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


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.

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With throaty roar, NASCAR Next Gen Camaro is taking Le Mans by storm on global stage

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

LE MANS, France — The V8 engine of the NASCAR Chevrolet Camaro has a distinct growl that cannot go unnoticed even among the most elite sports cars in the world at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

When the Hendrick Motorsports crew fired up the car inside Garage 56, NASCAR chairman Jim France broke into a huge grin and gave a thumbs up.

“The only guy who didn’t cover his ears,” laughed seven-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson.

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France has been waiting since 1962 – the year his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., brought him to his first 24 Hours of Le Mans – to hear the roar of a stock car at the most prestigious endurance race in the world.

A path finally opened when NASCAR developed its Next Gen car, which debuted last year. France worked out a deal to enter a car in a specialized “Innovative Car” class designed to showcase technology and development. The effort would be part of NASCAR’s 75th celebration and it comes as Le Mans marks its 100th.

Once he had the approval, France persuaded Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear – NASCAR’s winningest team, manufacturer and tire supplier – to build a car capable of running the twice-around-the-clock race.

The race doesn’t start until Saturday, but NASCAR’s arrival has already been wildly embraced and France could not be more thrilled.

“Dad’s vision, to be able to follow it, it took awhile to follow it up, and my goal was to outdo what he accomplished,” France told The Associated Press. “I just hope we don’t fall on our ass.”

The car is in a class of its own and not racing anyone else in the 62-car field. But the lineup of 2010 Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller, 2009 Formula One champion Jenson Button and Johnson has been fast enough; Rockenfeller put down a qualifying lap that was faster than every car in the GTE AM class by a full three seconds.

The Hendrick Motorsports crew won its class in the pit stop competition and finished fifth overall as the only team using a manual jack against teams exclusively using air jacks. Rick Hendrick said he could not be prouder of the showing his organization has made even before race day.

“When we said we’re gonna do it, I said, ‘Look, we can’t do this half-assed. I want to be as sharp as anybody out there,” Hendrick told AP. “I don’t want to be any less than any other team here. And just to see the reaction from the crowd, people are so excited about this car. My granddaughter has been sending me all these TikTok things that fans are making about NASCAR being at Le Mans.”

This isn’t NASCAR’s first attempt to run Le Mans. The late France Sr. brokered a deal in 1976, as America celebrated its bicentennial, to bring two cars to compete in the Grand International class and NASCAR selected the teams. Herschel McGriff and his son, Doug, drove a Wedge-powered, Olympia Beer-sponsored Dodge Charger, and Junie Donlavey piloted a Ford Torino shared by Richard Brooks and Dick Hutcherson.

Neither car came close to finishing the race. McGriff, now 95 and inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in January, is in Le Mans as France’s guest, clad head-to-toe in the noticeable Garage 56 uniforms.

“I threw a lot of hints that I would like to come. And I’ve been treated as royalty,” McGriff said. “This is unbelievable to me. I recognize nothing but I’m anxious to see everything. I’ve been watching and seeing pictures and I can certainly see the fans love their NASCAR.”

The goal is to finish the full race Sunday and, just maybe, beat cars from other classes. Should they pull off the feat, the driver trio wants its own podium celebration.

“I think people will talk about this car for a long, long time,” said Rockenfeller, who along with sports car driver Jordan Taylor did much of the development alongside crew chief Chad Knaus and Greg Ives, a former crew chief who stepped into a projects role at Hendrick this year.

“When we started with the Cup car, we felt already there was so much potential,” Rockenfeller said. “And then we tweaked it. And we go faster, and faster, at Le Mans on the SIM. But you never know until you hit the real track, and to be actually faster than the SIM. Everybody in the paddock, all the drivers, they come up and they are, ‘Wow, this is so cool,’ and they were impressed by the pit stops. We’ve overachieved, almost, and now of course the goal is to run for 24 hours.”

The car completed a full 24-hour test at Sebring, Florida, earlier this year, Knaus said, and is capable of finishing the race. Button believes NASCAR will leave a lasting impression no matter what happens.

“If you haven’t seen this car live yet, it’s an absolute beast,” Button said. “When you see and hear it go by, it just puts a massive smile on your face.”

For Hendrick, the effort is the first in his newfound embrace of racing outside NASCAR, the stock car series founded long ago in the American South. Aside from the Le Mans project, he will own the Indy car that Kyle Larson drives for Arrow McLaren in next year’s Indianapolis 500 and it will be sponsored by his automotive company.

“If you’d have told me I’d be racing at Le Mans and Indianapolis within the same year, I’d never have believed you,” Hendrick told AP. “But we’re doing both and we’re going to do it right.”

Le Mans 24 Hour Race - Car Parade
Fans gather around the NASCAR Next Gen Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 that is the Garage 56 entry for the 100th 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de la Sarthe (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).

General Motors is celebrating the achievement with a 2024 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 Garage 56 Edition and only 56 will be available to collectors later this year.

“Even though Chevrolet has been racing since its inception in 1911, we’ve never done anything quite like Garage 56,” said GM President Mark Reuss. “A NASCAR stock car running at Le Mans is something fans doubted they would see again.”

The race hasn’t even started yet, but Hendrick has enjoyed it so much that he doesn’t want the project to end.

“It’s like a shame to go through all this and do all this, and then Sunday it’s done,” Hendrick said. “It’s just really special to be here.”