"Once More Into The Breech"
Yes, it's that time again. Time for the annual pilgrimage to Seattle
International Raceway for the Northwest Nationals. For the first time in quite
a few years, I'm actually looking forward to this trip for several reasons.
This year's race feature's several "lasts": Current lessee Jim Rockstad's
last major event before his lease expires; the last Northwest Nats with Prolong
title sponsorship; and possibly, the last event with the current track configuration.
And the last major event with S.I.R. as the track name, as it will revert to
its original Pacific Raceways name next year.
There's several other situations involving the NHRA that should provide
interesting topics for conversation in the pits and the press room. All
of these have developed rapidly over the past week, although they have been
strongly rumoured for months.
First off the mark was the announcement of Winston's withdrawl from national
event series and team sponsorship, effective at the end of this season. It
wasn't really a surprise as Winston's parent company, R.J. Reynolds, signed
an agreement with the federal government three years ago to limit cigarette
brand sponsorship to one series only.
The only question has been whether it would be NHRA or NASCAR receiving
continued support. Frankly, there wasn't really any question. All the numbers,
television viewers and event attendance, strongly favoured a continuation of
their relationship with the circle burners. For public consumption, RJR has
stated that it was a very "difficult decision." Privately.... a no-brainer.
So, 27 years of Winston support, and many millions of dollars of sponsorship
and promotional support are gone. There's still six months until the first
race of the 2002 season, so NHRA has some time to come up with a replacement.
No names yet, but the phones have allegedly been ringing hot and heavy in
Glendora's marketing offices.
What remains to be seen is whether one company will step up and sponsor
the entire national event series, or if several smaller deals will be signed
on a category by category basis, similar to Federal-Mogul's backing of the
alcohol cars and the divisional series.
Obviously, one series sponsor would be preferable, but we'll have to wait
and see whether that happens. Another question along these lines is event
sponsorship. When NHRA announced their 2002 schedule earlier this week, only
15 of 23 events had a listed title sponsor. Several familiar names, like
Advance Auto Parts, AutoZone, Prolong Super Lubricants, and Lucas Oils have
dropped their sponsorships, and no replacements have been named.
Some of the unsponsored events don't even have a title sponsor for this
season, so it looks like these aren't the easiest sales, even with NHRA's
vastly improved television broadcast schedule, and viewership, this season.
And the renewal rate for these deals isn't that great either. Remember the
VisionAire Keystone Nationals? No, I didn't think so. One year and they were
And if all these deals don't materialize? To paraphrase Austin Coil,
"Marketing directors are just like spark plugs. If one isn't doing its job...
you just screw in another one."
From a personal standpoint, I can only hope that NHRA's sponsor search bears
fruit much quicker than their counterparts (ANDRA) in Australia. Nearly six
years after Winfield cigarettes ceased it's "Pro Series" backing, due to
government regulations, Aussie racers are no closer to seeing a major sponsor
for their national championship series.
Quick note: They even had more time to prepare for Winfield's departure,
as there was five years notice given by the government. Yes, this is an apples
and oranges situation, but could we see a gap in major sponsorship of NHRA's
national event series? It's not likely, but it could happen. And if it does,
we could see reduced pro purses and a much reduced season-end points fund.
The next big news item came this Tuesday, when NHRA confirmed it was
dropping Pro Stock Truck as a professional category. Notice that I said confimed,
not announced. The decision to drop the trucks has been strongly rumoured
for more than a year, and this year's addition of the "exhibition" Pro Mod
cars (on a limited basis) has only added strength to the rumours.
NHRA has stated that they want to concentrate on the four remaining Pro
classes, and they're not looking to add any more. Despite this claim, an
expansion of Pro Mod national event participation from this season's five
events has been strongly hinted.
Unlike all the "nice" talk in reaction to the Winston announcement, with
platitudes being served up faster than burgers at MacDonald's at lunchtime,
racer and owner reaction to the truck's demise has been almost universally
damning. No word yet from the few spectators that actually watched them race.
Their complaints followed a similar theme: lack of notice and the loss of
their multi-million dollar investments. In their favour, the truck people
mention the heavy participation, with numerous alternates at every event;
the tightly bunched fields and close racing, unlike that produced by the Top
Fuel cars lately.
But did any of these people ever look around them to see what was happening
outside their little universe? Did they ever notice how the stands emptied
faster than a fire drill when their toys ran? Did they ever question why NHRA
created the class in the first place?
Sorry guys, but in the real world of professional drag racing, if you're
not entertaining and attracting fans, you're going to be out of business
pretty quickly. When the hoped-for corporate backing failed to come and support
the trucks, the writing was on the wall quicker than the trucks could find
the finish line.
So how come they've still got Pro Stock and Pro Stock Bike? In the latter's
case, two words: Angelle Savoie. And when she's not acting in horror movies,
Stephanie Reaves. Take them away and what do you have? A bunch of no-names on
noisy little Japanese bikes.
Pro Stock still exists because.... well, because. Oh, tradition; that's it,
tradition. It's been around for 31 years now, so we'd better keep it going,
eh? Yes, that's it, they've got seniority. Not much entertainment value,
watching 30 or 40 nearly identical cars go down the track running nearly
identical elapsed times, time after time after time......
Where was I? I must have dozed off for a minute there. What were we talking
about? Oh yes, Pro Stock and all the reasons why it belongs in NHRA's pro
hierarchy. I think we've covered them all, both of them, so let's move on.
The last big story of the week was the radical changes for the Federal-Mogul
Dragsters and Funny Cars in 2002. Instead of offering the alcohol cars a place
to race at every national event, they will only be appearing at 16 out of the
23 events on the calendar next season.
Simultaneously, NHRA has announced "vastly" improved purses for the category,
on the order of $20,000 (or nearly 40%) per event. There's no breakdown on
how the extra money will be divided, but I'm betting that more of it goes to
the winners, with minimal increases in round money.
Funny math note: The total national event payout to the alcohol cars this
year, approximately $1,250,000 (for 24 events), is slightly more than the
$1,165,000 for next season's 16 events. Granted, the dollars are being paid
out in more concentrated form at fewer events, but the net effect is no increase
in cost to NHRA. Hands up for everyone who thinks NHRA will lower ticket prices
at the events where the alcohol cars don't run? Hmm.... no takers, eh?
Since it's been intimated in some circles over the years that I'm somewhat
of an NHRA-basher, let me state that I think this move is a good one. Seriously.
The moves they've made have been suggested by a number of the racers themselves,
and is the first step on what may be the road to salvation for the alcohol
categories. With fewer races to choose from, we may better participation at
the remaining events, and with more money on offer, more incentive for the
racers to participate.
This may not be the best move, but at least it's showing that the association
is trying to do something. And the shorter schedule translates into an increased
percentage of TV time, with the Federal-Mogul cars receiving coverage from
every national event they participate in during the 2002 season.
The next words on this topic will come from the racers themselves, as I'll
do my best to poll every one of them this weekend in Seattle. We'll try to
get the best quotes included on a daily basis during our same-day event coverage
this weekend, and I'll put together the whole package in a feature here next
The rush hour's winding down, the sun is sinking lower, the air is cooling,
and it's time to hit the highway south to Seattle, for the shortest roadtrip
of the year. Tune in late tomorrow night (not much before midnight I reckon)
for the day one report from the Northwest Nationals.
Before we go, here's the "rumour de jour": Gordie Bonin will be driving a
new Top Fuel car for Don Garlits. No, I'm not smoking that homegrown stuff
again, it's been passed on by an unimpeachable.... well, unindicted... so far...
source. Bonin's name is indeed on the entry list, but the details of the car
are blanked out. Another blast from the past that is definitely true, is that
Kalivoda will be driving one of the Hartman-Smith entires in Top Fuel.
No, for you old-timers, it's not Dick "The Joker" Kalivoda, but his son,
Brady, who will be making his national event debut in his hometown. Cool, eh?
That's all for now. Stay tuned....