Mike Dunn working to take International Hot Rod Association to next level in drag racing

Photos courtesy IHRA
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He isn’t Dunn by any means. Rather, he’s just getting started.

On Wednesday, veteran drag racer and broadcaster Mike Dunn will celebrate his first anniversary as president of the International Hot Rod Association.

And while both he and the organization have undergone some growing pains over the last year, the future is looking bright.

The West Palm Beach, Florida-based IHRA is the second-largest sanctioning body in drag racing. While Dunn made his biggest impact in both racing and broadcasting with the larger National Hot Rod Association, the IHRA presents a unique challenge that he is enjoying.

ihra-president-mike-dunn“Good drag racing is good drag racing, it doesn’t matter (if it’s NHRA or IHRA),” Dunn said. “I came into this with an open mind.

“(IHRA) was a good show but trying to get people to come was a challenge. One of the reasons why is it has gone through so many different undulations over the years with different ownerships and stuff, I think the IHRA fan just didn’t know what they were getting anymore because the program had changed.

“We want to get fans to come back out and see what the IHRA is all about and look at the racing that exists and see that it’s good.”

Admittedly, the IHRA has taken somewhat of a step back in 2017. It has placed national event championship racing — including Top Fuel and Funny Car — on a one-season hiatus.

“We hit some bumps in the road the first year,” Dunn admits. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy. We didn’t get the TV package signed in time, so we decided to postpone the pro series until 2018.”

Rather, the IHRA will focus this season on its lifeblood, and from where the organization sprung from — the Sportsman ranks — with the Summit Sportsman National Championship series.

“A lot of our fans, especially our core fans, have some type of connection to Sportsman racing, local racing, bracket racing or them going out there racing or they know a family member that races, or a friend or a cousin,” Dunn said. “It seems like the fans I deal with all have that connection and it all goes back to Sportsman racing. It’s the foundation of the sport and what we all build on.

“We had to make a complete change to make it more viable, and we took the Sportsman Series, which was good, and I believe we made it better. We changed the format around and have gotten great response off of that.”

The 2017 SSNC schedule, which will run from February through September, will feature 30 races, two per weekend at 15 IHRA-sanctioned tracks in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, South Carolina, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Ohio.

The season opening race is this weekend at Immokalee (Fla.) Regional Raceway.

The IHRA announced Monday that 13 of those race weekends will be streamed live online on ESPN3 as part of a multi-year agreement that will expand to include the return of professional class national events in 2018.

But IHRA Top Fuel and Funny Car fans won’t be completely overlooked in 2017. Dunn noted that there will be special exhibition appearances by select Top Fuel dragsters and Funny cars at several of this season’s 15 SSNC events.

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During his own driving career, Dunn recorded 22 NHRA national event wins in Top Fuel and Funny Car, as well as one win in IHRA competition.

After retiring from driving, he spent 14 years broadcasting NHRA races on ESPN. Shortly after NHRA chose a different announcing team when it moved to Fox Sports in 2016, Dunn received a call from Chris Lencheski (CEO of IHRA parent company IRGS+E).

“Chris said he wanted me to be president of the IHRA,” Dunn said, adding with a laugh, “so I said to him, ‘Why would you want to do that?’”

But the more they spoke – a conversation that lasted more than 10 hours over several days – Dunn warmed to the idea.

“Chris told me his plans and what he wanted to do,” Dunn said. “I liked the plan and said I definitely could help a lot. We have some good people in the IHRA. I made a few suggestions and we just went from there.”

As Dunn begins the second year of his three-year contract with IHRA, changes and upgrades will continue. In addition to next season’s return of the pro series for Top Fuel and Funny Car, one of the biggest items on Dunn’s IHRA agenda is international expansion.

“The IHRA is the International Hot Rod Association and I’d like to see it more of an international series and international entity,” Dunn said. “We went into Australia last year, we sanctioned some tracks down there and the 400 Thunder Series and have gotten a nice jump in memberships off of that. That’s become very successful.

“We’re trying to figure out how we can incorporate that into a championship series and into other countries. The logistics to do that are challenging at best, but we have some ideas on how possibly to do that as we build.

“We’re not going to obviously jump right in and have a Formula One-style series for drag racing off the bat because we’d lose a lot more money then. But there are some ways I think we can get creative to establish our foothold, like we’ve done in Australia and we’re looking into other areas like New Zealand, Asia, Mexico and have some events in Canada. That’s what I envision.”

Dunn knows that taking on the NHRA – he calls it “the other organization” – is somewhat of a David vs. Goliath battle. But at the same time, he still sees room for growth for the IHRA even in the NHRA’s shadow.

“The NHRA has a good product and they pretty much have the domestic side locked up,” Dunn said. “We’d be nuts to try and go head-to-head with them because they have a good product and they have the resources.

“But that doesn’t mean we can’t go into different markets, have a little bit of a different look and try to create new things. I’d also like to get new fans involved.

“I’d like to see drag racing just grow, period. I believe I can do this. I have the right people and the budget to do it … and let them go out and do their jobs.

“Even though we had some missteps and are restructuring this year, I still believe in that philosophy.”

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Roger Penske, Chip Ganassi bring their storied rivalry to a new level at Rolex 24

Ganassi Penske Rolex 24
Chris Owens/Penske Entertainment
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To measure the impact of Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi squaring off for the first time in overall sports car wins (starting at the Rolex 24), look at the auto racing titans’ lineups.

There are 12 combined drivers across four entries representing Chip Ganassi Racing (competing as Cadillac Racing) and Team Penske (as Porsche Penske Motorsport) in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona.

And with the possible exception of six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon, none of those behind the wheel is as famous and accomplished as the U.S. motorsports icons who will be sitting atop the pit stands at Daytona International Speedway.

In the NTT IndyCar Series, Penske and Ganassi are synonymous with success, having combined for 23 Indy 500 victories and 30 championships. They also competed in the NASCAR Cup Series for two decades with several signature wins for each.

DETAILS FOR THE 61ST ROLEX 24How to watch, entry lists, schedules for the IMSA season opener

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN GTPRolex 24 at Daytona kicks off new golden era for sports cars

Until now, the rivalry never extended to the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, where they competed in different classes from 2018-19 and have competed in the top category in differing times over the years.

But the 2023 season opener at Daytona will mark the beginning of a new era in which Ganassi and Penske will compete for sports car overall victories on two continents. A Ganassi Cadillac Racing V-LMDh and Porsche Penske Motorsports Penske 963 will run full time in both the premier prototype divisions of IMSA and the European-based World Endurance Championship – whose crown jewel is the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Having two of the world’s biggest sports car races welcome the Ganassi-Penske battle seems only fitting in a season in which IMSA’s new Grand Touring Prototype (GTP) class is expected to introduce a stiffer level of competition.

“We obviously like beating each other,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “I think if you beat Penske, you know you’ve beaten someone. You’ve accomplished something great. It’s going to be the same as always. Just another platform at another track, but the rivalry will be just as heated I’m sure.

“On one hand, he’s always the first guy to call us out for a penalty or something. On the other hand, he’s also the first guy to congratulate me on a win, so I think it’s a healthy rivalry, but we certainly pound each other’s heads into the ground on race day. Monday through Friday it switches to more of a good relationship.”

After starting his career in sports cars, Penske also is looking forward to having a new arena to race Ganassi.

“There is a lot of anticipation and excitement about the Rolex 24 and the upcoming sports car season overall,” Penske said in a statement to NBC Sports statement. “With the new hybrid prototype formula ready to make its debut, and some great competition expected on the track between teams, drivers and manufacturers, there is a lot of momentum building right now. Porsche Penske Motorsport is excited to compete in both the IMSA WeatherTech Championship, as well as the FIA World Endurance Championship, this season and I can’t wait to see the No. 6 and No. 7 Porsche 963s in action at Daytona this weekend. We also look forward to bringing some new rivalries and storylines to the sport.

Roger Penske confers with Chip Ganassi before the 2013 Honda Indy Toronto (Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports Images).

“In the new IMSA GTP class, there should be a good competitive balance between Porsche, Cadillac, Acura and BMW. We have seen how the rivalry between Team Penske and Ganassi Racing has developed in the NTT IndyCar Series in recent years, and that could certainly extend to sports cars as our teams and drivers continue to develop the new formula and push the production on track in both IMSA and WEC. We will see how the competition plays out, starting this weekend, as we always enjoy racing against Chip and his teams.”

Though there have been some fiery moments over the years (Dario Franchitti vs. Will Power, anyone?), Ganassi vs. Penske mostly has been a story of respect between two organizations whose main strengths are people.

“It’s just the depth of the organizations going up against each other,” Ganassi said. “It’s not just he and I. It’s at every level of the organization.

“We’re smaller. I’d like to think we’re a little more nimble. This is all I do is race cars. I don’t have 200 car dealerships or a truck rental company or a transportation company. I just have racing is all I have.”

Heading into Saturday’s Rolex 24 at Daytona, here are the thoughts of Ganassi and Penske drivers in the Rolex 24 at Daytona:


Earl Bamber, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “When I grew up as a kid, I remember watching Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske battle each other for many years, obviously following Scott Dixon and his career in IndyCar (Bamber is a New Zealand native like Dixon). And when the opportunity came up to come and race for Chip, it’s a no-brainer. It’s one of those teams you want to drive for in the world. It’s one of the biggest and most successful teams in the world. And then we’ve got Porsche, where I used to drive, with Penske. It’s going to be a phenomenal rivalry over the next couple of years and that rivalry continues between two absolute legends of our sport. Two people who have been the most successful. I hope we can get Cadillac and Chip their first Le Mans win. That’s obviously the ultimate goal for us and beat his old rival, Roger.

“Those two powerhouses of the sport, they definitely raise the bar. You’ve seen it in IndyCar for years and years. One finds something and the next pushes it forward and forward. You’ll see the same in sports car racing. We all saw what Chip Ganassi Racing did back in the day with the GT program. So no doubt we can do the same again. It’s the ultimate highest level of motorsport when it comes to sports car racing, and there’ll be no stone unturned to make sure that we’re winning these races. It will be a really great fight, great for the fans and great for the sport, because both of them love winning.”

Dane Cameron, No. 6 Porsche Penske: “I think anytime you have Chip and Roger come to town to start fighting for wins, it raises the profile of the whole thing. Hopefully it brings a few more eyes to everything. Certainly brings a lot of expectation with it as well, and I also think it reflects really strongly on the championship to show how competitive it is. They respect the championship and challenge, but when they come to town, they come to win for sure.”

Scott Dixon, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “The battle between Chip Ganassi Racing and Penske is always a fierce one. I obviously know it well from the IndyCar side. But I think it’s a lot more than that. It’s impressive to see a lot of the manufacturers that have come in for this battle. I imagine if it’s not from the first race but during the season that Penske and Ganassi will fight it out pretty hard.

“I think the rivalry between Chip Ganassi racing and Penske has always been strong and in a good way. There’s been some battles and the 2010s for me and other drivers when it gets fierce. Some disagreements here and there. But it’s always been a great pure battle, which is what I think these championships are made of and what brings the fans to the track. So I’d sum it up as a very healthy rivalry.”

Alex Lynn, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “Even as a little boy (growing up in England), you knew exactly who Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi were. You knew what their teams represented. For me to represent Chip and his team is a huge honor. I’m extremely motivated to try to add to his legacy and be part of the fabric of this team. I think having the battle between Penske and Ganassi is iconic. Also Porsche and Cadillac as brands, respectively, just adds to the occasion. Makes me smile even thinking about it knowing what we get to represent when the flag drops.”

Felipe Nasr, No. 7 Porsche Penske: “I think it’s fantastic especially because we’re merging the IMSA and WEC Series and giving the opportunity for teams like Penske and Ganassi to fight for overall victories. You look at the history of those teams, they’ve been on top. We always hear it from the IndyCar guys or the NASCAR side, you’re talking two big names in motorsports. You expect nothing but them fighting for wins. For sure Ganassi has strengths, and we have strengths as well. I’m pretty glad I have the opportunity to be representing Team Penske and continue to write history with them and Porsche is a great opportunity.”

Richard Westbrook, No. 02 Ganassi Cadillac: “The chance for the two most famous teams in America to go head to head in the Daytona 24 Hours and also the Le Mans 24 Hours. I expect that rivalry to keep going up more notches.”

Renger van der Zande, No. 01 Ganassi Cadillac: “Obviously, it’s such the big houses of racing in the U.S. Penske and Ganassi are taking it at each other. The rivalry is big. The best of the best. The most famous ones in the U.S.

“Ganassi is part of Cadillac. We’re the race team that runs the factory program for Cadillac. Penske is running it for Porsche, obviously a high brand as well. Those teams have their little rivalry, but they’re working for a bigger company, a bigger brand, which is Cadillac and Porsche. So those two premium brands taking on each other and then two of the best teams in America taking on each other. It’s very simple: Cadillac got the best team in the U.S. and Porsche got the best team in the U.S. So let’s see what happens. It’s going to be a cool fight.”