Photos courtesy NHRA

Column: Why NHRA needs to prepare now for the post-John Force era

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While the start of the 2018 NHRA season is still a month away, I’m already looking beyond what’s to come and instead thinking about the sport’s future.

I’d like to talk about three things in particular. Think of them as three columns in one – with one key related outcome at the end.

First off, Peter Clifford has been promoted from president of the sanctioning body to its first-ever Chief Executive Officer. And as of New Years Day, Glen Cromwell has been officially promoted to assume Clifford’s former role as president.

Like Clifford, Cromwell is essentially a lifer at NHRA and it is expected he will continue the programs and changes Clifford implemented in his 2 ½ years as president.

But one thing is certain: the future of the NHRA is solidly in Cromwell’s hands.

Second, the NHRA’s own version of P.T. Barnum, the sport’s greatest promoter as well as its greatest driver ever, John Force, will turn 69 in May.

While still competitive and the biggest force – no pun intended – within the sport, one must wonder just how much longer Force will continue racing.

He’s said previously that several of his current contracts will expire at the end of the 2019 season, when he’ll be 70 years old. Will that also mark the end of Force’s career?

John and Brittany Force

Realistically, how long will John Force be able to continue on behind the wheel? That his daughter, Brittany, won the 2017 NHRA Top Fuel title, and son-in-law Robert Hight won his second Funny Car title, as well, is encouraging that John Force Racing will continue for many years to come with Brittany, sister Courtney and Hight (also president of John Force Racing) even if John Force retires at some point.

Yet at the same time, what will the sport become without John Force? You know that day is coming – and perhaps sooner than many of us may want to think about.

John Force has been the face of the NHRA for pretty much the last 30 years. No other driver even comes close to him in wins (148) or championships (16) – and no one likely ever will in the future.

He’s been the biggest asset the sport has had when it comes to selling tickets. Folks oftentimes buy tickets to NHRA events to see Force first and the rest of the other drivers second.

What will the sport become when John finally does hang up his firesuit? Will Brittany, Courtney, or some of the other young drivers in the sport be able to have the marketability, attention-getting and ticket selling prowess that John Force has had?

And thirdly, there’s one of my biggest concerns about the sport going forward – particularly when John Force climbs out of his Funny Car for the last time.

It’s no secret that NHRA, like NASCAR, IndyCar and most other forms of motorsports is hurting when it comes to sponsorship. Let’s face it, the multi-million sponsorship dollars that were so prominent in the 1990s and the first part of the 2000s have been substantially cut.

Peter Clifford (photo) has moved up to become the NHRA’s first CEO. He’s been replaced by Glen Cromwell, who assumed presidency of the sanctioning body on New Years Day.

Even the best-funded teams are hurting in NHRA, oftentimes having trouble finding enough dollars to get through the entire 24-race Mello Yello NHRA Drag Racing Series.

And how many times have we seen less than full 16-car fields in races in the last few years? In 2017, we saw several races with less than full fields in Pro Stock and Top Fuel, and if I’m not mistaken, at least one short Funny Car field. It’s a definite concern, for sure.

So what do all three of those items have to do with one another? Plenty – and the sooner the NHRA starts thinking in that direction, the stronger its future will look.

The NHRA has to decide going forward what it wants to be, plain and simple – or what it needs to be, particularly in the PF era – Post-Force, that is.

Sure, it’s still the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the country, with over 70,000 members, not just its pro ranks, but also its thousands of sportsman racers.

Hopefully, Cromwell will do what his predecessors – Wally Parks, Dallas Gardner, Tom Compton and Clifford – didn’t do: get with the times and evolve the sanctioning body into a modern-day entity, rather than be stuck in the same time warp it has been in for the last 20 to 30 years.

Change must come to the NHRA in several ways, most notably race weekends and event schedules.

Do we REALLY need three-day pro race weekends? Do Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock teams REALLY need four qualifying passes (typically two on Friday and two others on Saturday) in every national event weekend?

The days of fans coming to Friday, Saturday and Sunday for an NHRA event weekend are all but over. Between ticket prices, travel and potentially 2-3 nights of hotels, food, gas, etc., many fans have been priced out of going to tracks from Pomona to Epping.

Plus, the NHRA’s old business model of mixing the pro ranks with sportsman classes simply isn’t working any more. Don’t believe me? Have you been to a NHRA national event over the last few years? What happens when the pros finish up a particular round and hand the track over to the sportsman drivers?

Answer: the stands typically empty by at least half. Usually the only folks left in the stands are either fans or friends of some of the sportsman drivers.

When the sportsman drivers attempt to show their skills, most other fans go out to the food court or product midway. Sure, those racing fans eventually go back to the stands, but usually not until the next pro round of qualifying or eliminations.

While it may be difficult to make changes for 2018, certainly 2019 could – and should – see some major significant changes, provided NHRA starts listening to its drivers, team owners, crew chiefs, media and fans, all who have been clamoring for change rather than the same old, outdated thing.

New NHRA president Glen Cromwell, who assumed his new position on New Year’s Day.

That’s been easier said than done over the sport’s history. For too long, it’s been NHRA’s way or the highway. That has to change, lest the sport will slip into virtual anonymity, particularly after John Force retires. Why do you think the NHRA wants Force to stick around forever? Even if he stops being competitive, his name and appearance will still sell tickets – and money is often the name of the game with the NHRA.

I’ve covered NHRA for more than 30 years and during that time I’ve easily talked to hundreds of competitors and team owners, not to mention countless fans. They’re almost unanimous in their comments on the fate and future of the sport.

Based upon many of those conversations, here’s some suggestions for changes the NHRA should implement, as well as my own personal perspective.

1) Cut most national event weekends to two days. Do we really need to have four qualifying/practice runs? Can’t we get along with one day of qualifying of two rounds (including one round at night for the visual effect fans love) and then final eliminations on the following day? I firmly believe fans would be more amenable to attending two days of national events this way, given they wouldn’t have to pay for a third day – not to mention the race-related expenses (like travel and hotels) they’d incur.

2) It’s long overdue to split the pro ranks from the sportsman ranks. If NHRA still wants to have sportsman drivers compete in national events, let them race on Fridays (and potentially even on Thursdays), if not at their own separate races and locations. Leave Saturday and Sunday to the pros only.

3) In addition, run NHRA’s so-called semi-pro cars on the same days as the pros to fill in the time that would previously have been filled by sportsman drivers on track. In other words, Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car, along with Pro Modifieds, would not only easily fill the Sportsman driver hole on Saturday and Sunday, it’s no secret they already have a very healthy and loyal fan base that sportsman drivers just don’t have. I’d also increase the number of events for Pro Stock Motorcycles from 16 to 20 races per season.

4) NHRA has to decide what kind of organization it is going to be under Cromwell’s leadership. It no longer can be all things to everybody, pro and amateur driver alike. If, by shortening race weekends or revamping them entirely, it will definitely save money in the process – which almost every team is clamoring for – and that’s for the betterment of everyone: the organization, its teams and its fans. A perfect model to follow would be the example set by NASCAR. It’s version of sportsman drivers – those in the ranks including the K&N Pro Series, Whelen Modifieds, etc. – have their own series and racing venues. Sure, there may be a Cup race weekend or two that the lower-level drivers will have a race to compete in, but for the most part, they’re their own standalone entities. NHRA should pursue that path.

Many of you know how passionate I am about motorsports, particularly NHRA. It was my first exposure to any form of racing back as a teenager, and it’s a love affair that I have happily continued for several decades since.

But this is a different day and different era than when I and so many of you fans were kids or teens and when we first fell in love with drag racing.

As much as we wish he would be immortal, the reality is John Force isn’t going to race – or live – forever. It’s time the NHRA makes significant changes in preparation for the Post-Force era before it happens so that it can preserve its own future.

NHRA Texas winners: B. Torrence, Hagan, Anderson, Savoie

Photo and videos courtesy NHRA
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Defending NHRA Top Fuel champion Steve Torrence is a proud Texan who hates to lose. But if there’s one person Torrence likely doesn’t mind seeing win if he can’t reach the winner’s circle – particularly if it’s on home turf – it’s father Billy.

Steve was cheering his father on as the latter boosted his own championship hopes Sunday by winning the Top Fuel category in the final eliminations of the 34th annual AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals in the Dallas suburb of Ennis, Texas.

Billy Torrence (3.775 seconds at 319.67 mph) defeated Jordan Vandergriff (4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph in his first career final round) for his fourth win of the season, including his second win in the first four races of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs. With the fifth Top Fuel triumph of his career, the elder Torrence moved into fourth in the Top Fuel standings, just 71 points behind his son with two races remaining in the Countdown.

Even though Billy’s son lost in the opening round Sunday, he still leads the Top Fuel standings, holding a 33-point lead over second-ranked Doug Kalitta and a 46-point lead over third-ranked and the weekend’s No. 1 qualifier, Brittany Force.

Sunday marked the third consecutive win in this year’s playoffs for the father-son combo and their second straight triumph at Dallas (Steve won there last year as part of an unprecedented sweep of the six-race Countdown en route to the championship).

It’s home turf and we love to race here,” Billy Torrence said after visiting the winner’s circle. “We’ve raced here our whole career and we have a lot of fans here. There’s no better place to race than Dallas, Texas, and we did have the best car today.

It has been very humbling, and we’ve been very blessed and fortunate to have the success we’ve had. We’ve got a great group of guys on both cars and our success is just a testament to the work these guys do. I think that we’re probably the second-best car in the country, with Steve having the best. We’ve had a stellar season.”

In Funny Car: Matt Hagan (3.909 seconds at 327.59 mph) roared to his third win of the season – as well as his third at the Motorplex – and the 32nd victory of his career, defeating Bob Tasca (3.928 seconds at 323.12 mph). Hagan also moved up to fourth in the standings.

We had a great race car today,” Hagan said. “Qualifying was pretty tough, but to turn on four win lights was pretty huge. (Tasca) is a great driver and those guys are good, so I’m glad things turned out the way they did.

We’re just trying to keep some momentum going, keep doing our job and control what we can control. It was a pretty special weekend. We’ve just got to keep digging and keep working. I love this sport and it’s been a big part of my life for 10 years. I knew (crew chief Dickie Venables) was tuned in and you could see he was confident, and that builds confidence in me.”

Robert Hight continues to lead the Funny Car standings, followed by Jack Beckman (70 points back) and No. 1 qualifier John Force (74 points back).

In Pro Stock: Greg Anderson (6.609 seconds at 209.75 mph) defeated longtime rival Jeg Coughlin Jr. (6.610 seconds at 207.56 mph) to earn his third win of the season, fifth of his career at the Motorplex and 94th of his overall Pro Stock career.

It was the 102nd time Anderson and Coughlin, who qualified No. 1 for the weekend, have met each other in a race, including the 21st time in the final round.

We’ve had so many titanic clashes with so much on the line, and I knew it would be close,” said Anderson, who is seventh in points. “It’s a total team effort and that’s what it takes to win a national event in Pro Stock right now. You’ve got to have perfection every time out there.

We made a lot of changes this week and we hit on it. It showed it on Saturday and I knew coming into today we had a chance. Now it’s a matter of if I can drive the car well enough. I can’t tell you who’s going to win this thing because everybody right now can beat everybody else.”

Erica Enders held on to her lead in the category, but saw the margin over second-ranked Matt Hartford drop to only 28 points. Coughlin is third (-65 points) and Anderson is seventh (-99 points).

In Pro Stock Motorcycle: Jerry “Alligator Farmer” Savoie (6.881 seconds at 195.90 mph) took a big step towards potentially earning his second PSM championship in the last three seasons, defeating three-time champion Eddie Krawiec (6.901 seconds at 195.62 mph).

It was Savoie’s third win of the season and 12th of his career. It’s also his second win in the first four playoff races and fifth straight appearance in the final round at the Motorplex. He’s now third in the PSM standings, 94 points behind five-time champion Andrew Hines.

It was a great day and we knew we had a good bike coming in,” Savoie said. “We said if we held our composure we could win this thing. For the most part, tracks favor certain riders and we’ve been blessed here. It’s a great place and today was great.

Bottom line, I want a championship just as bad as anybody else, so whoever is in my way I’m going to do everything I can to try and beat them. I felt good and we’ve got a great team. To me, this win gives you more hope and means a lot. This gives you that window of opportunity where you could win a championship again.”

NOTES: Only two races remain this season: Las Vegas in two weeks (Oct. 31 – Nov. 3) and Pomona, California four weeks from now (Nov. 14 – 17).

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FINAL FINISHING ORDER

TOP FUEL: 1. Billy Torrence; 2. Jordan Vandergriff; 3. Brittany Force; 4. Austin Prock; 5. Leah Pritchett; 6. Antron Brown; 7. Shawn Reed; 8. Lee Callaway; 9. Steve Torrence; 10. Terry McMillen; 11. Doug Kalitta; 12. Kebin Kinsley; 13. Mike Salinas; 14. Cameron Ferre; 15. Clay Millican; 16. Richie Crampton.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Matt Hagan; 2. Bob Tasca III; 3. John Force; 4. Robert Hight; 5. Tommy Johnson Jr.; 6. J.R. Todd; 7. Jack Beckman; 8. Shawn Langdon; 9. Tim Wilkerson; 10. Ron Capps; 11. Paul Lee; 12. Blake Alexander; 13. Cruz Pedregon; 14. Jim Campbell; 15. Jeff Arend; 16. Jonnie Lindberg.

PRO STOCK: 1. Greg Anderson; 2. Jeg Coughlin; 3. Deric Kramer; 4. Matt Hartford; 5. Erica Enders; 6. Chris McGaha; 7. Aaron Stanfield; 8. Bo Butner; 9. Jason Line; 10. Fernando Cuadra Jr.; 11. Val Smeland; 12. Kenny Delco; 13. Shane Tucker; 14. Fernando Cuadra; 15. Alex Laughlin; 16. Richie Stevens.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Jerry Savoie; 2. Eddie Krawiec; 3. Angelle Sampey; 4. Andrew Hines; 5. Steve Johnson; 6. Karen Stoffer; 7. Scotty Pollacheck; 8. Matt Smith; 9. Hector Arana; 10. Ryan Oehler; 11. Angie Smith; 12. Hector Arana Jr; 13. Kelly Clontz; 14. Michael Ray; 15. Jianna Salinas.

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FINAL RESULTS

TOP FUEL: Billy Torrence, 3.775 seconds, 319.67 mph def. Jordan Vandergriff, 4.299 seconds, 246.03 mph.

FUNNY CAR: Matt Hagan, Dodge Charger, 3.909, 327.59 def. Bob Tasca III, Ford Mustang, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: Greg Anderson, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 209.75 def. Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.881, 195.90 def. Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.901, 195.62.

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FINAL ROUND-BY-ROUND RESULTS

TOP FUEL: ROUND ONE — Jordan Vandergriff, 3.746, 321.12 def. Clay Millican, 4.099, 219.72; Austin Prock, 3.688, 334.40 def. Doug Kalitta, 3.812, 316.15; Lee Callaway, 3.794, 313.66 def. Mike Salinas, 3.856, 318.69; Brittany Force, 3.694, 330.31 def. Cameron Ferre, 3.984, 269.19; Leah Pritchett, 3.724, 324.12 def. Kebin Kinsley, 3.822, 263.51; Billy Torrence, 3.733, 327.35 def. Terry McMillen, 3.756, 325.77; Shawn Reed, 3.728, 327.51 def. Steve Torrence, 3.733, 319.52; Antron Brown, 3.743, 329.58 def. Richie Crampton, 4.330, 186.61; QUARTERFINALS — Vandergriff, 3.753, 322.73 def. Callaway, 9.885, 82.51; B. Torrence, 3.767, 325.69 def. Reed, 4.861, 154.60; Prock, 3.742, 330.39 def. Pritchett, 3.964, 250.55; Force, 3.815, 319.60 def. Brown, 4.113, 230.72; SEMIFINALS — B. Torrence, 3.747, 328.38 def. Force, 3.793, 318.32; Vandergriff, 3.824, 316.97 def. Prock, 3.864, 294.95; FINAL — B. Torrence, 3.775, 319.67 def. Vandergriff, 4.299, 246.03.

FUNNY CAR: ROUND ONE — Jack Beckman, Dodge Charger, 3.896, 328.86 def. Ron Capps, Charger, 3.955, 326.79; Robert Hight, Chevy Camaro, 3.908, 327.03 def. Jim Campbell, Charger, 4.375, 219.54; John Force, Camaro, 3.926, 328.14 def. Jeff Arend, Ford Mustang, 7.353, 96.26; J.R. Todd, Toyota Camry, 3.911, 327.19 def. Cruz Pedregon, Charger, 4.342, 209.20; Bob Tasca III, Mustang, 3.873, 327.19 def. Jonnie Lindberg, Mustang, 15.205, 57.93; Matt Hagan, Charger, 3.903, 329.58 def. Blake Alexander, Mustang, 4.007, 280.19; Shawn Langdon, Camry, 3.925, 325.85 def. Tim Wilkerson, Mustang, 3.908, 323.97; Tommy Johnson Jr., Charger, 3.932, 324.05 def. Paul Lee, Charger, 3.957, 323.97; QUARTERFINALS — Hight, 3.937, 326.40 def. Langdon, 3.964, 321.35; Hagan, 3.903, 329.18 def. Todd, 3.937, 325.85; Tasca III, 3.938, 324.20 def. Beckman, 3.951, 322.42; Force, 3.937, 327.98 def. Johnson Jr., 3.919, 320.20; SEMIFINALS — Hagan, 3.900, 329.83 def. Hight, Foul – Red Light; Tasca III, 3.920, 323.89 def. Force, 3.951, 327.98; FINAL — Hagan, 3.909, 327.59 def. Tasca III, 3.928, 323.12.

PRO STOCK: ROUND ONE — Aaron Stanfield, Chevy Camaro, 6.609, 208.91 def. Kenny Delco, Camaro, 6.635, 208.68; Greg Anderson, Camaro, 6.597, 208.78 def. Jason Line, Camaro, 6.590, 208.88; Chris McGaha, Camaro, 7.964, 125.90 def. Fernando Cuadra, Camaro, Foul – Red Light; Matt Hartford, Camaro, 6.602, 207.59 def. Fernando Cuadra Jr., Camaro, 6.615, 208.17; Bo Butner, Camaro, 6.617, 208.14 def. Shane Tucker, Camaro, 6.638, 207.85; Deric Kramer, Camaro, 6.577, 209.56 def. Val Smeland, Camaro, 6.618, 208.55; Erica Enders, Camaro, 6.579, 210.11 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 7.820, 127.56; Jeg Coughlin, Camaro, 6.573, 209.49 def. Richie Stevens, Dodge Dart, Broke; QUARTERFINALS — Hartford, 6.625, 208.23 def. Butner, 6.656, 208.42; Anderson, 6.596, 210.05 def. Enders, 6.604, 210.54; Kramer, 6.611, 209.17 def. McGaha, 6.630, 208.75; Coughlin, 6.620, 208.23 def. Stanfield, 6.630, 208.46; SEMIFINALS — Coughlin, 6.609, 207.37 def. Hartford, 6.656, 207.43; Anderson, 6.628, 206.76 def. Kramer, 6.627, 208.30; FINAL — Anderson, 6.609, 209.75 def. Coughlin, 6.610, 207.56.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: ROUND ONE — Eddie Krawiec, Harley-Davidson, 6.912, 195.34 def. Ryan Oehler, 6.901, 196.33; Karen Stoffer, Suzuki, 6.863, 196.67 def. Angie Smith, 6.910, 195.65; Andrew Hines, Harley-Davidson, 6.885, 194.46 def. Hector Arana Jr, 6.933, 193.52; Angelle Sampey, Harley-Davidson, 6.903, 190.89 def. Hector Arana, Foul – Red Light; Scotty Pollacheck, 6.898, 194.21 def. Kelly Clontz, Suzuki, 6.955, 192.08; Steve Johnson, Suzuki, 6.849, 194.21 def. Michael Ray, 7.209, 155.76; Jerry Savoie, Suzuki, 6.827, 196.10 def. Jianna Salinas, Suzuki, 8.231, 104.03; Matt Smith, 6.837, 197.33 was unopposed; QUARTERFINALS — Sampey, 6.914, 193.93 def. Pollacheck, 6.918, 194.16; Hines, 6.921, 194.58 def. Johnson, 6.889, 194.35; Krawiec, 6.899, 195.76 def. M. Smith, 6.935, 196.24; Savoie, 6.857, 196.44 def. Stoffer, 6.900, 196.07; SEMIFINALS — Krawiec, 6.957, 195.48 def. Sampey, 6.989, 190.35; Savoie, 6.877, 195.76 def. Hines, 6.991, 191.51; FINAL — Savoie, 6.881, 195.90 def. Krawiec, 6.901, 195.62.

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UPDATED POINT STANDINGS

TOP FUEL: 1. Steve Torrence, 2,394; 2. Doug Kalitta, 2,361; 3. Brittany Force, 2,348; 4. Billy Torrence, 2,323; 5. Leah Pritchett, 2,290; 6. Austin Prock, 2,278; 7. Mike Salinas, 2,266; 8. Antron Brown, 2,247; 9. Richie Crampton, 2,228; 10. Clay Millican, 2,210.

FUNNY CAR: 1. Robert Hight, 2,437; 2. Jack Beckman, 2,367; 3. John Force, 2,363; 4. Matt Hagan, 2,325; 5. Bob Tasca III, 2,315; 6. Ron Capps, 2,302; 7. J.R. Todd, 2,274; 8. Tommy Johnson Jr., 2,243; 9. Shawn Langdon, 2,239; 10. Tim Wilkerson, 2,188.

PRO STOCK: 1. Erica Enders, 2,395; 2. Matt Hartford, 2,367; 3. Jeg Coughlin, 2,330; 4. Jason Line, 2,327; 5. Deric Kramer, 2,323; 6. Bo Butner, 2,321; 7. Greg Anderson, 2,296; 8. Alex Laughlin, 2,239; 9. Chris McGaha, 2,217; 10. Val Smeland, 2,124.

PRO STOCK MOTORCYCLE: 1. Andrew Hines, 2,464; 2. Karen Stoffer, 2,383; 3. Jerry Savoie, 2,370; 4. Eddie Krawiec, 2,365; 5. Matt Smith, 2,297; 6. Hector Arana Jr, 2,274; 7. Angelle Sampey, 2,248; 8. Angie Smith, 2,181; 9. Ryan Oehler, 2,159; 10. Hector Arana, 2,128.

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