Where Are All the New Drag Racing Fans in the NHRA?

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As I look ahead in 2015, I wish I could get excited about the great NHRA Drag Racing we’re going to see. Unfortunately, at best I feel it’s going to be the same thing, just a different year and at worse, less.

The state of drag racing is weak and it needs more fans to turn it around.

You can’t help but notice the many empty seats at certain tracks and there’s been a true disconnect between the sport and the fans. We have true, die-hard fans, but their numbers are dwindling. The sanctioning body does of great job of making sure the show runs, rules are enforced, and safety is at the forefront. But is there truly growth potential for the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series, or any racing for that matter?

It’s not just the NHRA. Look at NASCAR, too. The NASCAR Hall-of-Fame located in Charlotte, N.C. has been a money-losing proposition since its inception. Earlier this month, the City Council voted to forgive NASCAR’s debt and requested Bank of America and Wells-Fargo to forgo a total sum of $22 million in loans in hopes of getting to a point of a profit center as attendance never has matched its expectations. The Council is going put out $5 million to at least give the banks something in return.

NASCAR and it’s franchises are hurting in many ways, but at least have a multi-billion dollar TV contract with FOX and NBC through Fox Sports 1 & 2 and the NBC Sports Network which keeps fans in the know. NASCAR has a normal rating of 3 to 5 with a point worth 1,083,000 households. Drag Racing draws in an ESPN2 audience of .2 to .4 or at a maximum of 400,000 folks. It’s a big difference in interest and visibility for advertisers, and the NHRA spends $10 million with ESPN to bring fans the show every week. It’s a costly adventure for the non-profit organization.

Although the show is tape delayed, it’s so much better than not having any coverage at all. The NHRA is making sure their fans get to see the races. Of course, in the Fall, with Pro and College Football pushing the qualifying shows to the middle of the night, the sport only gets minimal views. When we’re right in the middle of the Countdown, drag racing’s ratings are the lowest as the airtime gets pushed aside for the far higher rating points that football produces on a weekly basis.

Where are our fans and how can we build them back to millions instead of thousands? We all know that each of the four Mello Yello divisions are exciting and thrilling, but nowadays, that doesn’t relate to the public. Today’s 18-34 market has lost a lot of the interest in the sport. That’s the prime audience you want. In today’s world, instant access is a big distraction. Having a better car doesn’t appeal to this market like it did to the former mechanics who used to wrench in their backyards on cars that eventually led to the race track. Elapsed time doesn’t communicate well with the public. When you say 330 mph, that’s what people understand and get wowed by. But as all real drag racers know, it’s the time that counts. Speed is an accessory but doesn’t pay off in points or money.

Today’s drivers are just exciting as the legends, but people remember the Prudhommes, Bernsteins, Garlits’, Muldowneys, and McCullochs. Drivers like Schumacher, Dixon, Brown, Hagan and of course 16-time champion, John Force, one of the NHRA’s best and most entertaining ambassador and face of the sport, don’t resonate the same way the legends do (although that can be argued in the face of Force’s persona and personality.)

Crowds are expecting full fields in the 16-car lineup with every team having a legitimate chance of being competitive. And they’d love to see the occasional dark horse taking a win. But races are often filled with underqualified teams lining up like lambs to slaughter in that first round.
The choice of the entertainment dollar varies from town to town. In a place like Los Angeles, there is always something in competition and that distraction takes away more and more of our audience for a great racing venue at Pomona.

Certain tracks are always packed full. The Gatornationals in Florida is a spring tradition and holds one of the largest crowds on tour. Houston had a great crowd for a change. Norwalk, Denver, Sonoma and Reading always pack them in.

Houston promoted its race better and received a sold out show for all three days at the Royal Purple Raceway earlier this year. But those are the exceptions.
If the tracks charge over $60 for a Sunday reserved seat, you have to match the entertainment on the track and right now, there seems to be a big discrepancy in attendance at certain tracks. The cost isn’t attracting fans to the show, but how do you fix such an exciting sport of sight and sound? Our fan base is dwindling, but NHRA drag racing is still the best sport on the planet.
Is it that most people don’t work on their cars any longer? That seems to be the biggest disconnect or something relatable. The price of the ticket is fair. Should we increase the racer’s purse to stimulate new blood into investing in the sport and establish programs rewarding teams for winning?

We’ll see in 2015 if the lower price of gas will turn the tide and get families back to the track. The only way to make sure the sport survives is full grandstands. That in turn gives the sanctioning body, as well as the tracks, funding to make improvements. Some tracks are beautiful concrete masterpieces like most of Bruton Smith tracks, but for some reason, it’s hard to get a major crowd at his Charlotte facility. Maybe it’s a NASCAR conflict or the first home game for the Carolina Panthers. It’s a first class facility that deserves people in attendance, so hopefully with two events, it can bring the folks back through the gates.

Other tracks like Seattle and New Hampshire need major renovation. Atlanta has a strong crowd, but smaller grandstands.
The sport needs to revise the business plan that goes hand-in-hand with the tracks since certain amenities should be expected. This is needed to keep it thriving and bringing in new fans and entertaining the regulars in attendance.

Corporate suites and hospitality should be conducted in a first-class way with great food and beverages to leave with those corporate fans having a good time. Too many times, customers are frustrated by having to park too far away and the quality of the area isn’t quite appropriate.

America is made of corporations and how they spend their money promoting themselves is solely up to them to match up with the audience for their product. The NHRA for years was an ideal setting to grow and develop your company. Now sponsors are fleeing away from the sport. Recently, we lost Ford Motor Company and so far, it appears GEICO of Berkshire-Hathaway is not returning. They are the sixth largest company in America and after years sponsoring the Morgan Lucas Racing dragsters, we all wish what made them decide to pull out of the sport would have been instead a benefit for them.

One of the main reasons we’re finding out for loss of additional corporate involvement is NHRA’s TV ratings. In the business, it’s all about the number of faces you get your product in front of and lately with other sports surging, drag racing is suffering miserably.

Look at this week’s NFL Super Bowl. A 30-second ad is valued at $4.5 million. Marketers are predicted around 111 million fans watching in the United States.

It’s not a question of a great program produced by ESPN. They get it done every race. Great insights into the sport with responsible reporting make them Emmy favorable. Everyone is asking where are the people watching? If Neilson ratings value a television program with Households Using Television, the tally is incredibly low for the quality of production given the sport. Yes, ESPN does repeat the show on Sunday prior to the finals coverage, but in today’s instant access data, who wants to see what happened 18 hours ago. They want to see it live and I’m hearing ESPN has heard the fans and are going to show more races live this year.

Now, where are the future teams going to come from. It’s always a situation where money and racing meet in the middle with sponsorship or ownership. Going into this year, we lost two predominately Top Fuel cars when Al-Anabi withdrew all funding from their North American operations last week. That leaves a great team manager like Alan Johnson without any direction and two teams are removed from the lineup and that hurts.

Something has to be done and we need to bring the fans back. That’s the bottom line. Anyone who sees a Top Fuel or Funny Car leave the starting line for the first time always say that was incredible and never knew. So tell your neighbors you’re a NHRA fan and be proud of it. Maybe if enough fans hear about it, that could help, otherwise, the State of the Sport is going to remain weak without future growth in attendance and fan appeal.

 

About Jay Wells 321 Articles
Jay Wells, 61, is a veteran motorsports public relations and marketing official. He spent 33 years at the track working with NASCAR, IndyCar, IMSA, and NHRA series' before retiring in 2009. He began writing for RacingJunk.com in September of 2013 covering the NHRA and NASCAR circuits with post race coverage along with feature and breaking news stories. Wells resides in Mooresville, North Carolina. Follow Wells on Twitter @ jaywells500.
  • Jim Kyle

    Lower the NHRA ticket prices if you want new fans, the average family cannot travel, pay for hotels and the high price for tickets! That is why some of the small of the small local tracks are hanging on, prices your average family can afford! Thanks and I know!, I am one of the fans NHRA has pushed away, and I just watch on TV, if it comes on at a decent time frame! Thanks, ?Jim in TN

    • Adam Albee

      I agree, and think it all has to do with the insane amount of money it takes to run the Pro classes. I quit taking the family to National events when it started costing over $200 to get through the gate. That is just too much money.

      • Steve Klooster

        You’ve nailed it, if we had leadership in the white house who would stop stealing money from working people, there would be more disposable income for racers and fans. People just don’t realize how he is ruining our country.

      • moparecv3

        $200 to get through the gate and at least another $150 to feed the family. Its ridiculous.

  • Adam Albee

    The corporate world still hasn’t realized that hardly anyone can relate to a 10,000,000 a year Nitro team. Amusing, fo 4 seconds then change the channel. It doesn’t interest enough people to run to the TV when it comes on. Start spending that money following a retired guy running a Super Stock on a real budget, or a high school kid trying to get a car together and people can relate. Visit there home shop and follow them to the race track. That is interesting. COPO, Cobra Jet, Drag Pac shoot out interesting. Pro Stock in it’s current state…amusing. Sort of. John Force helps a kid (not his own) get a cheap car together to go racing and gives him an open trailer, awesome. Corporate shootout with classes…Chevy, Ford, Dodge, Toyota, Mazda, Honda shootout……The whole car world would watch, and many other people who know nothing about cars. Vintage racing with old cars that are even way slower are more interesting. NHRA, go back to the roots. That is why it used to be interesting.

  • kurt

    The future is road racing. Even modern American muscle can now stop and turn as well as go fast. Nascar goes left and modulates a gas pedal. Drag racing plays with one pedal and twitches a steering wheel. Neither uses anything a driver can relate to with their own cars. Give me speed and braking and left and right and up and down and hold my interest.

  • keypunch

    Small tracks and small racers are disenfranchised from the NHRA.They do nothing to help and these tracks were and still should be the back bone of growth.I have raced for 50 plus years and the mello yellow type cars and programs mean nothing to me or our local racers.Moreover those cars&racers do not represent the typical interest like street car type events do.The growth will come when the auto producers see where best to invest their money like the Cobra jet and COPO programs.The NHRA has been on the Wrong path for years….its far to late in the game for them,they are married to the TV contracts and the big bucks they pay Compton and gang—-as to the future count the NHRA as dead in the water

    • Adam Albee

      I agree with everything you said. I wonder who made the decision at Chevrolet to send all that money to John Force, when all the action and interest is in the Stock Eliminator classes right now with the COPO, Cobra Jet, and Drag Pac cars. They could have spent 1/10 the money and had way better positive exposure with those cars.

  • Hard Core Racer

    BAN the throttle stops and electronic boxes in the sportsman classes. That would be a good start. No one wants to see a car launch and fall on it’s face and then take off down the track.

  • A1957

    The Wednesday night drags are still popular at Sonoma because it’s $10 to get in and watch. They have also recently added drifting in a large area of the parking lot.
    But the food and beverage service sucks on Wednesday. And it ends too early. You don’t get a lot of runs in.
    I would guess that within a few years, the crowd for the drifting will be larger than the crowd watching the drags. This is where the younger crowd gravitate to.

  • J Barrett

    I gotta agree, NHRA is SO far from what I think of for drag racing. Tracks and promoters need new people as well. I think the hurdle is that younger generations are not as attracted to cars, be it driving or the sport. I think some renewed interest could be generated by teaming up with local car dealers and new personalities. Take the attractive weather girls form each new station, have each of them drag race in a sponsored stock new or used car from each dealership and follow along for the season. Heck even have them trade brands. Make it appear as approachable of a sport as it can actually be. I mean, I got a grudge car, but I would totally follow that, Challenger versus Mustang versus Camaro?

  • Smokem

    I get it that when I am at the track it’s full of grey beards and not many young families. This input/rant may be a bit too much for some but hopefully some of these ideas will reach those that can make a difference, and bring a breath of new life into a dying sport. There are a many reasons why drag racing hasn’t held a fan base and not all of them are the NHRA’s fault.

    From my point, until recently most car manufactures haven’t offered to many cars to get excited about, one jelly bean looks like all of the others in the pack except for the color. Most don’t or know how or even own the tools to work on their car. While across the country schools have all but eliminated shop classes, For decades now most youth don’t see their car anything other than transportation, a car that continues to run with little maintenance or care.

    Even being a drag race fan for over 45 years it has been tough to stick with NHRA coverage. It didn’t take me long to get tired. Tough to give up several hours on a weekend to watch a one car race because the other car goes up in smoke. Gets old watching two different car owners flood the field with their cars and sometimes seemingly manipulate the outcome of the race for the sake of points (flash back to “pro” wrestling). Boring to listen to a driver always mentioning a long list of corporate sponsors every time he referred to his car like a puppet with a practiced speech instead of telling how he really feels.

    I get it that it’s a drivers contractual agreement and corporations are paying the owners bills. Seems that change goes back to the day when the price of nitro shot sky high and economically forced the average guy out of pro racing who had built his car in his 2 car garage, back in the day of a 32 car qualifying field.

    It’s disappointing to occasionally see a short field or only 17 cars competing for 16 slots. But I see a great opportunity to turn racing around. It’s time to step back and rebuild it’s obvious racing isn’t moving forward as it once was, I say start by going back to the roots of racing, it worked, it had fans!

    Entice Detroit’s big three to be strongly involved with sportsman racing, Return to the adage that worked for years of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday”. Advertising their performance cars winning at the track, converts to performance interest, to track spectators, to racing. Bring back factory performance clinics, bring in more racers and more racers brings in more fans.

    Maybe change the rules, make Pro Mod the top pro class, change the rules for PS so it is affordable to more racers, followed by a field of SS and sportsman cars. Change FC and TF to a exhibition or match race. Other than reading the board I’m betting the average fan can’t tell a 230 mph race from a 330 mph race, but they can still tell that it is loud, exciting and have a better chance to see a close race. Drag racing has almost become more about records than racing, maybe we should close up and go to the salt flats.

    Detune the fuel cars to safely run the 1320. This would produce more closer drag races, races that are won with reaction times and better set-ups. I don’t see this any different than the 9.90 class or NASCAR restrictor plate races.

    Also could mean less breakage and a better expense vs. purse ratio for the racer and could also lower ticket prices and still bring the ticket buyers to the gate, making fans, more racers, track owners and advertisers happy.

    Dump the anticlimactic “Countdown” and have a east vs. west division with the top 16 from each div. race to compete in a true “World Finals”, and change the Finals to a new location from year to year, drawing in new fans to attend making it their racing vacation.

    Racing on one side of the country would save tons of $$$ spent on travel. Splitting the country in two could double events to the possibility of 36 races a year with two major races on the same weekend, involving more tracks, bringing in more fans an reducing the chance of a rainout on maybe at least one race in the country. This business plan works for every other pro sport and is still covered on the tube.

    I am tried of racers having to answer to corporations just to compete at the pro level. I can tell you like most other racers that I am especially tired of seeing empty seats, But I’m definitely not tired of drag racing, maybe I’m just tired of the same old thing.

    • Randy

      go to 1/8th mile racing, the fans love it they can see the whole race faster paced, 3 second runs 280 mph, fewer oil downs and blown engines.

      • Smokem

        Randy thanks for the tip, they have 1/8 mile racing at my home track and I skip those races, I’m not interested in half track racing. With the next closest track 100 miles one way I plan to sell my car if it goes full time.

  • Dave

    In the quest for big money NHRA forgot what made drag racing popular. The fact that anyone in the stands could and sometimes did drag race their street cars on the strip is the reason for the popularity of drag racing. If you weren’t racing one of your buddies was and you went to watch or help. When NHRA chose to write off the lower classes and focus on the “professional classes” the die was cast. Big money, big sponsorship and high costs of racing along with the loss of rear wheel drive cars from Detroit killed participation of the masses and most of the interest in drag racing. I know I went to sprint cars where the fun lasted for more than a few seconds.

  • Greg Rapier

    I was going to go to the drags this March to watch a friend run a car that he just finished building. Till I saw the cost. I would have to pay for four nights to park my Motorhome even though I was only going to be there two. That’s $250 wasted and then the cost to get into the race that puts it up well over $500. That’s why we aren’t going. That doesn’t cover the cost of gas to get there and back home and that would be $300 to $400.

  • keypunch

    Just stop for a moment and think about this. If GM took all the John Force blowhard money and reduced the cost of COPO and crate motors they could get completely behind programs like those run by the NMCA.The NMCA has the right ideas on how to foster growth,suggest you look at their events if not aware of their approach.Lots of head up and index racing and no dragsters and go fast blowhards.All they need to do is expand their programs to include small markets.Started their series in 2012 and love it.

  • Duster

    Despite their attempts to hype it, drag racing is losing popularity big time. I had 2 reserved seat tickets to 2015 Keystone nationals but was unable to attend and couldn’t even find anyone with any interest in drag racing let alone give them away FREE even among race fans. And if it’s so popular as people claim, then why are there so many empty seats even at the big events ? Notice the tracks are practically deserted during qualifying days. Bout the only people who show up to regular local drag races anymore are those with cars and their friends and families, other than that the tracks are a ghost town.

  • Raymond Dickenson

    I am a die hard drag racing fan.I have been following drag racing since the mid 1960’s.And I still love it today.Now I hear people complain about the cost to go to a pro drag racing event.You don’t hear people complain about taking their family to a professional baseball game.For a family of four it can cost anywhere ,and up to $300 dollars for one game.And baseball can be seen almost everyday of the week.Pro drag racing only comes around once a year.If people are race fans like they say they are.Then there is plenty of time to save up the money to take your family to a day of racing.Just think about it

  • maxtormaxtor .

    NHRA fans have never attended a National Event to see racing. We came to see, feel, smell and HEAR the burning of nitromethane……..PERIOD. Its a much better show to run straight nitro with a milder tune up and go 250 mph than it is 85% nitro with todays 330mph set ups. The cars sounded better 30 years ago than they do now.
    Get rid if the slipper clutches and force the teams to use 3 speed manual transmissions. The cars will slow way down, its a peddlefest with actual skill which will make for a better show and allow poorer teams to compete head to head. Just dumb down the tune-ups.
    Also, they need to run a double elimination format. Twice the nitro being burned. Teams just need a second car at the ready, cars are cheap….just dumb down the tune-up. Top fuel was funner 40 years ago when they made 2,500 HP and sounded better. Top fuel was better when they made 5,000HP 20 years ago. Top fuel should be REQUIRED to burn straight nitro(or close)….NOT LESS!!!!
    Its about the nitro…period. Snap Crackle and Pop. Nothing else.

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