in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of August 4, 1998
Last weekend I attended the NHRA Prolong Superlubricant NORTHWEST NATIONALS presented by AL's Auto Supply (and anyone else we can sell advertising space to!). What follows is a combination of my personal opinions and those of the many spectators and racers that I met during the 48 hours that I endured the "event". If you visited this page last night, you've seen part of the story, but now that I've had more time to reflect on my experiences, I've completed the task. Please note that I've expanded my report in some areas, so you'll have to start reading here and continue to the bottom to get the full story. Be prepared for a rough ride, get your firesuit and helmet on, tighten those safety belts and hang on. It's guaranteed to shake your tires and rattle your brain!
CAUTION: If you smell something burning, please don't be alarmed, it's not your computer or monitor, just me igniting my bridges to the NHRA. You may read on in complete safety, providing you're wearing all the SFI-approved safety gear mentioned in the previous paragraph. Okay, let's light 'em up!
Until a few hours ago, I was thinking that expressing my concerns directly to NHRA, specifically about the Top Alcohol classes, would be a worthwhile exercise. Now I realize that it would be completely futile. I've had 24 hours to reflect on my experiences at Seattle International Raceway on the weekend and have come to the conclusion that nobody at NHRA gives a damn about anything except the bottom line.
My personal experience at the "Rockpit" was certainly not much different than anyone else's. To say the facility is a disgrace to drag racing is really an understatement. The only improvements in evidence were the new entrance/exit roads (paid for by the motorists of Washington state through their gasoline taxes) and the "alleged" repaving of the track. This was the first fresh asphalt put down on the track since it was constructed in 1960.
NHRA would really be doing us all a favour if they just dropped Seattle from the national event schedule. At least until new management comes in, spends some real money on some long overdue real improvements. If a small club-owned track like Mission Raceway Park can afford to build NEW grandstands, CLEAN washrooms, LIVEABLE pit areas, a crossover bridge to the tower side of the track, all financed from bracket races and an annual Divisional points race, then surely the profits generated from a national event can be put to better use than lining someone's pockets. Or disappearing into that black hole hovering over Glendora, California.
The list of complaints that reached my ears could stretch from here to Seattle if laid end to end, but here's a few of my personal "favourites".
Let's start with the Grandstands: I was surprised to see that no one fell through the rotten old weather-beaten planking that passes as grandstands. Knock 'em down (shouldn't take more than a garden tractor to do it) and start over with real 1990's stands with adequate seat widths, aisles, leg room. To pay $135 US (over $200 Canadian) for the very dubious "privilege" of sitting in those prehistoric ruins, borders on theft.
Anyone who paid to attend the race should be consulting their lawyer with
an eye to suing NHRA, SIR, Jim Rockstad, et al for a full refund and compensation
for enduring the intolerable conditions. Any other
Washrooms: The word disgusting doesn't even come close to describing these "facilities". This is 1998 for godsakes, almost everyone in the modern world has indoor plumbing; is Rockstad's calendar stuck on 1898? Show some respect for your "customers" (suckers is more like it) and give them facilities that aren't an embarassment. By the way, did all the VIP's and officials and other "important" people have to use these P.O.W. camp grade toilets like the rest of us peons? I think not! You've all heard the old cliche "bears do it in the woods" and believe me, that would have been a better choice, if you were brave enough to climb over the barbed wire fences surrounding the track.
The Pits: That word nicely describes the quality of the pit areas provided for the racers. What a pleasant experience it must be to haul your $250,000 or so worth of race car and support equipment into S.I.R. and find yourself in conditions worse than the "break-down" lane on a Mexican highway. Must be really impressive to your sponsors when they arrive to find you thrashing in the dirt and rocks, with a car so covered in wind-blown dust that they can't even see their name on the side anymore.
Taking the pan off to check the bearings in conditions like that must be a lot of fun too. The lack of respect shown to the racers by SIR's pits nearly parallels their lack of respect to the fans. Brad Anderson summed it up pretty well with this comment to me: "This place is a (bleeping) dump. I'm still tripping over the same goddamned rocks that I was twenty years ago."
The boulders in the pits just get larger and more numerous every year, and with the proliferation of hospitality centres by the really bucks-up racers, many of the later arriving fuel racers were forced to pit in the "leper colony" (aka: the alcohol pits). One racer who declined his allocated pit and went home on Thursday was David Grubnic (Montana Express T/F). Despite having travelled over 1500 miles to attend the race, he and car owner John Mitchell had the gumption to tell NHRA where they could put their rock pile.
The Track surface: So they repaved it, did they? Tore up all the old, and I mean really old asphalt, levelled it, rolled it, packed it, then used state-of-the-art laser guided paving machines to lay down a new surface that would be the equal of any track on the NHRA circuit. If you really believe that story, then could I interest you in some 392 Chrysler parts that are "guaranteed" to put you in the 3-second zone in your Supercomp car? (With a full load of nitroglcyerine in the tank, that is).
My legal department has strongly advised me not to use possibly libellous terms such as "fraud, misrepresentation, malfeasance, and criminal negligence" to describe my feelings about the "new" surface. Anyone who attended the event without the assistance of a guide-dog or a white cane could see the results of the repaving. Thankfully, no one was killed, but Bill Edwards Jr. had a very nasty traction-related crash on Saturday, car after car had the rear wheels bouncing off the track, breaking blower belts, blowing out burst panels and doing untold amounts of damage to engines and drivelines. I'm sure that Puyallup and Arlington had more traction than I saw at SIR on Friday and Saturday. And if the sun had been out, raising the track temperatures 20 or 30 degrees, I shudder to think what would have resulted.
The security: At times, there were more security guards in the staging lanes than racers. I'm sure the security costs were much higher than the total payout for the racers, too. An awful lot of ugly, stupid people with bad attitudes and weapons, exerting control over the unfortunate "inmates" (oops, sorry I forgot we came there voluntarily). At least I didn't hear any gunfire or skulls cracking, but the potential was there. And the way the armed guards surrounded the tower had me thinking that they fully expected a torch-bearing mob of enraged racers to appear from the pits towing a guillotine on a trailer. Remember the French Revolution, the Bastille and all that? Think it's time for another one? Sign up now for a ringside seat!
Beer Sales: My views on this may be somewhat skewed as I don't drink, but did we come to a drag race or a bar? Simply put, far too many people that attend the races are not capable of enjoying themselves without far too much booze in their systems. Most adults can drink sensibly, and a cold beer on a hot day can be a very welcome refreshment, but the minority who can't drink sensibly can quickly ruin the enjoyment of the majority. To sit in the stands, surrounded by fat, loud, drunks, is just this side of torture in my mind. The only "up-side" for me is listening to their tune-up suggestions for the fuel cars, it's almost worth being there just to hear them.
The Winston girls: Everytime I saw someone dressed in red, I either butted my cigarette, held my breath or ran the other way; they just wouldn't take no for an answer. The parallel that comes to mind is being accosted by the "Moonies" in an airport or having the "Jehovah's Witnesses" knocking on your door. Geez, now I'n going to have two more organizations mad at me.
The announcers: Where did they excavate that moron from Texas
who could barely speak English (at least to my 'Northern' ears) and made endless
dumb, insulting remarks about the racers. He even made the
Did I mention the 5000 pitbikes and kamikaze golf carts that threatened to wipe you out with every step? At times I felt like I was trying to walk down the freeway in the rush hour. Worst offenders of course were the VIP's and NHRA officials, they're always in some big, important hurry. Usually to pick up another free meal or get back to the air-conditioned corporate suites and as far away as possible from the "rabble".
Don't leave yet, I'm just starting to get warmed up. Let's talk about my major pet peeve now. Top Alcohol Dragster (No, I will not use the title that NHRA sold to F------ M---- for $1000 a race). Picture this: A 16-car field, that in previous years attracted between 25 and 30 entrants. What did we have this year? A grand total of 11 cars, only 6 of which were supercharged alcohol dragsters, the balance being the "Junior" Top Fuelers.
Before I continue let me make myself perfectly clear: I LOVE watching injected nitro cars; they run fast (when they can keep all 8 holes lit), they sound great, they put on a good show .... BUT, they aren't top alcohol cars and to keep them in the top alcohol class is ludicrous. It's mixing apples and oranges. The class MUST be split, or very soon there won't be any top alcohol cars left to compete with them.
Of the 11 cars that did appear, only 9 were left running by Saturday morning and when the first round was run at 7 pm. only 8 cars made it to the staging lanes. Of these 8, only 7 made it to the starting line, and only ONE paired pass was run in the round. Of course it turned into a one-horse race pretty quickly when Bernie Plourd banged the blower at the 330 foot mark. To see these cars run downtrack into the setting sun was symbolic far beyond any words that I can conjur up.
Note that the first round of eliminations was run at 7 pm. Saturday, long after most of the spectators had left. This was necessitated by the postponement of the final qualifying session to 5 pm. due to the very unfortunate crash of Bill Edwards Jr.'s alcohol funny car. (NO, I'm not going to go into another tirade about the track conditions.) The resulting downtime was holding up Pro Stock Truck eliminations (and their TV committments) so the top alcohol dragsters became "expendable". Hey guys, welcome to Supercomp.
Sunday's final eliminations provided one small ray of hope with Rick Santos beating Rick Henkelman's injected car in the final. Of course, it took a holeshot to do it, and unfortunately will give NHRA more ammunition to fight off the "split the class" hordes that should be preparing to storm the Glendora "bastille".
I spent the majority of my time in Seattle canvassing the racers and to a man, their sentiments echoed my comments about the current situation. NHRA seems to think that a small tweak here and there will fix things, but if that's what they really think, the sport as a whole is in far more trouble than even I can conceive. The facts are as follows: it currently costs $1000 per run to operate a "competitive" alcohol car and the payouts average (at best) $250 per run. NOTE that this does not include travel costs or the capital cost of putting a car, truck and trailer together. Even without an 18-wheeler, the average "buy-in" just to go to your first race is nearly $200,000. Also note that all these numbers quoted are U.S. $. (Add 60% if you live in Canada, add 150% if you live in Australia).
You don't have to be a math wizard to see that this is a very quick ride to the bankruptcy courts. But, who's forcing anyone to do this? Most of us got on this big merry-go-round 10, or 20, or 30 years ago, and like the cliches say: "Once you're in, you're in for life". "It IS a DRUG, there is no cure". You just do whatever you can to try to feed the habit until you finally get too old or broke or dead to do it anymore.
Even the manufacturers I spoke to had difficulty seeing anything coming along to save the class. Gary Sumek (LENCO Transmissions) said: "NHRA doesn't want the alcohol cars here. They take up too much time (getting in the way of TV committments for Pro Stock Trucks, etc.) The basic problem is that the organization is run by businesspeople, not racers. The people who started it, the racers, are all gone now, and the marketing and sales people have taken over the sport. The only viable solution is to blow it all up and start over. And if the alcohol classes go, it's going to make a very large incision in my business."
Dennis Taylor (TAYLOR Motorsport Products) spent some time discussing the problems facing alcohol racing, and his piece in the NHRA house organ will be posted tomorrow on our Press Clippings index. I'm actually surprised that NHRA printed the column, but he was a bit more diplomatic than I tend to be. And he's not planning to run away to Australia and get out of this mess like I am.
One last word about the security at SIR on the weekend. Apparently, the budget ran out before they could order in a herd of full-size rottweilers. Instead they got the " economy " size versions, as you can see below. The rumour mill is spreading the word that there will be a $1.00 surcharge on all national event tickets next year to finance a breeding program for a new breed of "super-rottweilers".
Maybe the NHRA Marketing Department could get involved and try cross-breeding them with lizards, small soldiers and other marketing exercises to create even more sales opportunities. That should dove-tail nicely with their new plans to sell the air-space rights over the track to a company developing the technology to actually paint logos in the sky. Hey, if it's too dark to see, we'll sell you flashlights! Remember to watch your late local news tonight to see coverage of the NHRA Swat-Team storming my high-rise concrete bunker.