The NHRA Comeback Looks Promising, But Will It Be?

John Force Funny Car during the 2015 NHRA Mello Yello series.
John Force Funny Car during the 2015 NHRA Mello Yello series.

It’s been a tough last few seasons for the National Hot Rod Association.

TV ratings from telecasts on ESPN or its affiliates were less than ideal (as were airing times), car counts at several races were low, several big-name sponsors pulled their support from either the sport or individual teams, at-track attendance dipped at several locations and Tom Compton suddenly retired after 15 years as the sanctioning body’s president.

That’s just for starters.

But now NHRA is potentially poised for a significant resurgence, perhaps the biggest comeback it has ever enjoyed in its 60-year-plus existence.

With the best national TV contract it has ever had (Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 begin coverage in 2016 with a minimum of 17 events being carried live), NHRA is hoping to not only attract new fans to the sport, but also to bring back older fans that may have lost interest over the years.

There will be a number of rule changes in the sport, most notably in Pro Stock. Plus, the sanctioning body has made a number of new hires to bolster its overall operation.

But will all that be enough?

I admit I’ve always been very bullish on the NHRA, even over the last few seasons when things have been less than ideal at times.

I would like nothing more than to have new NHRA president Peter Clifford bring the series back to where it once was in terms of notoriety and popularity – rather than what it has evolved to over the last few years: as somewhat of a niche sport (and believe me, I hate to use that phrase).

Unfortunately during the last decade, the NHRA has had to deal with the poor economy, a number of its biggest stars have retired and too many new attractions and entertainment distractions have stolen away fans and viewers.

And it’s not just been the NHRA. NASCAR has struggled, IndyCar has struggled (although it is starting to climb back in attention and notoriety), as well as pretty much every other form of motorsport on four or two wheels.

Let’s face it, the glory days of auto racing are likely never to return to the level they once were in the 1980s and 1990s – and that includes the NHRA.

While the Fox Sports deal appears very promising and is leaving many team owners, drivers, fans and media optimistic that it will help turn around NHRA’s fortunes (both financially and popularity), I keep asking myself will that be enough to turn the recent downward tide back upward.

Instead of looking at Fox Sports as a savior, NHRA should look at it instead as a start to a significant comeback. But the sanctioning body can’t stop there. It has to start listening to the fans and what they want.

Fans want Top Fuel and Funny Car to go back to 1,320 feet racing, not 1,000 feet. I understand why NHRA dropped the length – in the name of safety – after the tragic death of Scott Kalitta at Englishtown, N.J., several years ago.

But there are ways to reduce speed, horsepower and most importantly, engine size, to allow the nitro cars to return to full 1,320 foot racing.

Fans also want to see more unique distinction in terms of cars and motorcycles. They want to see more Top Fuel Harley bikes, the elevation to a major class for Pro Modifieds (which are as trick and even more outlandish at times than Funny Cars), and a significant way to cut costs so that we won’t continue seeing team after team falling by the wayside because they can’t continue affording the costs of racing.

Just ask Top Fuel team owner Alan Johnson about that. After several championships and countless wins over the years, Alan Johnson Racing could not even make it through the full 2015 season because it lost its sponsor just prior to the start of the campaign.

Even worse, AJR will not return in 2016 – or anytime soon, if ever again.

Like I said earlier, I’m bullish on NHRA making a big comeback and bringing back old fans and attracting a whole new generation of fans. I like what I see from Clifford and his leadership style thus far.

But there’s still so much more that must be done, rather than just put all of NHRA’s eggs into just one basket, namely its new TV deal, and hope that will solve all that has ailed NHRA in recent years.

It’s a start, but let’s hope it’s not looked upon as the end-all and be-all. Let’s face it, NHRA can’t afford to lose any more fans, and no matter how glitzy or glamorous its TV coverage may be going forward, flash can only go so far.

I’m pulling for you, NHRA, and keeping my fingers crossed that you get better and bigger. It won’t be easy and it’ll take time, but if you built the sport to such great heights before, here’s hoping you can do it again.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

About Jerry Bonkowski 38 Articles
Jerry Bonkowski is a veteran motorsports writer who has worked for USA Today (15 years), ESPN.com (3 1/2 years), Yahoo Sports (4 1/2 years) and is in his third year with NBCSports.com's NASCAR Talk and MotorSportsTalk. He also is a regular on-air host for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (14 years). Jerry has been married for 30 years to Cyndee, the love of his life, and they are the proud parents of three adult children (still waiting for his first grandchild!). Twitter: @JerryBonkowski
  • Ray Jackson

    YOU GOT THAT RIGHT!

  • jack jenkins

    I was at the 1st natls in Great Bend. I’ve had an obsession with drag racing, even operating the track, but not going 1320 feet has me losing interest and now you penalize Pro Stock. Changes need to be made NOW or my great grand children won’t know what drag racing was!

  • Marine Engineer – Libertarian

    The change to 1,000 feet lost me. It was an idiotic knee-jerk reaction to a tragic event. Returning to a quarter-mile race must be the first change the NHRA makes.

  • Bob Hass

    Racing is & always will be 1/4 mile.

  • Bob Hass

    One other thing is that NHRA does not pay the other classes (sportsman) enough to cover their expenses to come & race. Racing a car at NHRA events is just pricey.

  • blutopluto

    Smaller engines is NOT how to slow down fuel cars.

  • Don Griffin

    I’ve been drag racing since the mid ’70s. Moat of that time in NHRA sanctioned events and I have always been a fan of NHRA over the other bodies. I was on a T/F team. I’d like 1/4 mile for fuel but drastic performance restrictions will have to be implemented. Any restrictions need to be easily policed and not hurt reliability. I didn’t like it when they limited the gear ratio and added rev limiters which caused explosions and then penalized oil downs as if the cost and damage wasn’t enough. I hope changes to Pro Stock slows them some or else they are allowed down force. Casual fans can’t understand how T/F just went 320+ (295+ in 1/8!) and a PS driver is howling about traction trying for 210. I hate 4 wide pro racing as it reduces the number of rounds but let’s take advantage of it and run more alcohol/pro mod/sportsman classes on Sun TV. You can have one class on 1 & 2 and another on 3 & 4. Tractor pulling does this all the time. Pro mod would be OK on TV if more of them made it down the track. Live TV isn’t the solution as much as just having it on at a reasonable time and not bumped by every other crap the network can find. Live adds a bunch of problems of its own. Create NHRA network like WWE did with all the old races available. Eliminate throttle stops and S/ST, S/G and S/C wouldn’t suck so much to watch. I raced S/C when it was first invented. NHRA asked the racers what to do about delay boxes and deep staging. I said run it like AHRA did national events – no pre stage bulb and 3/10 pro tree. Problem solved but no, that didn’t sell gizmos to everyone so they didn’t like that idea. Also NHRA needs to be concerned about their brand at small tracks. I have 5 tracks within 2 hours of me. Only two are NHRA and only one of those has a regular program. The others are unsanctioned and thriving. It isn’t because they like dangerous equipment but some NHRA rules are silly. Expiring a part like an aluminum transmission shield that is in perfect condition just because it is 3 years old is stupid and expensive. Many good parts get arbitrarily replaced or re-certified at significant expense. Me having to have an EKG to bracket race a dragster for 5 seconds is stupid. I can drive a car or pilot a plane full of people all day without one but need one for 5 seconds? BS! NHRA needs to listen to the racers. Grassroots is the key to everything and they are losing.

    • Ray Garcia

      Don, I’ve Drag Raced since 1969, early years all AHRA. I finally hung up my helmet in 2008 from Super Comp in a door car. I almost went broke. I didn’t subscribe to the latest cookie car idea or electronic gizmo of the week. I had a 30 year old 23 degree SB Chevrolet 377 ci.single four barrel motor. It required regular maintenance but I built my own stuff except the chassis. I loved it. But escalating entry fees, travel expenses and recertifying stuff broke me. I raced early west coast pro-gas stuff when a “delay box” w as a bolt in the linkage or just good throttle control with a right foot. I never won anything big but went many rounds. The re-cert costs were nuts. Belts and nets every 2 years? Shields every 3 or so. The year I quit everything every thing needed to be recertified, including needing a new helmet, tires for the car, trailer and Suburban. Done, broke. Sold my stuff to a couple of brothers in Ohio for a big loss but I needed to get rid of it, years of happiness gone. I never had any spares so everything went in a 28 foot trailer. I make a poor spectator so once in a while I’ll go online to see where fellow Sportsman racers are in the standings. I miss the old days when brand identity was big but now it’s what ever front decal you run to let fans know what kind of car it’s supposed to be. Pro Stock? Always my favorite but the body shapes all look alike. I would love to see a modern day equivalent of the old AHRA GT classes but with no cars newer than 1980 or so. Then I might think about it.

      • Don Griffin

        Ray – You’d know the fun of an AHRA national event tree. There was no monkey business on the starting line and it didn’t take any extra electronics. You are certainly right that all the cars look alike. I can’t watch P/S anymore. It might as well be a video game. Funny car bodies are mostly decal differences too. I ran S/C in the late 90s with cookie cutter BBC dragsters and gizmos and it sucked. I’d usually go a few rounds but it just wasn’t the same. I’ve sat out a few years but am preparing another dragster for 2016 – 427 SBC this time. It’s highly unlikely it will see an NHRA track. It’s a good safe car and would pass inspection but no need. I’ll buy a new helmet because I need it and not because the sticker got old. The car will not have a throttle stop and I won’t crossover or any of that stuff on the tree. I hate the crosstalk system. I was a track S/P champ with a foot brake dragster before trans brakes (1980) and S/C runner up at Div 3 (early 80s) with the same dragster that I built running an alky injected 482 Oldsmobile and right foot for ET control. I’m not sure if it really was more fun then or maybe being younger was the difference. I’m hoping it will still be fun. I have two nearby new all concrete tracks and neither is NHRA although one or maybe both once were. The nearest NHRA 1/8 mile has an unsafe left lane so it doesn’t seem like sanction means much. It isn’t going to be inexpensive but much less without arbitrary costs. If all I had was NHRA tracks, I probably wouldn’t do it again. Illogical rules and electronics have ruined sportsman racing. I’d like to run no box S/P and no reaction times given during eliminations. Let ’em learn to drive or go home. I went to the US Nationals for decades but now watch it on TV so I can fast fwd most of it. If NHRA wants to know what people think, call folks selling cars and ask. I suppose things have to change some but NHRA needs to remember who brought them to the dance.

        • Ray Garcia

          I totally agree with you Don. I have a new wife of almost 4 years and she doesn’t like the noise of drag racing so that’s either a good thing or a bad thing. She doesn’t mind the noise of my old 2 stroke motocross bikes from the 70’s though.
          My old goal with my Super Comp car(1990 corvette coupe) was to put a blower on it and run the quick brackets but with the pension check of a retired fire fighter split with a ex wife, quarter mile stuff is out. My nearest safe track was Tucson(4 hours away)which recently went IHRA. Good luck with the new car.

          • Don Griffin

            There isn’t much that is louder than an open expansion chamber 2 stroke. In 1980, I sold my 1974 Honda CR125R and bought a new 1980 CR125R. I still have it but wish I’d kept the ’74. I don’t ride it anymore because it makes me stupid and I crash! Girl friend says she’ll be OK with the racing. We’ll see. I enjoyed the chat. Take care and have fun!

          • Ray Garcia

            I still have my 1976 Maico AW250. I had a 73 Elsinore 250 and about every 250 motocross brand bike you can imagine up to 1980. I wish I had all those back again. Nice chatting too.

          • Timothy A. Lindner

            Ray, Crazy how things turn around, I had a ’70 Challenger that ran in the mid 8s at 168mph at 2640lbs, with an all aluminum Indy maxx 572″ Hemi. 943 HP dynoed. I had got the car to run a 1.16-1.18, 60 ft. times with a J.W. Torqueflite and had to slow it way down to run S/G or even S/C. To like a 1.50 60 ft. It sucked with all the electronics. I would get clipped in the last 20 ft. by S/C Dragsters running 180mph. I live in Douglas AZ. I now weld for the USBP and maintain the Border fence. I have a chassis shop here too. I don’t build anything anymore for anybody. No wife, no kids. elderly parents and several rentals here so I’m deadlocked in, I can’t really move away. To many properties. I’ve Built several tube cars in my shop. A couple custom V-Twin pro-street Choppers too from scratch. I’m 57. No money here though. I sold my Challenger 10 years ago to a guy in Oklahoma. Did A few bikes. got them published in V-Twin magazine. The ’70 Challenger, It still runs in the 8s. The guy who has it, pulled all the electronics and runs it flat out. He works the oil fields there in OK and makes big bucks. I built instead a 4130 moly tubed and tubbed ’66 Plymouth Belvedere. 543 wedge, Indy 325 CNC heads, pump gas engine 100% street legal. glass hood, bumpers, deck lid. the rest is all steel fully operational windows and 100% raptor coated inner panels, It has 28×40 wheel cans, a Strange aluminum 9″ housing I set up wider and made modular. 4.30 street gears on a Lenco billet locker, 4 link, double wishbone shockwave air ride, frame rails are 18″ inches wide. I haven’t put 300 miles on it in nearly 6 years. $60,000 in my carport. I have a ’77 Maico 400 Adolph Weil replica bike too. A ’09 BMW G450X with a 2011 TC 449 Husky engine, Converted to WP 4860s front forks WP trax rear shock. It just sits. Power commander 5 tuned. I bought a ’15 FE 501 Husky last year in April. it now has 82 hours and 1510 miles. I enjoy riding my dirt bikes on the BP 2 tracks and smugglers single tracks here more than anything and never miss a weekend. There are Hundreds of miles of some challenging trails and I make my own too. Even cut some during work in my F550 work flat bed that I go down so we can ride them back up on the weekends with my buddies riding on the weekends. I just put the last few hours on another rear tire the last 2 rides its the 4th rear tire at less than 80 hours. have 3 more new ones in my garage. I brought my bike lift from my shop a few blocks away to my house and have been dirt riding again for 4 years now. I’ve never even taken one of my dirt bikes to my shop 4 blocks away. I work on them here at my house. If you ever need a new chamber for that 76 down pipe on that old Maico I’ve made about 100 of them for that bike alone. all hand rolled cones. only 3 required as long as the headpipe is good. If not I build headers and pipes for Harleys and always have new Mandrel bends on hand. to make a new headpipe too. I have built over 300 2 stroke expansion chambers for quads and dirt bikes since 1975, Number is 520 249 6110. I have more fun on my dirt bikes than anything else. drag cars ran me broke.

  • Pete Battaglia

    What about the regular guys and gals
    That put there hearts and soul into the the sport and never get any coverage on national TV
    What about the PSCA or NMCA that’s the back bone of the sport.
    We spend every dime we have to keep our cars running and make it to the next race
    The NHRA need to look back to the beginning
    Where its roots started
    The every day guy .
    They need bring the new kids into the sport
    this is a love affair and passion that starts at a young age.
    I love this sport and want to see it go forward.

  • Obama IS Armageddon 4 America

    I can’t believe some of the perceptions being posted here!!!! The bottom line is the NHRA and NASCAR all have become a politically correct mamby pamby cartoon of what they once were!!! The stupid rules, penalties, format and the absolute worst coverage in media and their obvious only concern being how to part fans and racers with as much $$$$ as possible is what has driven racers, fans and most importantly sponsors away!!!! Slowing the cars down is NOT the answer!!! If there isn’t enough shut down area to stop the supposed fastest cars in racing then scrap those tracks and choose one with enough room to stop them, there are untold hundreds of facilities out there that fit this requirement and get past the stupid politics and astronomical fees they charge the track owner to be sanctioned and host a national event there!!! There are plenty of people out there that would build a new state of the art facility that can accommodate cars that are truly unlimited and have enough shut down area to run them!!! There are far too many rules and there should be only a common sense safety regulations and no oil down penalties and let it truly be run what you brung and hope you brung enough!!! If that means cars running over 400 or even 500 mph so be it!!! And quit constantly phucking with the rules to give an advantage to certain vehicles or manufacturers who are throwing massive amounts of cash at the NHRA to gain an advantage for their racers and vehicles as that is not fair to the racers that aren’t affiliated with them!!! The recent change in rules to force pro stock teams to switch over to fuel injection is exactly more of the same!!! This will make unreal amounts of $$$ for the only approved systems and set up manufacturers and throws untold tens of thousands of hours of research and development time out the window that the top teams have worked long and hard for to gain a competitive edge!!! Let hard work, imagination and innovation determine the top racers!!! And like others have mentioned this asinine requirement that you replace items that are still safe and fully functional has to end!!! Then lets talk about payouts for all the classes, especially the sportsman racers that bankroll these events!!! Why would ANYONE in their right mind go to a national event that most would have to spend thousands of dollars to pass tech and replace perfectly good parts and equipment to even race for a minuscule purse compared to what they can run for at a local unsanctioned track that doesn’t require them to travel untold miles to get to, then have 10 times the number of cars to compete against to even get in the field, and run double to triple the rounds to get to the money!!! It is easily in the thousands of $$$ for travel, motels, food, and entry fees to even go to one of these exercises in futility!!! This is more of the same mentioned above where a sponsor or manufacturer gives them enough $$$ that for in return they legislate a requirement into the rules that requires racers to constantly replace perfectly good parts and equipment because of this corrupted system!!! It IS survival of the fittest and the NHRA IS on it’s way out if they continue to do business in the corrupted manner that they have for decades!!! Lets truly make these cars the Kings of the Sport and see some real innovation and competition!!! If this season is more of the same as the last several I am done with them and their money grubbing ways!!!

  • Don Gould

    When NHRA legalized Air Shifters in Pro Bracket ($800) to appease those who can’t drive and to put big Dollars in the pockets of manufacturers of those parts… I had enough and walked away. No more membership, no more number fees… I’m done with them.
    I still race and I Drive my Car, If it’s sanctioned event that requires me to be a member I go to another track. I’m sick of the constant extortion by the NHRA Sponsors in the name of “Safety” This year I had to replace my perfectly good helmet Nearly $400, a set of belts that were used 8 times and stored in a garage $160.00, the trans shield now needs replacing $480. Then they want me to pay another $180 for my number and a membership card? So I can pay another $400 to race at Division Finals and $2000 in expenses to get to Canada for 3 days?

    I’ll go golfing on Division weekend and keep my money in my pocket.

    Stop making rules to suit the rich and untalented and get back to real grassroots drag racing… Run whatchya Brung and drive it like you stole it.

  • Don Gould

    Someone please explain to me why they want Live races on Sundays… where are all the racers on Sunday’s? Racing maybe? I have a DVR so I’m good with it. Sorry I’ll be at the track. My DVR has fast forward so sorry sponsors.

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