NHRA: Bringing back former stars may bring back fans, attract new ones

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As Peter Clifford prepares for his first full season as president of the National Hot Rod Association in 2016, one of his chief priorities is to build the sport and attract new fans.

In NHRA parlance, “new” is another word for “young.” And in trying to attract new, young fans, the NHRA is showcasing many of its younger drivers as attention getters for fans, like sisters Courtney and Brittany Force, two-time Pro Stock champ Erica Enders, five-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champ Andrew Hines, Morgan Lucas, Richie Crampton, Leah Pritchett, Shawn Langdon and many more.

When it comes to Clifford’s and NHRA’s strategy, I get it. The earlier a young fan can get hooked, then you typically will have him or her for life.

But in its quest to attract a generation of new, young fans, NHRA has inadvertently forgotten about its older, lifelong fans – not to mention some of its all-time greats.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard from older fans that have followed NHRA for 20, 30, 40 or more years, and the theme is almost always the same: they miss the old days, and in particular, the stars of yesterday.

Where’s Kenny Bernstein? What’s Don “Snake” Prudhomme up to these days? How about Joe Amato or Gary Scelzi? We miss Shirley Muldowney. What’s Tom “Mongoose” McEwen doing in retirement? How about Bob Glidden? Ed “Ace” McCulloch? Frank Hawley? “Big Daddy” Don Garlits?

The list can go on and on.

Those names and many more like them were the foundation upon which the NHRA was built upon. They had the greatest star power, the biggest followings and an aura that fans connected with.

Unfortunately, we rarely hear about – let alone see – any of them anymore. Sure, a few of the former greats may be trotted out each year at races like the U.S. Nationals, the Winternationals or the World Finals to hob-nob with the fans and relive so many great memories.

But it never seems to be enough.

Which got me thinking about how the NHRA could not only re-introduce some of the sport’s greats to new fans today, but also use them as lures to bring back old fans to drag strips from Englishtown to Pomona.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when I covered the NHRA for USA Today, one of the most popular sidelight shows was celebrity races. I was in more than my share of them, but one stood out in, I believe it was, 1989.

It was at the season-opening Winternationals and among the celebrities I got to race against included budding country music superstar Dwight Yoakum and actress Christina (“Married With Children”) Applegate, Los Angeles TV weathercaster Dallas Rains (quite appropriate name, indeed) and the immortal actor Stoney Jackson (who?).

We all raced identically-prepared cars and took our tasks very seriously. I don’t remember who ultimately won, but fans were stuck to their seats in the stands watching all of us channel our inner Garlits or Prudhomme or Bernstein.

And after we mashed the gas, all of the celebs mingled with hundreds of fans, signing autographs, taking photos, etc.

The celebrity races eventually morphed into media races, but the concept was still the same: equally-prepared cars and talent was the ultimate arbiter.

The more I reflected on past races I competed in, the more I thought how much fun it would be to see some of yesteryear’s greats back behind the wheel.

I’m not talking about a Top Fuel dragster or Funny Car, but equally-prepared street cars. The greats of yesteryear could participate in, say, eight races per season at some of the NHRA’s largest markets like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York (Englishtown), Reading, Gainesville and a few other select places.

I’m willing to bet Ford, Chevy, Dodge or Toyota would all be willing to pop for, say, eight equally-prepared cars to have the former greats compete in. And it’d likely attract some big-name sponsors, maybe organizations like AARP and the like. It would be a Senior Tour unlike any we’ve seen in any other sport to date.

If having the chance to watch Bernstein or Prudhomme race again was promoted right, fans would turn out. In other words, build it and they (fans) will come.

Have the celebs stick around for photos and autograph sessions, and I almost guarantee you that by the time the day was over, it’d be a toss-up to see who had more enjoyment: the fans or former drivers.

I’ll even go so far as to encourage NHRA to form a panel of former drivers to serve in an advisory capacity to help the sanctioning body improve performance and attendance.

Look at IndyCar’s Long Beach Grand Prix and its celebrity race. It’s not unusual to see crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 watching some of their favorite actors, singers and athletes racing to the finish line – and potentially trading some paint along the way (much to the chagrin of race promoters who have to pay for the damage).

Tell me, NHRA fans, if you’ve scaled back or simply stopped attending NHRA races over the last decade or so, would you be inclined to come back if it meant having the chance to mingle once again with your favorite drivers of a bygone era?

The NHRA will find itself in a very difficult position when the last remaining superstar retires – if he ever retires – namely, John Force. That’s why there is such a great push to ingratiate fans and ingrain them with today’s young stars, who likely will be around for another 10-20 years or more.

But in promoting upcoming races and using the names of Enders, the Force sisters and others, I can guarantee if the NHRA throws in “special appearances” and “celebrity races” including the likes of Bernstein, Scelzi, Prudhomme and others, that would likely sway many a fan to buy a ticket to take a walk down memory lane.

One of the biggest problems NHRA faces today is having older fans relate to younger drivers – and vice-versa. But if you bring back Cha Cha, Snake, Mongoose, Big Daddy, Ace and the like, even if they’re just there to shake hands, sign autographs and pose for pictures, the goodwill – and ticket sales – would be immeasurable.

What do you think? Are you an old-time NHRA fan who misses some of your favorite drivers? Either leave your comments below or vote in the attached poll and let us know your thoughts.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).