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The latest update as of July 30, 2010
Burk's Blast? ... how about BOB's BLAST?
I've just finished reading the latest edition of (Jeff) Burk's Blast on the Drag Racing Online website and oddly enough find myself agreeing with virtually everything he wrote. Check it out yourself, then come back and finish reading this latest bit of What's New. Here's the Burk's Blast link.
So what's the big deal anyway? It's easy to sit in the cheap (and in the case of journalists - the cheapest) seats and postulate until the end of the week about how this or that is going to heck in a handcart. But the latest musings from the mind of Jeff Burk are right on the money. Big time NHRA drag racing is getting, if it's not already, boring, with a capital BORE.
How did we get to this point? Have our fast-paced lives and shortened attention spans rendered all but the most bombastic, over-the-top entertainment to the ho-hum, been there, done that category? Do we need constant injections of the most extreme new sports to break through the jaded funk that seems to envelop almost all of the motorsport offerings we see on television or in person these days.
Has professional racing of all types simply lost touch with their markets? Are the racers and the sanctioning bodies fooling themselves that they're offering what people really want to watch and at prices that they're willing to pay? The answer is obvious if one watches the ESPN-TSN broadcasts of NHRA national events, with so many spectators disguised as empty seats. And it's certainly not going to get better anytime soon.
So what's the answer? Think smaller. Smaller? Yes, as in smaller, closer to home, events. Match races. Local circuits. Real, affordable, and most of all, accessible entertainment. Races, where instead of two or four highly paid national event calibre fuel cars costing $100K or more, that money is spread out among two or three dozen lower stature, lesser paid cars that put on three times the show for the same amount of money.
Case in point, and this comes from recent personal experience. In the past two months I've attended five drag races. One NHRA national event, one NHRA Lucas Series race, one NHRA National Open, an IHRA Nitro Jam event, and what was originally scheduled to be an AHRA event. Every one of those races had a completely different feel to it, a different vibe, a different flavour.
Can you see where this is leading? Can you guess which was my favourite race of the five? The most fun? The least boring? While every one of the events had their good, and in every case, a few bad points, the most fun was probably the "IHRA" Nitro Jam race at Edmonton's Castrol Raceway. And it was pretty much an IHRA race in name only, as the track operators booked in most of the classes - at least the classes that the fans came to watch.
My least favourite event of the five? For more than the obvious reasons it had to be NHRA Northwest Nationals at Seattle. My weekend started with some unsolvable computer issues, lack of photographic access by the nabobs of negativism in the NHRA PR department, and descended to an absolute nadir with the on-track death of Mark Niver. I've never wanted to leave a drag race as quickly and get as far away as possible as I did on that Sunday afternoon.
The death was, until proven otherwise, no one's fault, but even before the Niver crash, the race plodded along with so-so performances, short, and in some cases, very short, fields and a crowd that never came close to filling the grandstands. There was simply no buzz, no compelling must-see cars and drivers or excitement surrounding the event.
The other races on my agenda delivered varying degrees of entertainment value, but all outranked the big NHRA production at Pacific Raceways. Calgary's "Father's Day Funny Car Classic" came very close to being cancelled when the alleged sanctioning body with the acronym AHRA, came up with a series of phoney last-minute excuses to drop the race from their "calendar". But the local Motorsport Council and a group of dedicated racers and volunteers put together a replacement event in less than a week and managed to continue a 23-year tradition in the foothills city.
While the venue has seen much better days in its distant past, the enthusiasm displayed by the organizers and the spirit of the racers brought the event from virtually nothing to a successful race that was well-attended by local standards and didn't turn into the disaster predicted by many. The race car count was minimal, but every one was well received by the fans and the weather cooperated to bring out a crowd that truly enjoyed the on and off-track action provided by a local Funny Car circuit and a small group of Blown Renegade racers.
Then there were the two events closest to home at my local track, Mission Raceway Park. The first, the NHRA Division 6 Lucas Series event was the first race I'd attended for nearly a year and it never lived up to my expectations. That was partly due to the horrible weather that eventually killed it, and secondly by some bad (scheduling) decisions made by the NHRA division director and a general lack of enthusiasm displayed by many people charged with running the event.
Despite some great performances and a few intersting storylines developing, the race never really caught fire for me and the rows of empty seats on the Sunday, before the rains washed out most of eliminations, told a story of a race that really wasn't capturing anyone's imagination anymore.
One only has to think back five or ten years to visualize the full and even overflowing grandstands and lines of fans along the fences at that track. The Mission divisional race was always one of the best attended races of its type in North America. Now? While it may not have fallen too far down the list compared to other venues, the attendance figures have got to be a long way short of what they were not that long ago.
Last weekend's National Open at Mission was also down on attendance compared to previous years, and certainly not due to a lack of effort or entertainment value. With the largest field of funny cars seen at the venue in a very long time, if ever, and some solid and varied support acts, combined with a serious advertising budget, all the conditions were in place to see a very successful race. Even the weather wasn't a factor, other than being very warm, but the main focus was on the "Saturday night, under the lights" nitro funny car qualifying.
The enthusiasm displayed by the track management, the local drag racing websites, the various "straight" media outlets and the fans that did come out to watch was contagious. When they brought the entire funny car field, all 24 cars, out on the track for a display before the first round of qualifying on Saturday night, the mood was electric. Allowing the fans to get an up-close look at all the cars assembled on the track was quite a display and set the scene for a very well-received night of racing.
However, in retrospect, even this event didn't really capture the crowds that were thought to be willing to pay a $25 admission (including pit pass) for some high-octane entertainment on a warm, if not hot, summer evening. Just what is it going to take to bring the masses back to drag racing? More extreme features? More jets, more wheelstanders, more circus acts of every possible description?
I truly thought I'd almost seen it all until the appearance of a jet powered outhouse at Cedar Falls Raceway last week. Seriously, how are you going to top that? And just how long is the novelty of a porta-potty that can barely reach 50 mph, albeit with an afterburner and a flame show, going to hold fan's interest?
So where do we go from here? Every drag racing market area is different to some extenet. What works in some areas of the country doesn't draw flies somewhere else. And vice versa. But there are some constants that reach across the entire continent. Pro Mods, Pro/Outlaw Street - seriously fast stuff, not the warmed over 8-second streeter variety, and Fuel Funny Cars. Throw in the occasional pair of jets, a wheelstander or two, maybe even a couple of Top Fuel cars once in a while.
What about Top Alcohol? Sorry, but it just doesn't draw anymore. The cars are technically interesting, do good burnouts (sometimes), make lots of noise, but they just aren't drawing fans anymore. Pro Stock? Are you kidding? Even the mountain motor variety is not the draw it was not that long ago. Front-engine fuel dragsters? Dying on the vine. And on and on it goes through the entire gamut of classes.
Today's screed is sadly short on solutions to the problems facing drag racing, but if I knew the answers, I certainly wouldn't be toiling on the waterfront and doing this website in my spare time. If the heads of the various sanctioning bodies can't, or more to the point possibly, won't do anything to fix the situation, then drag racing may be ready for some changes, whether it wants them or not.
When the fans vote with their feet by not coming out to the races anymore, or at least in sufficient numbers to support the business that drag racing racing has become and there's not enough money coming in to pay the bills, then these changes will come, welcome or not.
I'm sorry to end with such a pessimistic tone, but if the people at the top of the drag racing food chain can't see the forest, with trees falling all around them, then maybe it is too late for the sport as we currently know it. Remember, this all started more than half a century ago as a racer-driven activity, with spectators as an afterthought. Maybe a return to those roots while we rethink the whole exercise is what is truly needed.
And that's what new in the world of drag racing today, Friday, July 30, 2010. Have a great weekend, and to everyone in British Columbia, have a safe and happy weekend as we celebrate B.C. Day on Monday.
To see previous updates go to the What's Old page