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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

NHRA to expand field sizes for 2020 Countdown playoffs

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Field sizes for the NHRA’s Countdown to the Championship playoffs could substantially increase for the upcoming 2020 season, the sanctioning body announced Wednesday.

The previous standard to qualify for the playoffs was the top 10 ranked drivers following the last regular season race before the Countdown begins, the U.S. Nationals in suburban Indianapolis. That standard remains in place.

Now, in light of Wednesday’s announcement, additional drivers in both the Top Fuel and Funny Car “Nitro” classes will be eligible for the six-race Countdown playoffs if they compete in all 18 regular season events and run a minimum of two qualifying sessions at each of those 18 events.

Given that most of the 18 NHRA regular season events have as many as four qualifying sessions, the new expanded field could potentially add several Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars to the Countdown field. For example, if there are 16 full-time teams that compete in all 18 regular season races for the upcoming season, all 16 teams will likely qualify for the playoffs.

If those additional drivers meet the new standard, their point standings will also be reset after the U.S. Nationals, as has always been the case for the top 10 Countdown qualifiers.

Changes will also take place in Countdown qualifying for Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, which have smaller season schedules than their counterparts in Top Fuel and Funny Car.

In addition to those being ranked in the top 10 after the U.S. Nationals following the 13-race regular season, additional Pro Stock drivers who have competed in all 13 prior events as well as took part in a minimum of two qualifying sessions in each of those events will be eligible for the Countdown.

Because it contests only an 18-race overall season schedule, Pro Stock’s portion of the Countdown is only five races, rather than six as in Top Fuel and Funny Car.

In Pro Stock Motorcycle, which has a 16-race overall season schedule, in addition to those being ranked in the top 10 after the U.S. Nationals following the 11-race regular season, riders who have competed in all 11 regular season events and took part in a minimum of two qualifying sessions in each of those events will also be eligible for the Countdown.

As in Top Fuel and Funny Car, all Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle drivers/riders that qualify for the Countdown after the U.S. Nationals will have their points reset.

Speaking of points being reset, the NHRA also announced that heading into the Countdown, Top Fuel and Funny Car will see first and second place be separated by 20 points, while each subsequent position will be separated by a 10-point differential.

In Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle, first and second place heading into the Countdown will be separated by 20 points, while second through fifth place will be separated by 10 points and all positions below fifth place will be separated by five points.

And has been the case in the past, all drivers/riders that reach the Auto Club Finals season-ending race will earn points-and-a-half for qualifying and each round run.

According to a NHRA media release, “NHRA officials made this change in order to better reward driver endurance and encourage participation in regular season events.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski