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.
Just consider what the 86-year-old billionaire has accomplished last Sunday.
At 12:40 p.m. last Sunday, Penske greeted the massive crowd of 330,000 spectators at the 107th Indianapolis 500 and gave the command, “Drivers, Start Your Engines” to begin the big race. Since 2019, Penske has been the owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the Indianapolis 500 and IndyCar.
Over three hours later, Penske was standing on top of the Pagoda, the massive suite and command post of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, watching the dramatic conclusion of the Indy 500 with his wife, Kathy, son Greg, Penske Corp. marketing director Jonathan Gibson, and Penske Corp. president Bud Denker.
When Penske saw his driver, Josef Newgarden, cross the start/finish line as the winner, he thrust his left fist in the air in an enthusiastic fashion and celebrated with his closest associates.
“I’m up on the very top of the Pagoda and I have a screen up there with all the times of every (Team Penske) car, each lap and I have a TV and a radio that I can’t talk (to the teams) on,” Penske said. “I can go from the channels of 2 (Newgaren), 3 (Scott McLaughlin) or 12 (Will Power) just listening to where we are.
“I have my own idea to what I might have done, but when I heard (Team Penske president) Tim Cindric say we had to take our time, when he said we were on plan at 100 laps, we were actually ahead of where we wanted to be. They were saving fuel, to be in the right window, which was right on.
“It was amazing when you think about all of the things that happened. If we didn’t have that wreck on the front straightaway, it would have been different.
“It’s a crazy place. It’s rewarding. That’s why we are here to race.”
In addition to owning the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Penske is also the winningest car owner in Indy 500 history and Sunday’s win was a record-extending 19th win in the 500-Mile Race.
It was the first time Penske, the car owner, won the Indy 500 since Penske, the track owner, officially took over the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Jan. 6, 2020.
With the purchase, he also put some professional distance between himself and Team Penske after calling strategy in the race for many years.
“After you have been on your face for three of four years qualifying here, it’s nice to be up again,” Penske said. “We won nine races last year, won the championship and qualified in the back half of the field. Then we came back here this year, and we worked so hard.
“Guys have better ideas than we do. You have to hand it to them. The cars are legal, I’m sure. Rocket (IndyCar technical director Kevin Blanch) and those guys aren’t going to let that happen and we don’t want it to happen.
“We have to figure out what the magic is so we can be up front at the beginning (of the Indy 500).
“You have to take the good with the bad. You have to eat crow when you have to eat crow. I’ve had good days and bad days, but the good news is we are the same team whether we win or whether we lose and that is the most important thing.
“We are committed.”
Penske was still celebrating in Victory Lane when the placard that designates his parking spot (between the Pagoda and IMS media center) was changed from “18” to “19” to signify the number of times he has won the Indianapolis 500.
“He was hoping to get to 19, and it happened,” Penske’s son, Greg, who is the Vice Chairman of the Penske Corporation told NBC Sports. “It was special for our whole team, our family, and our 70,000-plus team members around the world. And our partners. Shell, in its first race to win with renewable fuel and it happened to be their car. They have been such a great partner over the years.
“That was so exciting to see that all come together as one team.
“It’s always a great feeling to wake up and say, ‘Man, we did this as a team, and we did this together.’
“Now, we move on to Detroit and move forward. Bud Denker and the team, it will be exciting over there, too.”
On Monday night, Penske attended the Indianapolis 500 Victory Celebration at the JW Marriott in Indianapolis. About 565 miles away, Penske’s NASCAR Cup Series team was competing in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“I watched it until I had to go to the banquet,” Penske said Thursday morning in Detroit. “Then I had my iPhone sitting on the table there.
“With 50 laps to go, I didn’t know who to watch or what to watch while I was at the (Indianapolis 500) banquet.”
One of Penske’s NASCAR drivers, Ryan Blaney, went on to win the Coca-Cola 600.
It was yet another first for Penske – the first time he won the Indianapolis 500 and the Coca-Cola 600 in the same year. The only reason it wasn’t in the same day is because the NASCAR race had been rained out and rescheduled for the following day.
The accomplishment, however, remains impressive.
“That’s what we are here for, to set goals for other people to try to achieve,” Penske said. “The 19th win at Indianapolis was long overdue when you think about the past. It was a great race. It could have been anybody’s race.
“We were able to execute at the right time.”
Penske enjoyed more success in 24 hours than most team owners or businessmen would experience in a season, or even in a career.
But Penske immediately switched his focus to this weekend’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix. The NTT IndyCar Series race is the first time this event has been contested on the streets of downtown Detroit since 1991 and is a massive undertaking.
There isn’t anything too big that Roger Penske and his team can’t accomplish, however.
“The good news is we have great weather, and we will be able to showcase the people in the city that don’t normally get a chance to go to the race at Belle Isle in the past can get a chance to come here and see what is going on,” Penske said Thursday. “The economic benefit for the city is going to be terrific.
“Mike Montri, Bud Denker and Chevrolet and the whole team, what they have put together here is an amazing job. Knowing what it takes to start fresh in a city on the city streets is amazing.”
Moving the race from Belle Isle, its home since 1992, back to the streets of Detroit is a massive undertaking, but Penske said it was time to leave the Island.
“We had a lot of noise from people because we were taking Belle Isle, a place where a lot of constituents in Detroit have weddings and things like that,” Penske said. “We cleaned up the island.
“We are going to make this a big event by coming to downtown Detroit. With the support of GM and ourselves, it was a home run.
“Last week, when the mayor of Detroit and the city council took down the 25 mph street signs and put up 200 mph, that was the day when I knew that we had made it.”
Win the Indianapolis 500 win on Sunday, the Coca-Cola 600 victory on Monday and then turning downtown Detroit into a street course and stage the race this weekend, it would be easy to expect Penske to take a break afterward.
He will be off to Le Mans for the famed 24 Hours of Le Mans Sports Car race June 10-11 with Porsche Penske Motorsport aiming for an overall victory with its 963 hybrid prototype.
“We want to win Le Mans, that is what we would like to do,” Penske said. “We have three good cars. It’s going to be competitive. The Balance of Performance, we’ll see how that works. They made some changes, but right now, I’m sure the Toyotas have the edge.
“Just to go there and compete this first year with Porsche is something we have wanted to do for a long time. It’s a quality brand, a long-term contract so we can build on it this year.”
Penske and his son Greg are constantly looking forward, instead of taking too much time to celebrate their successes.
But both men realize what a huge success last week’s Indianapolis 500 was from both a competitive and business standpoint.
“After being stewards of the place here and all the hard work that everyone has put in and the team, what they have done to get back to winning, it was exciting,” Greg Penske told NBC Sports. “We had a lot of competition. Probably the best competition we’ve ever had to race against.
“It was exciting. To be up there and see the move Josef made and how they raced. It was quite a finish for the fans and for everybody.
“Great news. No one left. It was nice to see everyone staying and they wanted to see a great finish. That was exciting.
“It was exciting for everybody.”
The massive crowd of 330,000 fans was the largest to watch the Indianapolis 500 since 350,000 fans attended the sold-out 100th running in 2016.
It serves as proof of what can be done when people such as Penske and his staff get out and promote the event.
“The Indy 500 has always been a spectacular event,” Greg Penske said. “People want to come. It’s Americana. It’s amazing when you take a look at it. The people that came here from 50 different countries and all around the world.
“There is nothing like it. To get this many people to come in, but it’s still one guest at a time. That is something that is really important to us. Every experience is a good one. We have to keep working on that. I’m sure there will be opportunities for us to execute and get even better.”
The day after the Indianapolis 500, Roger Penske spoke to a small group of reporters during the annual Indianapolis 500 victory photo shoot at the Yard of Bricks.
He emphasized it wasn’t just the size of the crowd, it was also the changing face of those in attendance.
“That was some crowd,” he said. “And it was real.
“Owning the track is something we have done over the years. When (former IMS owner) Tony George came, I didn’t realize when I said yes, what I was really signing up for.
“What we signed up for was to make it better and make it a place where everybody wants to come and have fun. The demographics, so many kids coming out here with their families.
“I stood out at Turn 3 here earlier in the week and watched those cars go into Turn 3 at 240 miles an hour and to think you can go out there for $45 with your kids and watch it. It costs me more than that to go to a movie in Detroit than to sit out there.
“This is what we have to do. It’s generational. People come here. They want to keep their tickets. If we can make it fun and exciting as it was yesterday at the end, not many people left. It was amazing that not many people left.”
Penske is involved in all aspects of his business. He revealed that he used helicopters to take overhead shots of the crowd before and after the race to help improve crowd control in future Indianapolis 500s.
“We had a helicopter every half hour from 7:30 a.m. on taking pictures so we could sit down as a team and look exactly how the place filled up and how it was at closing,” Penske explained. “We can look at where we had pinch points. That’s the most important thing, to make it easier to get in and easier to get out.
“Over in the Snake Pit, there are some things we can do where people can sit on the mounds.
“We had two screens on the back straightaway that were temporary. I want to put a big screen on the back of the grandstands coming off Turn 4 – a big one – so that when you are on the viewing mounds, you can see. Those are the things we have to do and that will only make it a better experience and to grow it.
“I don’t want to take any credit for filling it up. What we are doing is trying to take a product that took 106 years to build into what it is. All we are trying to do is sustain it and bring it up to the current standards from the standpoint of expectations. Whether it’s you as a family or kid, it’s whatever you have.
“That’s how we run our business.
“No risk, no reward. It was great.”
Penske has taken plenty of risks during his career, but he is calculated with every move that he takes when guiding his race team, or his business empire.
That is why he is able to enjoy the tremendous rewards that come with his success.
“Every victory for us and for the team and for my father, what he has been able to build over the years, it is exciting for all of us,” Greg Penske admitted. “He feels the same way.
“Being on top of the podium, as we all know, never gets old. But it takes execution, and it takes hard work.
“The teams here and how they commit to be here and make sure we are successful; I’ve never seen it so competition. Think about qualifying being 14 inches over 10 miles. That’s a pretty close margin.
“It’s always exciting. For him to continue to drive and to work the way he does is pretty amazing.
“I’ve had a front row seat for that and I’m very excited to be a part of it.”