Photos courtesy NHRA

Column: Why NHRA needs to prepare now for the post-John Force era

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While the start of the 2018 NHRA season is still a month away, I’m already looking beyond what’s to come and instead thinking about the sport’s future.

I’d like to talk about three things in particular. Think of them as three columns in one – with one key related outcome at the end.

First off, Peter Clifford has been promoted from president of the sanctioning body to its first-ever Chief Executive Officer. And as of New Years Day, Glen Cromwell has been officially promoted to assume Clifford’s former role as president.

Like Clifford, Cromwell is essentially a lifer at NHRA and it is expected he will continue the programs and changes Clifford implemented in his 2 ½ years as president.

But one thing is certain: the future of the NHRA is solidly in Cromwell’s hands.

Second, the NHRA’s own version of P.T. Barnum, the sport’s greatest promoter as well as its greatest driver ever, John Force, will turn 69 in May.

While still competitive and the biggest force – no pun intended – within the sport, one must wonder just how much longer Force will continue racing.

He’s said previously that several of his current contracts will expire at the end of the 2019 season, when he’ll be 70 years old. Will that also mark the end of Force’s career?

John and Brittany Force

Realistically, how long will John Force be able to continue on behind the wheel? That his daughter, Brittany, won the 2017 NHRA Top Fuel title, and son-in-law Robert Hight won his second Funny Car title, as well, is encouraging that John Force Racing will continue for many years to come with Brittany, sister Courtney and Hight (also president of John Force Racing) even if John Force retires at some point.

Yet at the same time, what will the sport become without John Force? You know that day is coming – and perhaps sooner than many of us may want to think about.

John Force has been the face of the NHRA for pretty much the last 30 years. No other driver even comes close to him in wins (148) or championships (16) – and no one likely ever will in the future.

He’s been the biggest asset the sport has had when it comes to selling tickets. Folks oftentimes buy tickets to NHRA events to see Force first and the rest of the other drivers second.

What will the sport become when John finally does hang up his firesuit? Will Brittany, Courtney, or some of the other young drivers in the sport be able to have the marketability, attention-getting and ticket selling prowess that John Force has had?

And thirdly, there’s one of my biggest concerns about the sport going forward – particularly when John Force climbs out of his Funny Car for the last time.

It’s no secret that NHRA, like NASCAR, IndyCar and most other forms of motorsports is hurting when it comes to sponsorship. Let’s face it, the multi-million sponsorship dollars that were so prominent in the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s have been substantially cut.

Peter Clifford (photo) has moved up to become the NHRA’s first CEO. He’s been replaced by Glen Cromwell, who assumed presidency of the sanctioning body on New Years Day.

Even the best-funded teams are hurting in NHRA, oftentimes having trouble finding enough dollars to get through the entire 24-race Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series.

And how many times have we seen less than full 16-car fields in races in the last few years? In 2017, we saw several races with less than full fields in Pro Stock and Top Fuel, and if I’m not mistaken, at least one short Funny Car field. It’s a definite concern, for sure.

So what do all three of those items have to do with one another? Plenty – and the sooner the NHRA starts thinking in that direction, the stronger its future will look.

The NHRA has to decide going forward what it wants to be, plain and simple – or what it needs to be, particularly in the PF era – Post-Force, that is.

Sure, it’s still the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the country, with over 70,000 members, not just its pro ranks, but also its thousands of sportsman racers.

Hopefully, Cromwell will do what his predecessors – Wally Parks, Dallas Gardner, Tom Compton and Clifford – didn’t do: get with the times and evolve the sanctioning body into a modern-day entity, rather than be stuck in the same time warp it has been in for the last 20 to 30 years.

Change must come to the NHRA in several ways, most notably race weekends and event schedules.

Do we REALLY need three-day pro race weekends? Do Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock teams REALLY need four qualifying passes (typically two on Friday and two others on Saturday) in every national event weekend?

The days of fans coming to Friday, Saturday and Sunday for an NHRA event weekend are all but over. Between ticket prices, travel and potentially 2-3 nights of hotels, food, gas, etc., many fans have been priced out of going to tracks from Pomona to Epping.

Plus, the NHRA’s old business model of mixing the pro ranks with sportsman classes simply isn’t working any more. Don’t believe me? Have you been to a NHRA national event over the last few years? What happens when the pros finish up a particular round and hand the track over to the sportsman drivers?

Answer: the stands typically empty by at least half. Usually the only folks left in the stands are either fans or friends of some of the sportsman drivers.

When the sportsman drivers attempt to show their skills, most other fans go out to the food court or product midway. Sure, those racing fans eventually go back to the stands, but usually not until the next pro round of qualifying or eliminations.

While it may be difficult to make changes for 2018, certainly 2019 could – and should – see some major significant changes, provided NHRA starts listening to its drivers, team owners, crew chiefs, media and fans, all who have been clamoring for change rather than the same old, outdated thing.

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell, who assumed his new position on New Year’s Day.

That’s been easier said than done over the sport’s history. For too long, it’s been NHRA’s way or the highway. That has to change, lest the sport will slip into virtual anonymity, particularly after John Force retires. Why do you think the NHRA wants Force to stick around forever? Even if he stops being competitive, his name and appearance will still sell tickets – and money is often the name of the game with the NHRA.

I’ve covered NHRA for more than 30 years and during that time I’ve easily talked to hundreds of competitors and team owners, not to mention countless fans. They’re almost unanimous in their comments on the fate and future of the sport.

Based upon many of those conversations, here’s some suggestions for changes the NHRA should implement, as well as my own personal perspective.

1) Cut most national event weekends to two days. Do we really need to have four qualifying/practice runs? Can’t we get along with one day of qualifying of two rounds (including one round at night for the visual effect fans love) and then final eliminations on the following day? I firmly believe fans would be more amenable to attending two days of national events this way, given they wouldn’t have to pay for a third day – not to mention the race-related expenses (like travel and hotels) they’d incur.

2) It’s long overdue to split the pro ranks from the sportsman ranks. If NHRA still wants to have sportsman drivers compete in national events, let them race on Fridays (and potentially even on Thursdays), if not at their own separate races and locations. Leave Saturday and Sunday to the pros only.

3) In addition, run NHRA’s so-called semi-pro cars on the same days as the pros to fill in the time that would previously have been filled by sportsman drivers on track. In other words, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car, along with Pro Modifieds, would not only easily fill the Sportsman driver hole on Saturday and Sunday, it’s no secret they already have a very healthy and loyal fan base that sportsman drivers just don’t have. I’d also increase the number of events for Pro Stock Motorcycles from 16 to 20 races per season.

4) NHRA has to decide what kind of organization it is going to be under Cromwell’s leadership. It no longer can be all things to everybody, pro and amateur driver alike. If, by shortening race weekends or revamping them entirely, it will definitely save money in the process – which almost every team is clamoring for – and that’s for the betterment of everyone: the organization, its teams and its fans. A perfect model to follow would be the example set by NASCAR. It’s version of sportsman drivers – those in the ranks including the K&N Pro Series, Whelen Modifieds, etc. – have their own series and racing venues. Sure, there may be a Cup race weekend or two that the lower-level drivers will have a race to compete in, but for the most part, they’re their own standalone entities. NHRA should pursue that path.

Many of you know how passionate I am about motorsports, particularly NHRA. It was my first exposure to any form of racing back as a teenager, and it’s a love affair that I have happily continued for several decades since.

But this is a different day and different era than when I and so many of you fans were kids or teens and when we first fell in love with drag racing.

As much as we wish he would be immortal, the reality is John Force isn’t going to race – or live – forever. It’s time the NHRA makes significant changes in preparation for the Post-Force era before it happens so that it can preserve its own future.

INDYCAR: What Drivers Said after Friday’s two practices at Barber

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Here’s what drivers had to say after Friday’s two practice sessions for Sunday’s Honda Grand Prix of Alabama (there’s one final practice plus qualifying on Saturday):

JOSEF NEWGARDEN (No. 1 Hitachi Team Penske Chevrolet, 2017 Honda Indy Grand Prix of Alabama winner, 2017 Verizon IndyCar Series champion): “It’s great…home track for me. It wins the war between this place and Indianapolis (Motor Speedway) because it’s an hour closer, so I think that’s why I call it the home track. Unfortunately, we don’t race in Nashville anymore. But I’ve always loved Barber. It is a special place for me. It’s the place I got my first win with CFH (Racing) back in the day, and it’s a place I won my first race for Team Penske. It’s had a couple firsts for me, so it’s been good for that. Good memories. I love this racetrack. I think it’s one of the best that we get to drive at from sort of a style standpoint. It’s very technical, but it’s got a lot of flow to it. It feels kind of like a roller coaster to me is the best way to describe the style of it. I have a lot of fun here. I think it’s great. We’re going to try and have a good weekend. We had a pretty good start for the most part. We had some issues in the first session. Just kind of been dealing with a couple things that I think we got sorted out for the second session there, but we seem like we’ve got some speed. I think our other cars got some speed, as well. Simon (Pagenaud) looked like he suffered from maybe a similar problem, and I don’t think Will (Power) had a very good lap, so I think those guys will be right there with us. Team Penske I think is going to be strong tomorrow, I’m sure.

MATHEUS “MATT” LEIST (No. 4 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “We’re struggling with understeer in mid-corner, so we need more rotation in the car. If we can fix the mid-corner understeer, we’re going to have a fast car tomorrow. We’ll keep working on it, and hopefully we’ll have a great weekend.”

JAMES HINCHCLIFFE (No. 5 Arrow Electronics Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We learned a lot today. We tried to come test here a few weeks ago, but unfortunately Mother Nature had a different plan, so we didn’t get a lot of running in. We came into this weekend with a bit of an evolution from what we tested, still were a little bit off, and over lunch, the Arrow Electronics guys made a couple of great changes. It doesn’t look great on the time sheets because our fast lap was when that red flag came out, so they took it away from us. I think we’re decently inside the top 10, which is a big jump from this morning.”

ROBERT WICKENS (No. 6 Lucas Oil Schmidt Peterson Motorsports Honda): “We lost water pressure somewhere in the Lucas Oil car, so we’re playing it safe. No water pressure means no water circulation to the engine, then it overheats and blows up. We’re taking the precautions to keep the engine alive, but unfortunately, we stopped after a couple of laps. It’s an hour free practice and we only did two competitive laps, so we’re just watching everyone else improve their cars and we aren’t able to right now. It’s pretty disappointing.”

SCOTT DIXON (No. 9 PNC Bank Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “We’re in the ballpark at the front, which is a good start for the No. 9 PNC Bank team. The Penske cars are up front and I think that’s a result of them doing some additional testing here. We kind of expected that to start. We did a qualifying run and the car was just too loose for some reason. And then we were fighting understeer this morning, so we’ve seen both sides of it. Now it’s up to us to get it right for qualifying tomorrow.”

ED JONES (No. 10 NTT DATA Chip Ganassi Racing Honda): “It was a difficult end to the day for us. I think after starting well this morning, we struggled in the afternoon. It could have been the heat that affected us, I’m not really sure. Tonight, we’ll have to look at the data and what we learned from the NTT DATA car, talk to Scott (Dixon) and look toward tomorrow. I’m optimistic because we have a good base setup and we just need a little bit more work to get it right.”

WILL POWER (No. 12 Verizon Team Penske Chevrolet): “I think once again the temperature of the track really makes it tough in these cars. It was very nice this morning and was easy to get lap times. And then all of a sudden this afternoon, even on reds (Firestone alternate tires), it’s very difficult to get the car right. We’re going to have to go back and have a good think about it.”

TONY KANAAN (No. 14 ABC Supply AJ Foyt Racing Chevrolet): “It’s a difficult day. We’re struggling a lot. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”

GRAHAM RAHAL (No. 15 Mi-Jack Honda): “Today was OK. I didn’t think that we were great there in the second practice, but if you’re off a little bit, it can make a five-, six-, seven-spot difference. It’s going to be really tight (on the time sheets) there tomorrow, so we’ve got to work on it and get it a little better.” (About whether qualifying performance is even more important if rain falls during the race:) “Qualifying will be important, but I think if it’s rainy, I think you will be able to make moves and you will see a lot of guys make mistakes.”

SEBASTIEN BOURDAIS (No. 18 Team SealMaster Honda): “I am not quite sure what to think about the whole day. We are not super happy with the car, but in the meantime, it is decently fast. We made some gains and at least the car is doing one thing, so that’s the good thing. The SealMaster Honda No. 18 is in the ballpark. It seems like all we are doing right now is preparing for qualifying because it is definitely going to rain on Sunday. We are going to have to think very hard on what we are going to do in those conditions. We just have to keep working and see what we get tomorrow.”

ZACHARY CLAMAN DE MELO (No. 19 Paysafe Honda): “We didn’t have a great morning aboard the No. 19 Paysafe car as we struggled a bit with the balance, but the second practice session was a lot better. We ended up P12, but had the potential for a lot more. When we went out on the Firestone red (alternate) tires near the end of the session, a red flag came out and that didn’t help us. I think we definitely could have been in the top 10, maybe even the top five. Overall, it’s encouraging heading into practice and qualifying tomorrow.”

JORDAN KING (No. 20 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “This morning was really good and we made some good progress. For this afternoon’s session, we changed a couple of things to see if they helped. We’re keeping the tradition, though, of not getting a lap time on reds (Firestone alternate tires), between traffic and red flags and yellows. We are farther down than I think we should be. We should be quite a bit quicker, probably seven or eight tenths faster than what we were. We’re not a million miles away. We just need a few more small improvements to get me a bit more comfortable with the car.”

SPENCER PIGOT (No. 21 Ed Carpenter Racing Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevrolet): “That was a really good session. It’s nice to end up at the front here at Barber. It’s one of my favorite tracks, I really enjoy it. The session was good right from the get-go on black (Firestone primary) tires. We were quite fast, then when we put the reds (Firestone alternate tires) on, the car just gained more grip. Sometimes when you put them on, it can really change the balance, but this time it felt really good. We were able to get a little more out of the car in pretty much every corner. I’m very happy with the Fuzzy’s Vodka Chevy so far, hopefully we can keep it up there.”

SIMON PAGENAUD (No. 22 Menards Team Penske Chevrolet): “The car is really fast. It was a really good session to start. But unfortunately, we had a bit of a spin on the reds (Firestone alternate tires) trying a little too hard, I guess. That’s what you have to do before qualifying. You have to find the limits, but I’m very happy with the Menards car. I think we’ll be in great shape tomorrow.”

ZACH VEACH (No. 26 Group One Thousand One Honda): “So far, it’s just been really nice to have experience at this track, which makes it a little easier coming in. We’ve been trying a lot of things today and I think we were a little stronger in the morning than this afternoon. We have a bit to go back and look at, but compared to where I was here last year, it’s night and day difference. I’m just happy to have the opportunity that we do, and we’re going to keep pushing forward.”

ALEXANDER ROSSI (No. 27 Kerauno / MilitaryToMotorsports.com Honda, Verizon IndyCar Series points leader): “This morning was definitely a struggle for all of us. I think the No. 27 car was the most outside of the window, but we made a lot of improvements over lunch. We have something to be positive about going into this evening and looking forward to tomorrow. I think we need to take one or two steps in a similar direction, but if we can do that, I think the Kerauno car will be good enough for the Firestone Fast Six.”

RYAN HUNTER-REAY (No. 28 DHL Honda): “I think we made steady progress through the day. We started out with the rear of the car way too exposed, too loose through most corners. We needed to bring it more into the window, which I think we did in the final session, considering we didn’t get a full run on new red tires due to a red flag. I think the DHL car has some good pace in it, so hopefully we can make the next step tomorrow.”

TAKUMA SATO (No. 30 Mi-Jack / Panasonic Honda): “The second session was better. I think we made some good progress from the first one. The first session was a little bit of finding the right direction to go in and it seems we found one. Still, we have a little work to be done Saturday. Having said that, there was quite a few yellows and red flags that interrupted the session. I know everyone is in the same boat, but our best lap was like a rerun and we were never able to do a long run, so it’s a little gray on how we will be for Sunday (in the race). We lost some downforce compared to last year and the tires have quite a good drop-off, or degradation, so after you use them the first or second timed lap, the tires are losing a lot of grip. It’s not a huge amount, we’re talking about a small amount, but it’s enough to make a difference. We are trying a different kind of philosophy in terms of the mechanical setup, trying to match the balance and grip level of where we were last year, so that’s why everyone is trying different things. Some people struggle, some people find a happy place.”

RENE BINDER (No. 32 Binderholz tiptop timber Chevrolet): “I think that the practice went well in the beginning. We did find some improvement, so it went better and better. Then we put the red tires on and I tried to push hard and maybe a little too much. I then lost the car, it went straight into the wall. It was a little bit too late with my hands, taking them off the steering wheel, so my left hand hurts a little bit.”

GABBY CHAVES (No. 88 Harding Group Chevrolet): “Tough day for us today. We had a mechanical issue towards the end of Practice 2, so it cut our time on track short. I know the Harding Racing guys are working hard to make sure everything will be good to go tomorrow for Practice 3 and qualifying. We’ll keep at it tonight to be ready to push tomorrow.”

MARCO ANDRETTI (No. 98 Kerauno / Curb Honda): “The Kerauno car was decent today, and coming out of Friday in the top 10 is a good place to start the weekend. We have a few things we want to work on overnight that I think will help the car be even better, and that’s what we’re going to focus on. Hoping to make it into the Firestone Fast Six tomorrow and challenge for the pole.”