Top drivers, team official offer thoughts on how to get NHRA back on-track

5 Comments

In less than two months on the job as president of the NHRA, Peter Clifford has already made several significant changes and upgrades (with the promise of even more change to come):

* NHRA is buying out the final year of and will end its current TV contract with ESPN at season’s end, in favor of a larger and more comprehensive package with Fox Sports starting in 2016.

* There have been new immediate rules changes in the fledgling Pro Stock category, and with more to come in 2016.

* NHRA hired veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount as vice president of communications for the sanctioning body to improve its media outreach and exposure.

But there’s still plenty for Clifford to do to turn around the NHRA, particularly with sagging attendance and other issues at some tracks.

Eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher and former Funny Car champ “Fast Jack” Beckman recently shared suggestions with MotorSportsTalk on what they’d like to see Clifford and NHRA do.

“I feel like the sport hasn’t gotten the notoriety it deserves,” Schumacher said. “I think it’s the greatest sport that’s ever been live in the history of the world.”

But, Schumacher acknowledges, “There’s something missing here, but I know it’s here. We just have to bring it out and get fans that have never been to one of these races. I mean, everyone that comes out to a race for the first time says the same thing: ‘I’ve never been to one of these before. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. See you next year.’”

One of the bigger challenges NHRA faces is offshoot racing series such as the increasingly popular Street Outlaws, the revitalized Pinks: All Out, nostalgia racing, Super Chevy and All-Mopar (and Chevy and Ford) shows and local independent tracks and other drag racing series.

“(Street Outlaws is) fun to watch,” Schumacher said. “But I don’t want to give the kids out there the wrong idea that people are actually out there on those shows doing that stuff with kids standing on the side of the road. … It is sanctioned. But what they’re not getting across is when you get a kid at home thinking he can just hop in his car and do that, people get hurt.

“Wally Parks founded NHRA to get kids off the street, put them in-between guardrails with safety people here. That’s what I’m for. Is the show good? All the shows are good. I love racing. … Racing has been around for a long, long time. The first time two cars were side-by-side, someone had to see who had the faster car – and that will go to the end of time. But I think what we do is the right way to do it.”

Beckman has had a tremendous Funny Car season thus far in 2015 with a series-high five wins – including the last two events in a row. A veteran of nearly 30 years of drag racing, he began on the grassroots level in his native Southern California before reaching the big time.

One way Beckman suggests for NHRA to attract more fans is to revisit the ticket pricing structure.

“We’re competing for discretionary income out there and I am concerned,” Beckman said. “I think our tickets are the bargain of the century.

“If you look at the price to go to an NHRA race for what you get, it’s a smokin’ deal. Disneyland is something like $93 for one person, per day. A lift ticket at a ski resort 20 miles from Pomona (Calif., site of the NHRA’s season-opening and closing events) is $64 a day.

“However, you can’t argue with empty seats. So, I think maybe we need to say, lower the prices in certain sections. And I know NHRA says ‘Every ticket is a pit pass,’ but 30 years ago, not every ticket was a pit pass. If you wanted to go into the pits, you had to upgrade and pay extra.

“So maybe it’s time to have a $25 section with no access to the pits. Yes, that may create some logistical issues, but what I want to see is full grandstands everywhere we go.”

Veteran drag racing executive Jim Oberhofer, vice president of operations for Kalitta Motorsports and a long-time crew chief, agrees with Beckman.

“My feeling is NHRA needs to be more cost-effective,” he said. “I look at how much it costs for a family to come out to the races – and NHRA has done some great things like kids under 12 free – but it’s still an expensive thing.

“Once you pay for parking, food and things like that, it becomes real pricey. People are watching every dollar they spend. They can’t afford to go out there and spend a couple hundred bucks on something.”

One suggestion Oberhofer offered to MotorSportsTalk could be both revolutionary and controversial.

“One of the things I’ve thought about a lot is do we really need three-day events,” Oberhofer said. “Why can’t we have a two-day event, where a fan can come out and watch three runs and then we run (eliminations) on the next day?

“I just think we need to rethink how we do things. It’s like, do we always have to start at 11 am on Sunday? Why does it have to be that way, because it’s always been that way? We just need to do a better job changing with the times. I think it’s something we need to experiment with.

“The Friday crowds just aren’t there, but Saturday’s are great. I think we need to be more proactive to potentially make things easier on fans and the teams. A good example was earlier this year at Chicago, where the final round (of qualifying) was rained out.

“We were all bummed out that we didn’t get to run, but then I looked at how we saved $30,000 not having all four of our teams run, and that is definitely noticeable. If we go to two-day events, I think you’ll see stronger crowds. Saturday is always good and Sunday, race day, will likely be better, too. I think a two-day event will work well.”

Oberhofer also would like to see the NHRA reduce its national event schedule from 24 to 22 races. But if some of those events, particularly those that have struggled in recent years such as Topeka, were cut to two days, perhaps the schedule could remain status quo at 24 races.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Latest INDYCAR Aeroscreen test continues to provide feedback; data to series

Bruce Martin Photo
Bruce Martin Photo
Leave a comment

RICHMOND, Virginia – After completing its third Aeroscreen test since October 2, INDYCAR continues to collect valuable data and feedback from the drivers and engineers involved in testing.

The latest test of the Aeroscreen came Tuesday, October 15 at Richmond Raceway, a .750-mile short oval. Five-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon has been involved in testing dating all the way back to 2017 at Phoenix with the original “Windscreen.” Tuesday’s test was the first-time two-time NTT IndyCar champion Josef Newgarden was able to test the device that partially encloses the cockpit proving greatly enhanced driver safety.

It was also the first time the current “Aeroscreen” designed and created by Red Bull Advanced Technologies, Pankl and Dallara has been tested at a short oval – a track that measures under 1.5-miles in length.

The previous tests were at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway on October 2 and the Barber Motorsports Park road course on October 7.

“It wasn’t a problem getting in the car today and relearning a new viewpoint,” Newgarden told NBC Sports.com at the conclusion of Tuesday’s test. “It felt like a new viewpoint. It’s still an Indy car. It still feels like an Indy car. The car does a lot of the things it did before. It required some slight tuning differences to accommodate a different center of gravity and different total weight.

“Overall, it still felt like the same Indy car I drove three weeks ago. You get used to that new viewpoint within 30 or 40 laps. It was alien at first but halfway through the day it feels like home again.”

Newgarden’s Team Penske test team along with INDYCAR officials worked on changes to getting air into the cockpit and directing the air to the right place where the driver can utilize it.

“We’ve come up with some solutions that we like,” Newgarden said. “INDYCAR and the teams will continue to fine-tune this. That is why we are doing these tests. The main goal was to figure this out and fine-tune this stuff. We have come up with a lot of good solutions to all of the little things we have talked about that we have needed so when Sebastien Bourdais goes to Sebring (on November 5), it will just be another version.

“We are already close. Because they are such small details, it feels like normal racing stuff and we will come up with solutions for that.”

Some drivers who have participated in the Aeroscreen test has said, they almost feel naked without having the halo-like structure with a clear windshield protecting them on the race car.

“Once we got through a whole IndyCar season, if you took it off, it would feel really strange,” Newgarden said. “People adapt so quickly to a change, what the car looks like. Once you give us a couple of races and a full year, it will feel like home and something we are very used to as drivers.

“It is already starting to get that way. People are feeling more comfortable with it. The field of view is almost identical to the way it was before. Your peripheral vision is identical, the way you look out the front of the cars is identical, the way you see the tires is identical.”

Individual driver preference will allow for shading of the sun and that can be accomplished with the visor strips on the helmet and the tear-offs on Aeroscreen.

Drivers will also have a bit of a quieter atmosphere inside the cockpit. The partial enclosure makes it easier to hear his radio communication and the sounds of the engine in the driver’s car. It partially blocks out the sounds of the engines in the other cars and the rush of wind traveling at high speeds that used to buffet in and around the helmet.

“It has changed the noise level slightly inside the cockpit,” Newgarden said. “For me, it wasn’t super dramatic. It’s a slight reduction in wind noise. You’re not getting the wind directly over your head as dramatically as you would before. All that external noise has just been dimmed.

“You can hear the radio a touch better, things like that. But the engine noise is still quite prominent. It’s bolted directly behind us, so you still hear quite a bit of what’s going on in the car and the engine.”

Dixon was in the car at Indianapolis on October 2 and returned on Tuesday. The Barber test on October 7 included this year’s Indianapolis 500 winner, Simon Pagenaud, in a Team Penske Chevrolet and Ryan Hunter-Reay in an Andretti Autosport Honda.

“The only differences are the openings on the front wing that creates some more airflow around the legs and body and a different inlet in the screen that was in place today,” Dixon told NBC Sports.com. “There were helmet cooling options since the Barber test because on the road course, some of the drivers were getting a little hotter.

“This project has been very in-depth. It hit the ground running very smoothly. There are some alternate options they are trying to create, especially on the street courses where we will experience hot condition. On street conditions, your depth perception changes because of how close you are to the walls, but we should get used to that.”

Two weeks ago, Team Penske driver Will Power said it takes a different style to get out of the race car because of the added height of the Aeroscreen.

That hasn’t been a problem for Dixon.

“That’s easy, man,” he said. “Just go through the hole in the top.”