated losing. When Force and I refused to stage in qualifying in Vegas, 2001, it was as real as it gets. We both put our lives on the line in the heat of the battle; we both ran out of fuel and blew up. There was always respect, but a very strong dislike, which I have been told, was extremely compelling. Capps and I could have had a great, public rivalry too, because we really did have a pretty good private one. He hated losing to me, perhaps more than anyone else, and I to him. But it was never allowed to blossom, because, as I was told, “you guys are teammates.” Really? I always thought my teammates were the guys bolting my car together between rounds; everyone else is competition – and thus the enemy.
Where is that stuff today? Not at the drag strip, that is for sure. And it needs to be.
I hope this provokes thought and conversation. Long-term, out-of-the-box, creative thinking. Big picture stuff. Because big changes are needed. A total re-think of what the sport is, how it is run and who gets to play and why. Even how and where it is televised (perhaps it is time for a television partner who has a real vested interest in the success of the sport). People who are smarter than me need to think this through, and hold firm to their beliefs. You can’t have the genius crew chiefs dictating the rules. One genius has said he’d rather have the cars race remote control. Seriously! Yeah, that’d sell a lot of tickets. Build more motors and let others dictate the rules please.
If it is to survive, much less grow, big changes need to take place.
Everyone knows something must be done. “Short-term pain for long-term gain,” or something like that. It won’t be easy, but tough decisions seldom are. The long-term health of the sport is at risk. Let’s fix it.