in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of December 3, 1999
NOTE: If you haven't been here lately, or if you tired of seeing the lack of updates through most of November, check out the What's Old page for three postings from last week.
And the bad news just keeps on coming . . . for the fuel racers, that is. The list of sponsorless racers/cars for next season is getting longer by the minute. I'll try to list them all, but it will be difficult not to miss someone.
First to bite the dust, announced barely halfway through this season, was the Mike Dunn-driven, Gwynn family-owned, Top Fuel dragster. Although they were leading the NHRA "World" Championship points standings at the time, MoPar felt it was "time to move in a different direction" with their marketing. Despite rumours that the new Daimler-Chrysler Corporation was leaving drag racing entirely, they have increased their presence, with title rights sponsorship for two IHRA national events in 2000, including the inaugural MoPar Parts Canadian Nationals at Grand Bend, Ontario's Motorplex.
The bad news continued, as in the week before the US Nationals (Indy), Bob Vandergriff was informed that Jerzees was pulling the plug on their sponsorship at the end of the season. The five-year relationship had apparently worked well, but the time had come for Jerzees to move in a new direction. In the marketing business, any partnership that lasts five years is very much the exception, so Vandergriff couldn't have been too surprised at the departure of Jerzees. So far, there is no word on a possible replacement. In fact, almost none of the racers who have lost sponsors have announced new ones . . . yet. But the clock is ticking, rapidly, as the new season is barely two months away.
Next to feel the pain was the long-time, and much-respected, competitor from Wichita Falls, Texas. Yes folks, Eddie Hill, long sponsored by Pennzoil, was dropped from their Y2K marketing plans. Despite providing them with valuable exposure and good-will, for much less than market rates over the years, Eddie lost his Pennzoil backing. Following his disastrous run of luck near the end of the season, all bad, all very bad, including two virtually destroyed chassis', numerous engines and a broken back, Hill's prospects for next season look very dim, at best.
Late Word: Today, Eddie Hill announced that all his racing equipment was for sale and that several parties were very interested in buying the entire operation. He also indicated that his sponsorship quest wasn't doing well, and that his best prospect to return to the Top Fuel wars was a crew chief. He still has several associate sponsors committed to next season, but without a title/major sponsor in place, he won't be racing.
Recently there have been announcements of two more, competitive, but not top drawer, teams losing their backers for 2000. Jim Head, sponsored this year by Checkers-Shucks-Kragen, as part of a two-car, two-eliminator package with Del Worsham's Funny Car. CSK announced last month that they were re-directing their money to a two car team for Del Worsham, which at last report, was to be driven by Frank Pedregon (late of Jim Dunn's Penthouse team -- which has lost that one-year deal -- more about that later). Head has never been terribly "marketable" and the CSK decision comes as no surprise to anyone.
Reading that Randy Parks lost his Fluke/Rydin Decal sponsorship did come as somewhat of a shock. While not among the "big dogs" in performance, Parks had developed a good, fan-friendly image, and his pit area was among the most open and hospitable in the pro pits. Also, the Fluke backing reportedly came in product, not cash, and was viewed as one of the most innovative and mutually beneficial marketing partnerships in drag racing. Allegedly, the problems lay more with team co-owner Mark Weiler (Rydin Decal) and were not a direct reflection on the work Parks was doing on behalf of Fluke. As yet, no word on a replacement sponsor, and the latest news is that Parks is parked . . . indefinitely.
Much earlier this year, Bakersfield's Bruce Sarver was dropped by his only major sponsor, ATSCO. Sponsors of the annual Phoenix, Arizona, NHRA national event, the power steering company apparently felt that their marketing money could be better utilized in event sponsorship. Oh, and sponsoring the Pro Stock Trucks driven by the owner and his son. Sarver proved that he could run competitively without a lot of backing and his efforts haven't gone unrewarded, as he has been tabbed to drive a new Funny Car for Alan Johnson next season. No, it's not sponsored by Winston, instead it's an internet commerce company, E-Moolah.
The cynic in me might suggest this could be a very short-lived deal, as the current stock market hype and hysteria over internet-related companies is due for a rapid "correction" (crash), that can't come too soon, in my "humble" opinion. When a promoter can come up with a catchy idea, package it into a company, arrange an IPO (initial public offering -- of shares of stock) and overnight, literally, become a BILLIONAIRE . . . Yes folks, that BILLION, not million, without having any real product or service to offer . . . that, to me, confirms that mass insanity is becoming prevalent throughout society.
Whoops, hang on Bob, get back on the topic before you start smashing up the furniture again . . . Okay, where was I? Oh yeah, writing about all the poor, unsponsored fuel racers next year, and what that means to professional drag racing.
Looking back over the NHRA Top Fuel points standings, I'm reminded of one sponsorship that evaporated early in 1999, essentially before it ever got off the ground. I'm referring to the John Mitchell-owned, David Grubnic-driven, Montana Express. If you remember, they announced a title rights deal with Synergen synthetic oil, with major promotional acitivities scheduled, including a helmet painting contest. Synergen got lots of "ink" from the deal, but the money never arrived, and Mitchell quickly pulled the plug on the deal. Shades of the ill-fated deal Shirley Muldowney signed in the early 90's, with a snake-oil (oil additive) outfit that cost her much time, money and anguish.
So, to add it all up, that's two Top Ten cars, plus five more from the next ten, for a total of seven regular Top Fuel competitors without backing as we head into the new season. As stated earlier, not one of them has been able to announce a new deal and as also stated earlier, the clock is ticking. With the lead-time required to assemble a crew, sign a crew chief, order all the parts and organize the team, all of the aforementioned cars may well be on the sidelines in 2000.
Then the dominoes started to fall, rather quickly, in the Funny Car ranks, too. The first announcement of a sponsor departure was that of Interstate Batteries pulling out of Joe Gibbs' team. I'm not sure if the continual instability that surrounded that team throughout the season was at least part of the cause (two drivers; three, or was it four? crew chiefs), but almost as soon as Interstate made their announcement, Gibbs announced that he was disbanding the team. He didn't even attempt to search for a replacement, simply dropped the Funny Car from his team. Rumours are that Interstate has moved the drag racing money to their NASCAR team. NOTE: He still has MBNA on board with the Top Fuel car, driven by Cory McClenathan.
Next to go, was Pioneer's backing of long-time driver and now team-owner, Tom Hoover. While not a large (monetarily) deal, Pioneer's sponsorship of Hoover, and current driver, Cory Lee, was one of the longest lasting in Funny Car racing. Like Bruce Sarver in Top Fuel, Hoover's car was never near the top of the performance charts, but on a return-on-investment basis, consistently delivered good value for Pioneer. No word yet on what will happen to the team next season.
Immediately after the US Nationals, the very short-lived arrangement between John Costanza and Cristen Powell suddenly ended. 1999 had been pretty much a disaster for Costanza, on the track and in the public relations stakes, as his sudden firing of former driver Tim Wilkerson, less than six weeks earlier, had been handled with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The rumours swirling around the team made the announcement of the active pursuit of a major sponsor for the now Cristen Powell-driven car, nothing more than a bad joke. Those rumours haven't let up either, and the latest concerns his non-payment of the now out of work crew.
While I'm not privy to all the details about what will become of the John Costanza cars (the Funny Car and his own injected nitro dragster), the rumours surrounding the team indicate that we may have seen the last of this team. Like so many people have done over the years, he burst onto the scene several years ago, with top-notch equipment and personnel, spent an awful lot of money, got tired of spending all those dollars (or maybe his accountants showed him how much his bank account had shrunk) and then pulled the plug. Once the glory and ego-boost of owning and/or driving a fast race car wore off, and the reality set in, Costanza, like so many before him, probably just got bored with his hobby and decided to "move in a different direction."
Another sponsorship loss was experienced by Jim Dunn, as Penthouse dropped out after only one year. They weren't the first company to come into the sport without a viable marketing plan or any idea of how to blend their image with the sport, and their defection was hardly unexpected. Unlike so many others, though, Dunn rebounded nicely with the re-acquisition of Mooneyes backing for 2000. Also, with the signing of Al Hofman as driver, associate sponsorships from Pontiac and several others have come on board.
It's difficult (for me at least) to understand how Mooneyes can adequately fund a competitive fuel car. It's even more difficult to understand how Dunn and Hofmann will be able to work together without their relationship imploding before the season gets very far along. Neither has been known for his "calm and gentle" manner over the years. Dunn's driver from this year, Frank Pedregon, has rebounded nicely, being signed to drive the second car of Del Worsham's CSK-sponsored team.
Another good-news story involves Jim Epler, who was unable to compete with his limited sponsor roster, then landed on his feet with Jerry Toliver's WWF team. Halfway through what many felt would be a one-year arrangement, the WWF announced they were more than pleased with their marketing project, and signed Toliver to a much larger, long-term deal. Thus, the funds became available for the addition of Epler to the now two-car team. The only downside to the deal, for Epler, was the loss of EasyCare, a long-term backer, who indicated they didn't want to be associated with the WWF. Hmm . . . Morals in marketing? What a concept!
Another story that may be turn out well, but I'm definitely holding my breath, is the announced partnership of Helen Hofmann and Cristen Powell for next season. If this works out, it will be a true ground-breaking effort: A female team owner and female driver in Funny Car racing. Yes, the possibilities do exist for some sort of innovative marketing package . . . but, it hasn't been an easy road to sponsorship success for women in drag racing.
Look at this list (of unsponsored female racers): Shirley Muldowney, Rhonda Hartman, Shelly Anderson, and until something is announced, Cristen Powell. It wasn't very long ago that "conventional wisdom" gave women a definite edge in the marketability race. If that situation ever existed, it certainly doesn't now, and the new Hofmann-Powell team won't automatically have doors opening for them. I wish them nothing but the best of luck, but the reality is that their partnership has only a fifty-fifty chance of success, at best.
On a slightly different note, but still on topic, is the massive number of crew chief changes in the fuel ranks over the past few years. Very few teams seem to be willing to stick with the same tuner for any period of time unless they are winning, or at least qualifying near the top, and even that is no guarantee of long-term employment. Part of the problem can be attributed to the desperation of team owners, feeling that unless they can win, and continue to win, their sponsor(s) will desert them. (If on-track performance is the only -- or at least, major -- factor in keeping a sponsor onboard, then something is drastically wrong with the marketing plan).
Another factor in the "revolving door syndrome" for crew chiefs may be the current salary structure. Dale Armstrong and Austin Coil were the first of the highly-paid tuners, signing what were then earth-shaking deals (with Kenny Bernstein and John Force, respectively). That automatically raised the salaries for other tuners, and has led, especially recently, to the crew chief being considered the most important "component" in the tune-up. Failure to produce results commensurate with their salary, instantly, in some cases, has led to so many of them being shown the door.
We don't have enough room here to list all the "casualties", but a quick rundown of some of the major dismissals, in just the past few months, reads like this:
This list could be much longer, as frankly, there have been far too many changes in the crew chief ranks to keep an accurate tally on. The analogy that applies to professional sports coaches could be applied to the situation: "They're hired to be fired." And while we're on the subject of dismissals, the number of driver changes this year has likewise been unprecedented: Cruz Pedregon (by Joe Gibbs), Tim Wilkerson (by John Costanza), Frank Pedregon (by Jim Dunn), among others.
So what does this all mean for professional drag racing as we prepare to embark on the second half-century of the sport and turn the calendar to a new century? You'll just have to stay tuned to What's New for "all" the answers . . . at least all the answers that I can think of. That might be a short update, eh? Check back later this week for all the details. Until then, for the latest news from the wide, wild, weird world of drag racing, keep an eye on Northern Thunder.