NHRA plans to return to racing with fans in the stands, access to pits


While NASCAR prepares to play host to races without fans during the COVID-19 pandemic, the president of the National Hot Rod Association vows to resume drag racing in early June with fans in the stands and pits.

“Our goal is to go back racing with fans,” NHRA president Glen Cromwell said in an exclusive interview with NBC Sports, promising new social distancing measures for crowds that would be phased in slowly. “We are the most fan-friendly (sport). I think that’s what separates our sport from everybody else, the accessibility and interaction that our sport has. I just don’t see it (racing) happening without fans.

“If there was a model that worked for us and do it without fans, we would, of course, explore it, but right now we’re putting 100 percent of our efforts behind racing with fans, as soon as we can.”

NHRA is scheduled to return June 5-7 in Gainesville, Florida, with one of the largest races of the season, the Gatornationals.

The race originally was scheduled March 12-16 before the national event schedule was put on hold because of the pandemic.

NHRA president Glen Cromwell vows the sanctioning body will return to racing with fans in the stands in early June.

The NHRA is the largest sanctioning body in drag racing and oversees several racing series, most notably the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, which is primarily for professional teams and national events. It also includes the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, which oversees primarily sportsman and amateur racing.

The rescheduled Gainesville event will be followed by 16 more races – with several events potentially shortened from four or three days to just two – to make for a 19-race overall season. That would be five short of the usual 24-race schedule that has been in place for several years.

The first two races of the 2020 season — Pomona, California and Phoenix, Arizona — were completed before the hiatus. Including Gainesville, the series is slated to run four consecutive weekends: June 12-14 (Houston), June 19-21 (Bristol, Tennessee) and June 25-28 (Norwalk, Ohio).

After a week off, the NHRA schedule is slated to resume with four consecutive weekends: July 9-12 (Joliet, Illinois), followed by the annual “Western Swing” of July 17-19 (Denver), July 24-26 (Sonoma, California) and July 31-August 2 (Seattle).

Nine other events are planned afterward through mid-November. The annual six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs have been eliminated for this year.

If NHRA is unable to run both Gainesville and Houston because of pandemic restrictions, those events would be rescheduled in the fall.

“We’re trying to get back to racing ASAP,” Cromwell said. “Our race teams are chomping at the bit to get out there. I talk to them on a daily basis.

“We’re working with state and local officials as well as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) to make sure that when we do come back, we want to come back in a very responsible and safe way.

“We want to make sure our fans, race teams, sponsors, racetracks, employees, everybody is safe before we get back.”

If restrictions prevent NHRA from racing in some states, the sanctioning body already has a number of contingency and backup plans ready to be implemented, Cromwell said.

“Our goal is to put a schedule together that we believe is the most responsible and safe schedule we can,” he said. “If we go to a certain state that does not allow us to race with fans, we’ll have to make a decision at that time on how to address that.”

Cromwell said if the pandemic continues to keep states essentially closed, then the schedule could be reduced.

“Whether it’s 19 or 17 or 16 (races that eventually are run), we’re looking at everything,” he said. “As you get later into the year, the weekends get tighter. We think it’s important to make sure whatever we do, we keep the integrity of the championship in place, which we think we need quite a few events to make that happen.”

NHRA is expected to offer an update on its 2020 plan on May 4, and it won’t include racing without fans, Cromwell said.

Part of that is simple revenue dynamics that are unlike NASCAR, which is able to sustain itself off a multibillion-dollar TV rights package. NHRA doesn’t have that type of revenue stream, and the operational costs of revenue-driven events without paying fans would be too financially prohibitive.

That creates a conundrum of sorts, given that NHRA is arguably the most liberal major professional sport when it comes to allowing fans unfettered access that includes crowds of fans that cluster around race teams in the pits

Some of the most popular teams (such as John Force’s) draw crowds sometimes of 100 or more fans at a time shoulder to shoulder, eager to get a look or a driver autograph.

Racing with fans could come with risks.

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, head of President Trump’s coronavirus task force, told the New York Times in a story Wednesday story that he remains concerned about holding pro sports during the pandemic.

“If you can’t guarantee safety, then unfortunately you’re going to have to bite the bullet and say, ‘We may have to go without this sport for this season,'” Fauci told the Times, adding, “I would love to be able to have all sports back,” Dr. Fauci said. “But as a health official and a physician and a scientist, I have to say, right now, when you look at the country, we’re not ready for that yet.”

With social distancing one of the most significant ways to combat the virus, NHRA is looking at various ways to give fans access in a more controlled manner, particularly in the pits.

“If we’re going to do events with fans, we have to give our fans the ability to touch our sport the way they have,” Cromwell said. “To limit them, to close the pits, that is part of the value and excitement of what makes us different.

“That’s what’s appealing of coming to a Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event: meet the stars, see the crew guys work on the cars. To really take that away, I think, would be a disservice to the fans. It’s important we get them in those locations in a safe manner and take all the health protection we can put out there to make sure they’re safe.

“It’s going to be a phased-in program, a slow process. … We want to make sure fans feel comfortable around other people.”

The Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, essentially a minor league of sorts for amateur and sportsman racers, could be an important litmus test for the premier Mello Yello Drag Racing Series and its national events.

The first LODRS events – in Tulsa, Oklahoma; Las Vegas and Numidia, Pennsylvania – are scheduled on the same weekend as the planned Gatornationals, and will help NHRA devise a safety and participation baseline if they are successful without significant health repercussions.

“(LODRS events) usually have 300 to 500 cars, and fans can be 2,000 to 5,000 per day,” Cromwell said. “It would allow us the ability to make sure we’re comfortable (to run national events).

“We’re spending a tremendous amount of time on an NHRA health protection plan that is designed to make sure we are responsible for the race teams, tracks, employees, all the stakeholders, everything from wearing a mask to sanitizing solutions, just making sure everything is very clean and people feel comfortable. That will be a big part of it, making sure everyone feels comfortable coming back to the race track, which we will make sure that happens.”

Some tracks – particularly small, local facilities – already are planning on opening in the next few weeks, Cromwell said.

On April 15, Bill Bader Jr., owner of Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk, Ohio, announced he was opening the facility immediately for amateur and sportsman racers in the northern Ohio area, only to walk back those comments last weekend.

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Seattle Supercross by the numbers: Three riders separated by 17 points


Three riders remain locked in a tight battle with 17 points separating the leader Cooper Webb from third-place Chase Sexton and these are only a few Supercross numbers to consider entering Seattle.

Seattle Supercross numbers
Chase Sexton made a statement in Detroit with his second win of 2023. – Feld Motor Sports

For the fifth time in 10 rounds. Sexton, Webb, and Eli Tomac shared the podium in Detroit. Between them, the trio has taken 23 podiums, leaving only seven for the remainder of the field. Jason Anderson, Ken Roczen and Justin Barcia have two each with Aaron Plessinger scoring the other.

Webb and Tomac won the last four championships with two apiece in alternating years, but they were not one another’s primary rival for most of those seasons. On the average, however, the past four years show an incredible similarity with average points earned of 21.0 for Webb and 21.3 for Tomac. With five wins so far this season, Tomac (23 wins) leads Webb (19) in victories but Webb (43) edges Tomac (41) in podium finishes during this span.

Tomac has won two of the last three Seattle races and those two wins in this stadium are topped only by James Stewart. Fittingly, if Tomac gets a third win this week, he will tie Stewart for second on the all-time wins’ list. Tomac tied Ricky Carmichael for third with 48 wins at Oakland and took sole possession of that spot with his Daytona win.

Sexton still has a lot to say and after winning last week in Detroit, he is speaking up. The Supercross numbers are against him entering Seattle, however, because a points’ deficit this large after Round 10 has been erased only once. In 1983 David Bailey was 47 points behind Bob Hannah, and like Sexton he was also in third place. Bailey took the points’ lead with one race remaining.

The seven points Sexton was penalized last week for jumping in a red cross flag section in Detroit could prove extremely costly.

In fact, it has been a series of mistakes that has cost Sexton the most. In the last two weeks, he lost 10 points with a 10th-place finish to go with his penalty. Erase those, and all three riders hold their fate in their hands.

Plessinger’s heartbreak in Detroit is still fresh, but the upside of his run is that was his best of the season and could turn his fortunes around. Prior to that race, he led only seven laps in three mains. He was up front for 20 laps in Detroit with five of those being the fastest on the track.

Last week’s win by Hunter Lawrence tied him with his brother Jett Lawrence for 17th on the all-time wins’ list. With the focus shifting to 250 West for the next two rounds, Jett has a great opportunity to pull back ahead. The real test will be at the first East / West Showdown in East Rutherford, New Jersey on April 22.

Last Five Seattle Winners

2022: Eli Tomac
2019: Marvin Musquin
2018: Eli Tomac
2017: Marvin Musquin
2014: Ryan Villopoto

2022: Hunter Lawrence
2019: Dylan Ferrandis
2018: Aaron Plessinger
2017: Aaron Plessinger
2014: Cole Seely

By the Numbers

Anaheim 2
San Diego

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SMX develops “Leader Lights”
Power Rankings after Detroit
Hunter Lawrence defends Haiden Deegan
Results and points after Detroit
Chase Sexton wins in Detroit, penalized seven points