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.

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