Column: The 2020s could and should be a decade of change for NHRA

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Just like every other motorsports series in the world, the National Hot Rod Association moves into the 2020s with anticipation, excitement and hopes for bigger and better things.

But this is also a new decade that will likely mean significant changes for the straight-line sport. Ten years from now, it’s safe to say the NHRA we know today, to paraphrase an old slogan, will not be your father’s NHRA anymore.

How the sanctioning body gets through the next 10 years will go a long way toward determining its future and prolonged viability … or not. There are a number of positive signs in the sport, but there are also some grey – if not dark – clouds on the horizon that the NHRA must weather if it hopes to have future growth.

First, who will replace the legendary John Force, who for more than three decades has been the face of the NHRA? With 151 career wins and 16 championships and the sport’s most popular driver by far, Force is virtually irreplaceable.

But even though he has a lifetime contract to continue hurtling down dragstrips from Pomona to Gainesville, and certainly showed a resurgence of sorts in 2019 with his two wins, facts are facts: Force will turn 71 in May. He’s the oldest active full-time driver not just in drag racing, but all other forms of U.S. motorsports.

For far too long, NHRA has depended and relied upon Force to be its No. 1 ambassador. His colorful language and animated actions make him a fan, media and sponsor favorite.

But can anyone really expect him to race for another full decade?

Which begs the next question: Who steps up to try and fill Force’s shoes as the face of the sport? Notice I didn’t use the word “replace” because there is no way you can ever replace someone like Force.

Is the answer another Funny Car driver like Ron Capps? Robert Hight? Jack Beckman? Cruz Pedregon? They’re all great and successful drivers in their own right, but each one is also over 50 years old. And only Capps (63 wins) and Hight (51) have more than 50 career wins each and just four championships between them.

I’d be hard-pressed to believe Capps (54 years old) and Hight (50) will still be piloting a Funny Car in 2030. They’d likely be the first to admit they’ll never break Force’s wins or championships records.

Steve Torrence

What about drivers in other classes? In Top Fuel, Steve Torrence has won 36 races as well as the last two championships and is still very young (just 36 years old). He’s certainly not Force, but he has a Texas attitude and edginess bordering on cockiness – in a good way – that could propel him to become the next face of the NHRA.

There’s also Antron Brown (43 years old, three championships and 50 Top Fuel wins) and Force’s daughter, Brittany (33 years old, one championship, 10 wins). Another Force daughter, Courtney, was well on her way to becoming the second-most popular driver behind her father, but she stepped away from the sport prior to the 2019 season.

Unfortunately, that’s about it in terms of drivers that have the potential of trying to fill the elder Force’s shoes as the most popular driver in NHRA for many more years to come.

Second on the NHRA’s list of priorities should be what the sport has been built upon: numbers like elapsed time and miles per hour. But there are other numbers that are equally – if not – more important. Since the 2008 recession, attendance and TV ratings have dropped precipitously. No matter how much promotion NHRA has tried, there are far fewer fans watching the sport both in-person and on TV today than back then.

While Top Fuel and Funny Car remain the kings of the sport, other categories also continue to suffer, with Pro Stock a prime example. From its start in 1970 and on through the 1990s, the so-called doorslammers were among the most popular cars on the circuit, with drivers and fan favorites like the late Bob Glidden, Ronnie Sox, Bill Jenkins, Lee Shepherd, Darrell Alderman, Warren Johnson and Jim Yates.

But since the recession, Pro Stock has been on a major decline. NHRA has made a number of unpopular moves in the eyes of many fans, including removing hood scoops in 2016 (as well as shortened wheelie bars) that took away much of the category’s uniqueness.

Rather than continue to try and prop up Pro Stock’s flagging fortunes both from a dollar and competitive standpoint, NHRA made yet another unpopular move in 2018 when it cut the category’s schedule from 24 to 18 races (NHRA originally wanted to cut the slate to just 16 races, but faced a driver backlash).

Moves like those have also drawn the ire of car manufacturers. Or perhaps a better way to put it is most of Detroit has forgotten about NHRA and Pro Stock. Don’t believe me? How many Fords or Dodges were in the Top 10 in last year’s standings? The answer: none.

Three-time Pro Stock champ Erica Enders. Photo courtesy NHRA

In fact, 100 percent of the Top 10 drivers in 2019 all drove Chevrolet Camaros. And of the 31 drivers who competed in at least one of Pro Stock’s 18 races last season, nary a Dodge or Ford was to be found.

Sure, some of that has to do with Chevy’s superior aerodynamics and performance, but it doesn’t make NHRA look good – especially when, like NASCAR, the sanctioning body is trying to attract more manufacturers to the sport. And only NHRA can fix that by implementing new standards and rules that would make Fords, Dodges and even other brands closer in terms of competition with the Chevys.

If you’re a Ford or Dodge fan, what lure does Pro Stock have if your brand isn’t part of the field?

Third on the NHRA’s list of priorities for the new decade should be addressing the schedule, which has grown stale and lackluster. While I believe most fans would still like to see each season start and end at AutoClub Raceway in Pomona, California, there are alterations made to the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national event calendar that could potentially attract more fans:

* The NHRA could easily cut two races at Charlotte to just one (keep the spring four-wide race, ditch the fall playoff race). The sport’s pristine Lucas Oil Raceway in suburban Indianapolis, home of the U.S. Nationals, could easily accommodate a second race each year, perhaps in early May, one week before IndyCar’s Indy Grand Prix.

Or, perhaps NHRA could run a Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening show on Grand Prix weekend so that folks at Indianapolis Motor Speedway could drive 10 miles west and enjoy drag racing under the lights. It’s a built-in audience.

* Drop Virginia and Topeka from the schedule and give second races each season to Gainesville Raceway, home of March’s extremely popular Gatornationals, as well as Texas Motorplex. Gainesville could easily take Charlotte’s second race date in the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs, while Texas could replace Virginia or Topeka, perhaps in mid-to-late May.

* I’d also like to see the current playoff race near St. Louis be moved to the 18-race “regular season,” perhaps in early June.

* NHRA fans have long complained about the track makeup of the playoffs. While I’d welcome keeping Reading (Pennsylvania) and adding Gainesville to the mix, there’s one race that I’ve also long advocated should be part of the playoffs – and it wouldn’t require any major move or addition.

Action under the lights at Gainesville Raceway. Photo courtesy NHRA.

That’s Lucas Oil Raceway. While the U.S. Nationals is the biggest race of the season, it leaves kind of a deflated feeling when nothing else can compare to it in the subsequent playoffs, save for the season finale at Pomona.

NHRA could very easily alter the playoffs to start with Indy (and keep it in its traditional Labor Day Weekend slot), and follow it up with Reading, Gainesville, Texas, Las Vegas and Pomona.

* One other point to make: the NHRA constantly must battle the NFL, college football and NASCAR from September until its finale in mid-November. Might it behoove the sanctioning body to see the schedule end earlier, perhaps the third or fourth week of October?

That way, the NHRA championship in particular doesn’t get lost in the shuffle of NASCAR’s 2-3 final playoff races, not to mention some of the busiest and most intense parts of both the pre-playoff NFL and NCAA football schedules.

Granted, there’s a lot to digest here, NHRA fans, but what are your thoughts? Leave your comments below.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Supercross: Eli Tomac has the long game in mind

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Racing is reaction. A split-second hesitation means missing the holeshot. A decision about how hard to charge into a corner, side-by-side another rider, is made without bothering to engage one’s consciousness. The tiniest things make the biggest difference. With a late-race pass at Daytona in the Monster Energy Supercross series, Eli Tomac wrested the lead from Ken Roczen and broke a tie atop the points standing. But just barely.

Tomac is the defending winner of the Lucas Oil Pro Motocross championship. In fact, he enters with the last three titles to his credit, but the Supercross championship has eluded him.

“This wouldn’t be about beating Ken,” Tomac told NBC Sports. “This would be about getting that first Supercross title. I feel like it’s the most wanted title that we have currently in our racing. It’s the one sponsors look at the most, so I want it really bad. It doesn’t matter who I’m battling with, I want to be that guy with the (red) plate at the end of the year.”

Daytona was Round 10 of what was supposed to be a 17-round Supercross season. After a winner was crowned in the indoor arenas, the riders would have moved to longer, faster outdoor tracks. They would have had two weeks to prepare for Motocross.

If the past three seasons are an example, the Motocross season is of little concern. Tomac dominated that series and has amassed 23 career wins there.

The story has not been the same in Supercross. He finished second in the 2015 and 2017 standings. He was third in 2018 and then back up to second last year. But while he keeps coming close, he’s had to watch as two new winners were crowned in the past two years.

Jason Anderson took the title in 2018, which was a bit of a surprise.

Last year was even more shocking as Cooper Webb entered the season without a single Supercross victory and left with the championship.

Tomac has the wins. Daytona was his 32nd in Supercross series. He’s simply missing the big red plate that signifies the championship to hang on his wall.

“I’ve been able to accomplish everything I can except get the championship,” Tomac said. “I have so many race wins and I look at those more than the second-place finishes in the championship. Second-place in the championship, people don’t remember. Some people remember race wins.

“Most of the time, they remember the championship.”

Eli Tomac’s pass on Ken Roczen at Daytona might well be the pivotal point in his season. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

Daytona was pivotal.

One week earlier, Tomac took a significant points lead into Atlanta and saw it evaporate. He got off to a slow start and was mired in traffic. One of his split-second decisions proved to be the wrong one and he crashed midway through the race before mounting a charge to return to the top five. Tomac finished fourth. Roczen won after getting a fast start.

They left Atlanta tied for the lead.

At Daytona, the story was the same for most of the race. Roczen led Lap 1. Tomac got a slow start and had to battle his way to the front.

“Going back to the Daytona race, it’s a track that requires a lot of patience, even though I didn’t start up front,” Tomac said. “You’re always going to make mistakes, you just try minimize them as much as you can. That’s where I made the majority of my passes: from guys making mistakes. That was my game plan going into the race, to try and have a mistake-free ride.

“In my mind, I’ve put in all this work to get into second-place at this point and then I see Roczen in front. I feel like I can keep digging at that point. I had more in the tank, so I didn’t want to stop. I never do unless I’m in the lead. So that was my mindset.”

Roczen finished less than a second behind to hand the championship lead back to Tomac by a narrow three-point margin.

“(Roczen is) a competitor that you can trust,” Tomac said. “That’s the nice thing about racing Ken is that he’s predictable. There are certain riders on the track that you may not even be comfortable going on to the next jump with. If I’m going to be battling guys, Ken is a great competitor to go against.”

MORE: Eli Tomac and Justin Barcia feud at Atlanta

MORE: Ken Roczen still has a shot at the championship

And then racing came to a screeching halt as the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic required all live events to be postponed so fans could practice social distancing.

After Daytona, seven more Supercross rounds were scheduled to be run with only a short break for Easter. That race should have come at about the two-thirds mark and as riders headed back to shorter, tighter tracks to end the season.

But the pandemic has made Daytona the final Supercross season before Motocross begins. And it might yet make it even more pivotal in both championships. With its long straights, Daytona is a hybrid that has as many characteristics in common with the outdoor season as it does with indoors. It provides a bridge between the two disciplines.

Supercross is mentally grueling. The tight confines of indoor arenas make it a technical track were the smallest bobble has the biggest impact.

Motocross is physically demanding. The toll on the body is intense, but after that season winds down, riders typically have several months to recuperate before heading into the next year.

Tomac’s back has been a familiar site to the other riders in recent seasons. Feld Entertainment, Inc.

In 2020, riders will have to shake off the dust and take their battered bodies back inside and refocus that mental energy.

“It’s going to be hard to manage your energy levels and just go and race all the way through September and October, if that happens and If everything stays somewhat current now,” Tomac said. “You’re going to have to have a lot of long-game in mind. That’s going to be key because the Motocross season wears on you physically.

“It’s going to be really tough to make the transition. At the beginning of Supercross you always feel like you have a few races to get warmed up and in the groove. But at this point in the game if we race in September and October, there is no getting back in the groove. It’s totally new for everyone. The other positive is that I have the lead, even though it’s minimal. I’m in the best position I can be in.”

If Tomac can do what he’s done for the past three seasons, interjecting some outdoor races in the middle of Supercross could play to his advantage. A fourth championship, if that is what happens, will give Tomac a ton of confidence before the final rounds of the Supercross season occurs.

If he does not win the championship for the first time since 2016, he’ll be hungry. But one way or another, Tomac will convince himself that he is the rider to beat.

“(The lead) is the best position to be in and it may turn out have paid off very well to be in the points’ lead (after Daytona),” Tomac said. “There is so much unknown there.”

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