Column: Should NHRA get with the times to grow sport? (Also, vote in poll)

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Drag racing has been one of the biggest motorsport passions of my life.

Ever since the first time I went to the now-defunct U.S. 30 Dragstrip in northwest Indiana – with the famous loud and echoing radio liner, “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, at beautiful U.S. 30 Dragstrip, where the GREAT ONES Runnnnnnn!” – in the early 1970s, I’ve been a big fan of the quarter-mile.

(By the way, for those in the Midwest who remember U.S. 30, which closed nearly 30 years ago, efforts are under way to bring it back. But I digress.)

As a reporter, I’ve covered drag racing since the early 1980s. I still get as excited today following the sport as I did back then.

But … and you probably figured a but was coming.

While the changes Peter Clifford has brought about since becoming NHRA president nearly a year and a half ago have been very positive, I’m troubled by something – and some of those in the sport as well as a number of fans feel the same way.

For background, the NHRA was founded in 1951 in Southern California by the late Wally Parks. When NHRA began holding large national events in the 1960s, it became almost a standard element that race weekends lasted three or four days. And five or six days when it came to the biggest race of the year, the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day Weekend near Indianapolis.

I’ve long heard – and continue to hear today – from numerous past and present NHRA officials that they will never NOT race on Sundays. That was non-negotiable, by Parks’ edict.

But as the 2016 season has gone by, and with just two races remaining (this weekend in Las Vegas and Nov. 10-13 in Pomona, California), I’ve noticed things that are making me wonder whether additional change to the structure and even tradition of the sport is necessary to make it grow even more.

And that means potentially changing long-held practices like mandatory racing on Sundays.

Please indulge me explanation:

This season started out stronger than most other seasons since perhaps the mid-to-late 1990s. A new TV deal with Fox Sports 1 offered promise of greater visibility and reach. And more fans were coming out to race tracks from Pomona to Gainesville, and from Indianapolis to Sonoma.

But over the last few months, things have begun to regress, including TV ratings. Also since August, NHRA has laid off several employees. Other sanctioning body employees have left on their own.

One thing I take pride in is talking regularly with not only officials of the sanctioning body but also drivers, team owners and team officials to see what’s happening in the sport.

NHRA teams are not like their NASCAR counterparts. They don’t have $20 to $30 million budgets. They don’t have as many well-heeled sponsors. Money is seemingly always tight.

Thus far this season, there have been four sellouts (and two other near-sellouts) on Saturdays at various NHRA national events. That’s quite admirable and commendable. To see the stands packed on Saturday at the U.S. Nationals outside Indianapolis for the first time in years this past September brought a huge smile to my face.

But of all the 24 races on the schedule, there has been just one full sellout of final eliminations on Sundays (at Sonoma).

While it’s great to have sellouts for qualifying on Saturday, a lot of those same fans don’t come back to watch the best part of the show on the following day – who winds up winning the event in their respective classes. Part of the reason is fans can’t pay the additional cost to return Sunday, they have to travel back home, etc.

One other thing that continues to be a big fan lure is when NHRA pro qualifying is held at night. It’s one of the best fireworks shows you’ll ever see, with flames spewing from engine headers and sparks shooting out when the cars bottom out on the track and more.

In light of the significant recent TV ratings drops, and at-track attendance taking a hit on recent Sundays when NHRA goes up against the NFL or MLB, I think it might be astute for NHRA to do some significant schedule adjustments going forward.

NHRA says it would prefer to keep weekends at the same length, says Terry Blount, NHRA Vice President of Public Relations:

Every event is subject to review at the end of the season, which we do every year. However, we believe our events work well as three-days shows. It allows our fans the option of buying full-event tickets or choosing a day that works best for them and their family.”

This is the first season in a decade where NHRA has seen sellout crowds and near sellouts at many of our events, including fall races during football season. And our attendance is up overall from a year ago, along with the incredible increase in our TV ratings for our first season on FOX Sports. It’s an indication to all of us that NHRA is trending upward and truly is the fastest growing motorsport in America.

With that, I’ll pose three questions to you, the fans, and I’d love to get your feedback in comments below this story:

1) Is it really necessary to have four qualifying rounds split over two days, and then a third day for final eliminations?

2) Might it be more affordable for fans and teams to have NHRA cut several – if not the majority – three-day race weekends to two, with one day dedicated to, say, three qualifying runs and the second day would be four final elimination rounds?

3) Do you agree that night qualifying – and potentially a few final elimination rounds run at night – would present a show that would enhance the NHRA’s popularity – not to mention become a great lure to bring more fans to the track or in front of their TVs?

Let’s hear your thoughts and we’ll potentially have a follow-up column soon.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Toyota No. 8 car wins the 24 Hours of Le Mans for third consecutive year

24 Hours of Le Mans
JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP via Getty Images
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LE MANS, France — Toyota Gazoo’s No. 8 car comfortably won the 24 Hours of Le Mans by five laps Sunday to secure a third straight victory in the prestigious endurance race.

It was also a third consecutive win for Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi and Japan’s Kazuki Nakajima driving. Brendon Hartley was the other driver, having replaced two-time Formula One champion Fernando Alonso.

Buemi and Hartley sat on the side of the car as Nakajima drove toward the podium. Hartley won for a second time after tasting success with the Porsche LMP Team in 2017 before an unhappy season in Formula One.

The Swiss team’s Rebellion No. 1 featured American driver Gustavo Menezes and Brazilian Bruno Senna – the nephew of late F1 great Ayrton Senna.

It finished one lap ahead of Toyota Gazoo’s No. 7, with Rebellion’s No. 3 finishing in fourth place.

For much of the race it looked like Toyota’s No. 7 would win after leading comfortably from pole position. But late into the night the car encountered an engine problem and the 30-minute stop in the stands proved costly.

The race was first held in 1923. A total of 252,500 spectators attended in 2019, but there were none this year when the race started three months late because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“We miss the fans,” New Zealander Hartley said. “I look forward to seeing all the fans again.”

In other divisions:

United Autosports won the LMP2 division with the entry of Filipe Albuquerque, Paul Di Resta and Phil Hanson.

–In LMGTE Pro, the victory was claimed by Aston Martin Vantage AMR of Maxime Martin, Alex Lynn and Harry Tincknell (who drives for Mazda in the DPi division of IMSA).

–TF Sport won the LMGTE Am class.

The Toyota No. 7 took pole after former F1 driver Kamui Kobayashi narrowly edged out the Rebellion No. 1 team in qualifying.

In damp and humid conditions Mike Conway got away cleanly from the start, while Senna held off Buemi.

After nearly seven hours, Toyota’s No. 8 fell back after a 10-minute stop in the stands to fix a brake-cooling problem on Kazuki Nakajima’s car. Rebellion’s No. 1, driven by Frenchman Norman Nato, took advantage to move into second place behind Toyota’s No. 7.

Then came the decisive moment at 2:40 a.m. as the No. 7 – also featuring Argentine Jose Maria Lopez – encountered a turbo problem. When the car came back out it was back in fourth.

“We had a few problems early in the race,” Nakajima said. “Later they had a bigger issue than us.”

Rebellion’s No. 1 encountered a problem on the hood at around 9 a.m. and the change took six minutes, allowing the Rebellion No. 3 (Nathanael Berthon-Louis Deletraz-Romain Dumas) to close the gap.

It was becoming a tight battle between the two Rebellion cars behind Toyota’s No. 8.

At 12 p.m. Rebellion No. 3 with Dumas behind the wheel was only one second ahead of No. 1 driven by Menezes. Then both cars came in for a driver change with Deletraz swapping for Dumas on a lengthy stop, and Nato for Menezes as Rebellion No. 1 suddenly moved ahead of its team rival.

Dumas, a winner in 2016 with Porsche, appeared unhappy at the strategy decision to bring his car in first and the length of the stop. There were tense explanations in the team garage.

Colombian Tatiana Calderon, an F1 test driver with Alfa Romeo, was in the Richard Mille Racing Team in the LMP2 category. She was joined by German Sophia Florsch – an F3 driver – and Dutchwoman Beitske Visser. They placed ninth out of 24 in their category.