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in the world of drag racing

Black Bar

The latest update as of December 10, 1998

As Christmas approaches and the gift-giving spirit pervades the land, our "friends" at NHRA haven't forgotten the racers . . . or chassis builders. My 1999 NHRA Rule Book - all 226 pages of it - finally arrived yesterday. I'd received an advance "tip" that there was a very minor change to the Top Alcohol dragster regulations for next year. Nothing major you understand, just a small addition to the front end of each top alcohol and top fuel dragster. Take a look at the diagram below and see for yourself.

NHRA Rule 
Change for 1999
Click on the diagram to see a larger version of it

The diagram shows two attachment points for an NHRA "standardized" tow hook to be used (and I quote from page 183 of the "bible") "... in the event the vehicle does not clear the racetrack under its own power." Unfortunately, the diagram and its wording are not really clear about whether one or two tow hook points are required. The measurement from point # 1 to # 2 seems to indicate that two are required.

If so, the chassis builders will be getting an early Christmas present from NHRA. It's a simple job (in most cases) to add these hook-points to the frame, but what about the nose piece? Sounds like a bit of not-so-inexpensive work just for two classes. NO other class has been singled out for such treatment - of course in many cases, it's simply not practical or feasible to fit such an arrangement.

If only one of the two hook-up points is required - and I'm sure more than a few people are wondering about this also - then my car is legal. Brad Hadman installed a tow-hook tube of the exact size and location specified for pin location #2 on my car nearly five years ago when we front-halved the car. But, if we had to turn around and put another hook-up point (location #1) on the car now . . . well, I'd be awfully reluctant to start chopping holes in that brand-new carbon-fibre nose piece and trying to fit some more tubing around the fuel-tank, front canard mounts, steering box and ballast mounts. Just who asked for this latest rules addition? The Safety Safari, the Event Directors or the TV producers? It certainly didn't come from the racers.

How's the "soup" today? Time for a second helping? This one concerns the amount of television coverage in Canada for NHRA races next year. Everyone south of the 49th parallel can skip this segment and go directly to the next item on the menu. For those of us in "The Great White North" the television broadcasts will be few and far between in 1999, unless you've got a satellite dish.

The "television gods" in Ottawa (aka: the CRTC) have consistently denied the many applications to allow ESPN and ESPN2 into our country, for fear of hurting the vested interests of Canadian sports programming (aka: TSN and the new CTV SportsNet). If you can remember what it was like only a few years ago, we weren't too badly off. As long as you had cable television that is. (Note for foreign visitors: Almost everyone in Canada has cable; we'd all be commiting suicide if we were stuck with the "free" TV choices).

Between TNN, ABC and the TSN re-broadcasts of the ESPN shows, we were able to watch almost every National Event - albeit a month or two or sometimes three months after the fact - but at least we got to see them. We even got the occasional IHRA event on TSN too, plus several Canadian National Opens each year. Repeat broadcasts of almost every show were put on too, for those who missed it the first time or forgot to set their VCR's.

Slowly though, the programming faded away, to the point that for nearly two years now, our only drag racing on television came in the form of the TNN shows. Now, for 1999, those will be far less than before. The number of TNN national event broadcasts has been reduced to five, while ABC stays at two. You read it right, seven out of 23 national events on TV in Canada next year. Among the missing, the Winternationals, Gatornationals and the "Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals".

The "what of what finals?" Hang on, that's the next course on the menu. Back to the TV thing for another minute first. Since Canada is such a small market (one-tenth the size of the U.S. of A.) any decisions affecting TV programming do not even consider this country. That's simply the way the market works. And with no national events to promote in Canada now, and for the future - guaranteed - there's really no reason for NHRA to do anything to feed us our television "fix" of drag racing.

But for the fans of "big-time, professional drag racing" it's going to be a long, slow season next year. Letters of protest to the networks, petitions, floods of angry e-mails will do nothing to change it either. Unless somebody is prepared to put up the money necessary to pay for the broadcasts, then we just won't see them.

Time for a small lesson in how television programming works. Many of you may already know the facts - you may even know a lot more than me on this subject - but here's the simple breakdown of how it works. The first truth is that it costs a LOT of money to put an hour of drag racing on TV. At least on any network that draws more viewers than flies.

First is the production cost. Ever been to an event that TNN's working? A couple of tractor-trailers full of equipment, lots of people, lots of cameras and cables and microphones. Lots of expenses. That's just to get the "raw footage". Then it has to be edited, voiceovers done, effects and graphics added, all at an even greater cost than the original recording. But it doesn't stop there.

Now you've got to get it to air. Do you think that all those TV networks are just sitting there waiting to pay for the rights to broadcast a drag race? Well if so, you'd better lie down and skip this next bit. It costs, BIG, for a program to be broadcast. The bigger the network, the better the time-slot, the more it costs. And who's going to pay for that air time?

There's two ways to go about it. One, the producer of the program buys the air-time. It's done all the time by the tele-marketers. You know those half-hour "informercials" that promise to make you rich (quickly), lose weight, make miracles happen shows. The half-hour is paid for, "lock, stock and barrel" by the producer. Of course, the costs can vary widely depending on the size (number of viewers) of the network and time-slot. Sure, you can get a one-hour broadcast pretty cheaply at 3 am on some local cable station, but who is going to see it?

The cost of the broadcast can be recouped through selling commercial time to advertisers. But the producer has to go out and do it. And selling commercial time for a drag racing show has never been (and will never be) the easiest "sell" in the advertising industry. The other option is for the network to sell the air-time to the producer for a lower price and retain the commerical time for their own sales department to flog. I'm not sure how often this is done for drag racing, as again the degree of difficulty in selling that time could be considerable. So, you can see that getting a drag racing show on the air is not easy, definitely not cheap and unless it can expect a large enough audience to justify the expense, just doesn't happen.

Speaking of audience size, I just wonder how big an audience still tunes in to NHRA Today? Has it been shrinking over the past few years, or has the show simply worn out its welcome with the viewers? Whatever the reason, it seems almost certain that three weeks from now the only weekly half-hour show "dedicated" to drag racing will broadcast its last edition. For all its faults, and they are so numerous it could almost be a "What's New" segment on its own, it was the only weekly program that gave us (fairly) up-to-date news and information.

Most of us won't grieve its cancellation too much, but any drag racing is better than none. I will admit though, that after seven years of religiously taping every single episode, in the past year more often not I've not even bothered to watch it or tape it . . . and really haven't felt like I've missed anything. So long old "friend", it was nice knowing you, but all things must pass, eventually.

What about "pay per view" programming? Whatever happened to it? Launched with much fan-fare less than three years ago, the project never came close to achieving even minimal success. The cost of producing the broadcasts, including the satellite time were far greater than the returns. The "product" just wasn't able to attract enough "payees" to begin to justify the expense.

When it was first announced, it seemed like the future of televised drag racing. "Why should we have to pay to broadcast the shows, let's get the viewers to pay the cost" seemed to be the rationale behind the idea. I even seriously considered getting one of those small dishes to receive the broadcasts. Now I'm sure glad I didn't. Is there any chance of this idea being revived in the future? Not very likely, unless NHRA can figure out how to attract a much larger and broader-based audience for its telecasts. And that pretty much leads into the next segment of today's "dissertation".

Let's see what else we've got on the menu today. How about a change of title sponsorship for a major NHRA national event? What has been known as the WINSTON Finals will now labor under the title of the "Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals" Say what? Well, as the NHRA press release of Wednesday, December 9th explains it, the Automobile Club indicated a desire to expand its participation in NHRA Championship Drag Racing nearly two years ago. Until this agreement was signed, and its a multi-year one at that, the Automobile Club and parent AAA (Automobile Associations of America) were presenting sponsors of the NHRA California Hot Rod Reunion and sponsors of Gary Densham's Fuel Funny Car.

What about Winston? Well, the "official" line is: 'We decided to step aside so that another company could be a title sponsor' according to Cliff Pennell, president of R.J. Reynolds Sports Marketing Enterprises. 'Despite not having the Winston Finals, our commitment to NHRA Winston Drag Racing in 1999 remains the same. All of the money, energy and effort that went into the Winston Finals will stay in the sport. We are focusing our event sponsorship on the Winston Showdown next summer.'

Yeah, okay. It sounds logical and all, but the biggest question eating away at me is "Is this the sound of the first shoe falling?" Note that Winston's "commitment" for 1999 remains the same. What about 2000, 2001, etc? We all know about the tobacco company sponsorship legislation that has given companies like RJR three years to decide which series or event it wishes to continue sponsoring. Everyone that's expressed an opinion on the subject agrees that the sponsorship money will go to NASCAR, not NHRA, leaving drag racing without its major sponsor for the 2002 season. Hey Bob, that's a long way off, the marketing gurus in Glendora have got lots of time to replace Winston. Do you really think so?

In my opinion the chances are really quite slim. Over the past decade, while NHRA has managed to attract much larger and more numerous event and series sponsorship, the "mix" has increasingly narrowed. Almost every automotive aftermarket sponsor possible has already been recruited so that area is pretty much tapped out. The other major sponsors have been tobacco and liquor. Two industries that have been limited in their advertising choices in the past and are now facing (tobacco today - liquor tomorrow?) even more restrictions. What about the mass-market companies? Those that sell vast quantities of goods and services to families and the other "hot" demographic groups.

Fast-food? McDonald's came to drag racing a few years ago and looked like a good long-term "fit". But for the past two seasons they've been on the verge of pulling out entirely and the next few months should see that process completed. Why didn't they stay? Were the demographics wrong? Didn't they like doing business with NHRA? Were the "numbers" simply not there? We'll probably never know, but for whatever reason it just didn't work.

Now the chances of getting another fast-food chain in the picture are very slim indeed. Okay, what about all those youth-oriented sponsorships that seem to keep popping up? Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, Mad Magazine, Taco Bell, etc. etc. They've all been there from time to time and for one reason or another have all left the scene. Usually after one year. Many of those failures can be put down to companies picking the wrong team, the wrong driver, or the wrong class to get involved with. The expenditures did not justify the returns received and the sponsors were gone.

So what are the alternatives, "Mr. Smart-Ass"? Well, if I knew what they were, I sure wouldn't let anyone else know. After all, I'm still looking for that first "real" sponsor. There are alternatives to the present group of sponsors, there must be. After all, NASCAR, IndyCar, Formula One all seem to be able to attract and keep them with their product. Hmm, maybe, just maybe, the "product" drag racing offers is the problem. Could it be? How do we present ourselves, who do we cater to, how much media interest can we attract? Could those factors be the problem?

Stay tuned in the coming weeks for more on this subject. More questions and, hopefully, some answers to those questions. In the meantime, think about it a bit. What do we have to offer? What are our strengths and what are our weaknesses? For a radical shift in thinking, put yourself in the prospective sponsors shoes and look at what YOU have to offer him (or her). Is it really going to help them sell their products or services? If not, then don't ever expect to get anything more than a "charitable contribution" or "go away and don't bother us anymore" money.

Marketing and sponsorship and the field of sports marketing especially has become a very tough game in the late 90's. The number and variety of competitors for those dollars grows almost daily and as we rapidly approach the new millennium, many marketing managers are seriously questioning whether they are going in the right direction with many of their marketing programs. In other words, the field may be narrowing in the near future, not expanding. Think about it.

Louie Lizard To close for the day, let's think for a moment about the loss of yet another marketing "icon", namely the retirement of Louie the Lizard. Yes, sports fans, the fast-paced world of sports marketing has claimed yet another victim. A two-year run on the Budweiser TV commericals and a 15 event run as the "hood ornament" on Kenny Bernstein's "Bud King" Top Fuel dragster has come to an end.

Although he was undoubtedly the most popular amphibian to ever grace the air-waves, Louie has now been (forcibly?) retired to the swamps from where he came. His old partner, Frank, will presumably be happy to see him back though, but one must wonder whether their partnership will ever be able to defeat the infamous "Budweiser Frogs" and claim top-dog status in the Louisiana bayous. Stay tuned to a football, baseball, hockey, etc. game near you for the answer.

And stay tuned to this website for all the latest drag racings news and views (almost) as they happen. Remember, your feedback ("Backfires!") is always more than welcome. Just drop us a line (or two) by E-Mail and let us know what you think.

Black Bar
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