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in the world of drag racing

Black Bar

The latest update as of January 5, 2000

Don Garlits Shirley Muldowney

Billed as the "Match Race of The Millennium", AutoFest 2000 will have to be remembered more as a lesson in how to lose a ton of money, rather than as a successful drag race. In fact, to call it a drag race is a misnomer; it was intended purely as an entertainment spectacle, with drag racing being the major focus. And truthfully, the "names" were more of an attraction than the cars. Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, John Force, Scotty Cannon, Tony Schumacher and Bob Frey (hey, how did he sneak in here?).

The promoters did their homework in many areas: they booked some of the biggest names in drag racing; they put together a slick website; they advertised the heck out of it in Florida; but when the gates opened to the public last Thursday morning, it all started to unravel. From then until the end on Sunday afternoon, it was one fiasco and controversy after another, if you can believe even one tenth of the reports that I've gleaned over the internet.

Accusations of short payments or no payments to the racers; ticket prices raised at the last minute; unannounced ($10) parking fees; a track that was not capable of handling the horsepower of the fuel cars; etc., etc. There have been some reports defending the promoters and many others slagging those same people. It's hard to sort out the truth from the lies, and really, what would be the point of trying to do so? Why don't we just file the whole thing in the same bin as the leftover confetti, streamers, funny hats and empty champagne bottles from New Year's Eve?

Two incontrovertible facts remain: Shirley Muldowney beat Don Garlits in the first drag race of 2000 (in North America), with a 4.98 to a 5.23. They only ran one of the announced three rounds of their "match race". Sadly, Big Daddy didn't even come close to his goal of a four-second, 300-mph run over the weekend, with Friday night's/Saturday morning's 5.23 at 285 being his best. As for spectator counts: Check out the pics to get an idea how thin the crowd was. There will certainly never be any figures released, as the promoter is probably far too embarassed and depressed to even bother, after the fact.

FLASH: Late rumour has it . . . and this is a WILD one: Don will drive Tony Schumacher's car at the Phoenix "Winter Warm-Up", coming up later this month. Seriously? We'll just have to wait and see.

Now is the point where I usually go into a long tirade, throwing grenades at everyone responsible for the abovementioned fiasco. But for a change, I don't feel that way. (Turned over a new leaf for the New Millennium, Bob?) Hardly. It's just that it's very sad to see what at first sounded like a neat idea, turn into a pile of dung. The "armchair promoters" (drag racing's version of 'Monday Morning Quarterbacks') have been out in cyberspace en masse, all trying to explain what went wrong. Dissecting this one event will serve no useful purpose; looking at the bigger picture of where professional drag racing is heading in it's second half century of existence, is relevant, though.

And that word "relevant" is very appropriate. Someone (in reference to AutoFest) asked the best question I've seen in a while: "Is drag racing still relevant to the general public in 2000?". Now stop and think about that for a minute. Don't just give the standard drag racer answer: "Of course it's relevant!" Seriously, other than the hard-core, committed, fans and racers, is drag racing still able to reach out and grab the attention -- and the wallets -- of the average person?

Okay, Mr. Smart Guy, got any answers? Not at the moment. Maybe never. But over the next week I promise that I'll be revisiting this topic several times; viewing it from as many angles as I can and try to put enough ideas in people's heads that maybe we can collectively arrive at some answers. A gentle warning: Some of what I write on this page in the next week won't be very "politically correct"; some of it will be critical of even my own personal sacred cow: Top Alcohol. But it's time, in fact, well past time, to take a hard look at this whole "sport" we call drag racing.

I'll close today's "dissertation" with some food for thought, courtesy of my good friend Ken Lowe. The following is a letter he wrote to DRAGSTER Australia last month.

"Do it New or Better"

You are "dead bang on" with the editorial about better packaging of championship drag racing for the customers. I would not go to the movies if I did not know when the feature started.

Movies that go longer than the customer wants to sit in one spot are considered a failure even if the story is well told. We do have a limited window of time that most customers will tolerate. The people who read this magazine are die-hard racers and all of us will get there early and leave very late.

But, most spectators are coming in for a bit of entertainment to amuse themselves for a few hours and then their interest wanes. If the feature is not done, some will stay to see what they have paid for, but rate the entertainment value as less than it should have been. Have you ever noticed how you will rate the entertainment value as good if you walk out the door feeling like you want more?

I sponsor Modified Eliminator at Willowbank Raceway. I love all types of drag racing (I am a die-hard, remember) but for the spectator's sake I'm not convinced that all the rounds of most of the classes should be in the feature.

Of course Top Fuel/Alcohol/Doorslammer should feature all their elimination rounds as most of these fields are relatively small. I would run the first few rounds of the non-feature classes earlier in the day and have the last two rounds (or just the final rounds) of those classes run during the feature.

I know I have probably upset a few racers with this idea but this is what needs to be done to "package" the time. The die-hard spectators who want to see all the racing will arrive earlier to see that racing. However, you must cater to the larger crowd.

When I had a trade booth at the Winternationals, Friday was the only good day that I had to talk to racers. On Saturday and Sunday, 85 percent of the people that I spoke to were there for a bit of entertainment; some of them I felt, would have been just as interested walking through a flea market.

The feature must start late enough for everyone to get there, but finish before it gets too late or uncomfortable (hot or cold). These conditions can vary with the amount of daylight and normal weather conditions.

Last year you gleaned a nugget of information from the Willowbank (spectator) poll that still has me shocked. This is the fact that so many people are coming to the race track for the first time. As you said, this would be good if our attendance numbers were going up by something similar to those percentages, but they aren't.

As you pointed out, this means that many people are coming for the first and only time. This means that we, the people who make our living from drag racing, must do something new or better. It affects all of us so we had better be doing something about it.

Ken Lowe, Oxenford, Queensland

Oops. Just checked the Press Clippings page and saw that the editorial Ken was referring to is not posted yet. Check back tomorrow to see what DA's Editor, David Cook, had to say about this subject. Also: The first part of my "Where do we go from here?" look at where Drag Racing is heading, and what we can do to keep it on track. And, as always, the latest news from the wide, wild, world of drag racing.

Black Bar
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