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

The Thermal Club wants an IndyCar race, and series executives liked its initial impact at test

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THERMAL, Calif. – Many teams in the NTT IndyCar Series questioned the relevancy of having a two-day preseason test at The Thermal Club.

The team owners, drivers and engineers believed the 17-turn, 3.067-mile race course that winds and twists its way through a gated private community (about 45 minutes southeast of Palm Springs) had no relevance to any track on the 17-race schedule.

To the leaders of IndyCar, however, there was plenty of relevance to hosting its “Spring Training” at a sort of motorsports country club that caters to extremely wealthy residents who also are automotive enthusiasts.

“Both with our stakeholders and the media that covers IndyCar, we wanted them to know that we are going to do things differently,” Penske Entertainment CEO Mark Miles told NBC Sports from the private VIP viewing area that overlooks the long straights and twisting turns of the course. “This is going to be a year when we expect our growth to go to a whole new level.

“What better way to send that message than to be at a place we have never been that is exceptional?

“The quality of this place; the facilities are off the charts. The customer service, the welcoming feeling you get from the staff here. The track itself is fast. The drivers are having a great time on it.

FRIDAY SPEEDSThird session l Fourth session l Combined

‘AN AMAZING PLACE’: IndyCar and its big plans for Thermal

“It really sent a message to our other promoters and our drivers and team owners that something is up. We want fans around the country and the sports industry to know that something is going on with IndyCar this year.”

The Thermal Club is a concept driven by Tim Rogers, who made his fortune by supplying gasoline to 7-Eleven stores in 36 states. He wanted to create a private community that mixed multimillion-dollar homes and luxury villas with a high-speed race course.

The two-day IndyCar “Spring Training” was the most ambitious motorsports project yet for The Thermal Club.

Rogers wants it to be the first step in a long-term goal for the community.

“Our endgame is we want to host an IndyCar Series race at The Thermal Club one day,” Rogers told NBC Sports as IndyCar hit the track again Friday morning. “This was a good trial to see how the facility can handle it and if the facility works for them.”

Felix Rosenqvist makes laps in the No. 6 Arrow McLaren Dallara-Chevrolet during the first day of NTT IndyCar Series testing (Andy Abeyta/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY Sports Images).

The two-day test was closed to the general public. It was open only to credentialed news media, members of the Thermal Club and a limited number of their guests.

With the spectacular backdrop of the Coachella Valley that is rimmed with snow-capped mountains, The Thermal Club could provide a great setting for an NBC telecast of an IndyCar Series race (and possibly line up a big sponsor for a return on its investment with a larger than normal audience during a ripe time such as the first weekend of February).

NASCAR is using that same model Sunday at the Los Angeles Coliseum by hosting the Busch Light Clash. The National Football League’s AFC and NFC Championship games were last weekend and next Sunday is the Super Bowl.

“That could work, but we have room where we could separate the public and the private members area, too,” Rogers said. “We could accommodate 4,000 or so of the general public.

“This would be a premium event for a premium crowd.”


Rogers’ dream of The Thermal Club began 11 years ago. He will talk to IndyCar about a return for Spring Training next year with hopes of getting a date on the schedule for 2025.

“Whatever fits,” Rogers said.

Miles and Penske Entertainment, the owners of IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Indianapolis 500, realize Rogers has an ambitious dream of getting a race on the schedule.

Miles, however, isn’t ready to indicate that a race at Thermal is part of IndyCar’s future (though drivers seem open to the concept).

“Tim and everybody at The Thermal Club have done a phenomenal job of being hosts here for this test,” Miles said. “Everybody is very happy we are here, and I expect we will find a way to continue to be here. Whether that means a race and when is really a bridge we aren’t ready to cross yet.

“We really like opening the championship season each year in St. Petersburg, Florida. We’ll have to see. But it’s a great way to start the season in this way, and right now, we are happy to be here.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Defending IndyCar champion Will Power takes laps at The Thermal Club during the first day of the track’s first test (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

On track, it was a successful two-day test session with 27 car/driver combinations that will compete in IndyCar in 2023. It’s the largest field for IndyCar since the 1990s. There were a few spins here and there but no major incidents across 2,560 laps.

Kyle Kirkwood led the final session Friday while getting acquainted with his new No. 27 team at Andretti Autosport. Kirkwood has replaced Alexander Rossi at Andretti, whom Kirkwood drove for in Indy Lights.

His time of 1 minute, 38.827 seconds (111.721 mph) around the 3.067-mile road course was the fastest of the fourth and final session. But the fastest speed over two days was defending Indy 500 winner Marcus Ericsson of Chip Ganassi Racing in the Friday morning session (1:38.4228, 112.182 mph in the No. 8 Honda).

Callum Ilott of Juncos Hollinger Racing was second in the final session at 1:38.8404 (111.707 mph) in the No. 77 Chevrolet. Rookie Marcus Armstrong of New Zealand was third at 1:38.8049 (111.707 mph) in the No. 11 Honda for Chip Ganassi Racing. Alex Palou of Chip Ganassi Racing was fourth at 1:38.8718 (111.672 mph) in the No. 10. Defending NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske rounded out the top five at 1:38.9341 (111.602 mph) in the No. 12 Chevrolet.

Ericsson was the fastest in combined times followed by Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing’s Christian Lundgaard at 1:38.5682 in the No. 45 Honda, Kirkwood, Ilott and Armstrong. Positions 3-5 speeds were from the final practice session on Friday.

Indycar Series Test - Day 1
With members’ houses in the background, Romain Grosjean navigates the turns of The Thermal Club in his No. 28 Dallara-Honda (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

Drivers didn’t know what to expect before hitting the track. After the two-day test was over, NBC Sports asked several drivers what they learned from The Thermal Club.

“I think it’s a first-class facility, no doubt,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Josef Newgarden of Team Penske said. “I think the entire facility here at Thermal really rolled out the red carpet for us. They did a tremendous job.

“It was a fairly flawless test, I would say, for two days. I think the great thing about this was we had a two-day test, which was fantastic. You got to have this warmup; this preseason build. That was the biggest positive for me, is that we were here, we were running cars. It was a great facility to do it at.

IndyCar Thermal Club test
Josef Newgarden said his No. 2 team (which has a new lead engineer) used The Thermal Club test as an opportunity for building cohesion (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).
Indycar Series Test - Day 2
Josef Newgarden (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

“I think the track was a lot more fun than we anticipated. It was challenging, definitely technical. I don’t know how relevant it is. For us, it wasn’t really relevant to anywhere we’re going, but that’s OK.”

But even though the track has no sector particularly similar to any road or street course on the schedule, there still were benefits.

“In a lot of ways, it is relevant,” Newgarden said. “For us it was relevant for building the team up, trying to work in a competitive environment, be competitive together. That’s everything. So regardless of is the setup going to apply to a certain track or another, (it) doesn’t really matter.

“For us, it was applying the principles of how we’re going to work together. From that standpoint, it was very productive for everybody. Raceability-wise, it’s hard to say. It was chewing tires up. Big drop-off from run one to two. I think from a race standpoint, that would be quite positive. You’d have big tire deg here.

“You’d have to do more work on runoff areas if we wanted to race here, but it’s possible. I don’t think it would take much effort to do the things to run an actual race.”


Indycar Series Test - Day 1
Will Power (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

Kirkwood found speed in his Andretti Autosport machine, but he used the test to create a smooth working relationship with his new crew.

“I wouldn’t say that we found something here that is going to translate to anywhere, right?” the 2021 Indy Lights champion said. “This is a very unique track, although it was a lot of fun to drive, and it kind of surprised me in the amount of grip that it actually produced.

“It was quite a bit faster than what we expected.”

Many of the NTT IndyCar Series teams will test later this month at Sebring, Florida, as they prepare for the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg to kick off the season March 5.

“It’s a very nice facility, a nice area, it’s pretty cool to have two days of testing here with a lot of high-profile people,” two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Will Power of Team Penske told NBC Sports. “It’s a very technical, tough track.

“It’s pretty good.”

Indycar Series Test - Day 2
IndyCar drivers turns laps on the second day of testing at The Thermal Club, which is nestled in the Coachella Valley that is ringed by mountains in Southern California (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images).

The Thermal Club received rave reviews, welcomed IndyCar and provided exposure to the movers and shakers of the business community that own the luxury villas and homes in this ultra-rich community.

Could it be a venue of the future for a series that sells lifestyle as much as on-track competition?

“This is a fantastic facility and the circuit is a fast circuit,” team owner Bobby Rahal told NBC Sports. “It’s pretty exciting to watch the cars run around here. I think it would be attractive to people.

“I’ll leave that up to Mark Miles and (IndyCar President) Jay Frye and everybody else whether we have a race here, but why not?

“It’s a great place.”

Follow Bruce Martin on Twitter at @BruceMartin_500