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The latest update as of July 21, 2010

Weekend Wrapup: Sonoma and Grand Bend - A Tale of Two Vastly Different Races

I spent a few minutes this morning (Wednesday) watching the ESPN/TSN coverage of the NHRA Fram-Autolite Nationals from Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California. Then I checked out the Drag Race Central coverage of the IHRA Mopar Nitro Jam Nationals from Grand Bend, Ontario. Besides the really obvious disparity in the number of classes and cars - especially in the pro ranks - the lack of spectators on Sunday at Grand Bend was a real eye-opener.

Contrast that with the nearly-full appearing grandstands at Sonoma and you've got a really telling statistic at work. Over the years, the Grand Bend Motorplex has hosted many successful events, with this year's Nitro Jam being the 11th annual IHRA national event at the track. In fairness to the IHRA and the track operators, I clicked on some photos of the pro cars running in their "Night of Fire" on Saturday evening and saw quite a few more fans in the stands, but still it was short of a full house.

Trying to make an apples and apples comparison, I compared photos of the Friday evening session at Sonoma with the Saturday night shots from Grand Bend and the advantage (in spectator count) still went - by a fair margin - to the California track. So why the big discrepancy between venues?

The first and most obvious answer is the quality and quantity of the "show" presented, with NHRA offering up a total of 36 blown fuel cars (Top Fuel and Funny Car), while IHRA's presentation featured only five Top Fuel cars, eight Nostalgia (nitro) Funny cars, four Pro Fuel (injected nitro) dragsters, two blown alky funny cars, and a local 16-car group of "Outlaw" Pro Mods. Okay, the totals were nearly equal in absolute numbers of loud, fast cars, but the quality was far higher at the NHRA show in Sonoma. No offense to any of the IHRA racers, but that's the facts. Bigger, faster, louder, and obviously far bigger budgeted cars. It's simply a fact of life.

Other factors in the attendance gap between the two races could be the local conditions: ie., the weather, the economy, and the general interest in motorsport in the area. Weather did become a bit of an issue at Grand Bend, as it rained on Saturday afternoon, pushing the start of the "night of Fire" back by barely an hour, which really didn't have a very negative impact on the audience.

At Sonoma, the weather was warm and sunny all weekend, with the only glitch in the schedule being the cancellation of the second session of Top Fuel qualifying on Friday night due to poor time management by the track and NHRA. That led to some very disgruntled spectators leaving the facility feeling somewhat ripped off as the 10:00 pm curfew prevented the long loud cars from closing out the evening session in their usual spectacular fashion. Still, it didn't seem to impact the crowds for the balance of the weekend.

Turning back to the reasons for the lack of spectators at Grand Bend, the economy in the Southern Ontario region has been hard hit in the past few years, but it's not exactly a depressed area and draws on a very large market, encompassing the Toronto area and to the southwest, Detroit, both metropolises being barely 100 miles from the track. Interest in motorsport has been high in Ontario in the past, with many successful promotions at the venue over the years.

To put the Ontario conundrum in perspective, just two weeks ago there was a very successful, essentially self-promoted event staged at Toronto Motorsport Park (Cayuga) that featured four Top Fuel cars, two nitro Funny Cars, a pair of jets and the same 16-car group of Pro Mods that filled in the blanks at Grand Bend. Additional features at TMP were the Quick 32, and some other locally flavoured racing attractions. Combined with great weather, rock bands, and camping, the event was a total success with full grandstands for the feature cars.

So what worked so well for Toronto, and not so well for Grand Bend? We'll leave it for bigger brains than mine to figure that one out, but while you're pondering the question, check out Bruce Biegler's insightful and interesting take on the Toronto event at his Drag Race Canada website. He's sort of stolen my "thunder" in a way, as I've been thinking about what could be the future of Canadian drag racing, at least for big feature events. He's been thinking along the same lines as me, especially after I've attended events at Mission and Edmonton, and watched the proceedings at Toronto and Grand Bend from a distance. More on this issue soon.

The bottom-line is that the Nitro Jam format is not going to fill the stands at tracks that have hosted previous versions of IHRA national events, unless the show is beefed up considerably with the addition of extra classes of crowd-pleasing cars and/or local talent that the fans can identify with. When an association arbitrarily dumps the bulk of its pro classes and expects a large audience to come out to watch four Top Fuel cars, eight nostalgia Funny Cars, and from four to eight Pro Fuel (injected nitro) dragsters, they can't expect the crowds to be there unless they've never seen anything better.

If the management of Castrol Raceway hadn't added the West Coast pro mods, the Rocky Mountain and IBAA nostalgia alky floppers, the nitro Harleys, the Top Alcohol Funny Cars, the jet trucks, and some local blown alky and fuel cars to the program, the Rocky Mountain Nationals would have been a mere shadow of its former self. While the Grand Bend folks did add an Alcohol Funny Car component (only two cars), and additional Top Fuel car (local hero Todd Paton), the jet trucks and the Pro Modified Racing Association's 16 members, it wasn't enough to fill the stands, especially on Sunday.

After personally witnessing the IHRA's new style at Edmonton and now seeing the results from Grand Bend, I've got to wonder why these two venues are still running a three-day event, while the new Nitro Jam format features a condensed Friday night, Saturday night show. Notice that both days are actually nighttime productions, with the sportsman cars running during the day, and the pro cars coming out at night. Without all the classes of previous years, the entire show can be condensed down to a two-evening promotion, negating the need for a Sunday finish.

I saw that dynamic at work in Edmonton, as after a very long Saturday night, finished up with the "Morning" of Fire (the jet trucks ran just after midnight), the crowds were obviously lacking on Sunday afternoon, despite a full menu of sportsman eliminations and a full pro show too. While the total spectator count will be higher with a three-day event - but not that much higher if the marketing focus is on a Friday - Satruday night show. There is one little detail that affect's Edmonton's ability to promote that though: the sun going down around 10pm eliminates much of the flame show that the fans love from the blown fuel cars, unless the big boys run very late, which could impact the spectator count.

In closing, there aren't any simple answers to the question of how to fill empty seats at IHRA and NHRA venues (remember all the vacant stands at Seattle just ten days ago) and the issue will be debated ad nauseum until the spectator numbers improve or someone finally comes to the conclusion that it just can't be fixed without a radical restructuring of the big show presentations by the major sanctioning bodies.

Far be it from me to suggest that they might look at what works for other groups, like the ADRL for instance, or in other types of motorsport or entirely different forms of entertainment. Because entertainment is what it's become. For better or worse, drag racing, at least of the "big show" variety is no longer a sport for racers, it's a show for spectators.

That's enough for this update, despite the full menu of other topics that I'd love to expound on, as I've got to get busy getting ready for this weekend's NitroFest! at Mission and filling in some blanks on previous events at Mission, this year and last.

To see previous updates go to the What's Old page