NHRA COVID-19
Jerry Foss/NHRA via AP

NHRA tries to find financial footing after COVID-19 shutdown

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BROWNSBURG, Ind. — Two-time Funny Car world champion Matt Hagan heard the stories from NHRA throughout the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic-forced shutdown.

Furloughed crew members sought out odd jobs to pay bills. Some of his teammates started driving cement trucks. And Hagan thought about how his father, a car dealership owner, continued paying employees despite losing millions during the recession that hit in 2008.

Eventually, Hagan concluded, the world’s premier drag-racing series must get back to work.

“A lot of people, like my wrench guys, they don’t have anything else,” Hagan said as the NHRA cranked back up in Indianapolis last weekend. “So I appreciate the NHRA taking the steps needed to keep these guys employed and say we’re taking a step forward, toward getting back to normal.”

“Normal” has been a relative term this year for the NHRA, which just announced Friday morning the postponement of two more national events and the addition of Indianapolis.

With their series shut down for 138 days, NHRA officials spent months revising schedules, grappling with how to bring fans back and reassuring sponsors it would be safe – even with the potential of another shutdown if the recent spike in positive COVID-19 tests continues.

After the first two restart plans fell apart, last weekend went smoothly as fans milled about Lucas Oil Raceway over three sun-drenched days. The series will return to the same venue for Summernationals this weekend.

NHRA President Glen Cromwell acknowledged roughly 75% of series employees went on furlough during the COVID-19 pandemic, and those who didn’t took pay cuts.

The most glaring difference last weekend was the absence of John Force Racing amid speculation the team had lost too many sponsorship dollars to compete. Team spokeswoman Sara Slaughter declined comment.

Still, Cromwell insists the series is in a strong position because none of its primary sponsors walked away.

“I think sponsors at all levels are evaluating their investments, but I think that speaks volumes about the NHRA and a lot of the race team sponsors that they stuck by us,” he said. “They believe in the sport. The NHRA is in a stable position, and I think we’re in a good place.”

At the grassroots level, drag racing might be in the strongest position of any racing series.

While only about 20% of race venues in the U.S. and Canada are drag strips, Tim Frost, publisher of National Speedway Directory, estimates 250,000 of the roughly 400,000 American racers are dragsters.

The reason: It’s cheaper and draws larger fields, which leads to bigger purses.

Can the NHRA continue to draw big crowds under the new guidelines of COVID-19?

Fans must pass temperature checks and wear face coverings before entering, and ticket sales have been limited to 10-15% of Indy’s capacity, which normally seats 30,000 to 40,000 for U.S. Nationals in September.

At least it’s a start.

“It feels good, it feels really good to be back doing what we do and the fans have been so supportive,” said Antron Brown, a three-time top fuel world champion. “You see them out here, coming up to you to show their support. It just feels good to come back and give them some action.”

Some die-hard fans couldn’t wait to experience the roar of the chest-thumping 11,000-horsepower engines or breathe in the indescribable mixture of burning rubber and burning fuel.

Organizers did not announce an official attendance for last weekend. According to sportsmediawatch.com, a rare NHRA appearance on the FOX broadcast network drew a rating of a 0.46, or 689,000 viewers, down from a 0.6 rating and 920,000 viewers from FOX’s first telecast last season.

Series officials are hoping for better results in Colorado, Minnesota, Kansas and Atlanta before returning to Indy in early September for the U.S. Nationals and the rescheduled All-Stars competition.

And with payouts and jobs on the line, the NHRA needs bigger crowds, better television ratings and steady sponsorship to stay on schedule as it tries to thrive in a sports world starved for competition.

“We have to have fans at the race because they pay the purses and we need to have sponsors to run these cars,” Hagan said. “There comes a time when you have to make a decision about what you’re going to do. Nobody wants to lose lives. But it’s almost like if you don’t do this, it gets to a point where starving to death is a lot more scary than catching the virus.”

Oliver Askew: ‘I was starting to lose confidence’ after ‘hardest hit I’ve had’

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Oliver Askew knew something was medically wrong in the days after concussion-like symptoms began from “the hardest hit I’ve ever had” in the Indianapolis 500. He’d been evaluated and cleared to race after the Aug. 23 crash, but he just didn’t feel right.

The IndyCar rookie told The Associated Press on Thursday he has been experiencing dizziness, sleeping difficulties, irritability, headaches and confusion since he crashed in the Aug. 23 race. He continued to race in four more events as he tried to “play through it” until friends and family encouraged him to seek medical treatment.

He since has been diagnosed with a concussion and is working on a recovery plan with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center’s sports medicine concussion program, the same place NASCAR star Dale Earnhardt Jr. received care after concussions in 2012 and ’16. Askew will not compete in next weekend’s doubleheader on the road course at Indianapolis, and Arrow McLaren SP will put three-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves in the No. 7 Chevrolet.

“This is all I’ve worked for,” the 23-year-old told AP. “I don’t come from money, and I’ve worked my way up and have finally gotten my shot in a good car. And then all of a sudden, the results just weren’t there in a car I knew should be performing. And I just didn’t feel like myself, you know?

“So initially I felt like I needed to stay in the car and continue to improve. And then I didn’t feel like I could do that with my condition and what was going on. I was starting to lose confidence in myself.”

Earnhardt praised Askew for going to Pittsburgh to see Dr. Micky Collins.

“Oliver is in the best hands when it comes to taking care of this problem and getting back on the racetrack. It was very smart of him to get in front of Micky so that he could understand the seriousness of the situation and begin the process of getting well,” Earnhardt said. “You can absolutely heal from this but not without taking the step of getting help. Often that’s the most difficult step.”

Athletes often hide injuries to continue competing, and even Earnhardt admittedly masked concussions during his driving career. Askew didn’t know what was wrong with him but was frightened to get out of the car.

He is a paid driver who brings no sponsorship money to the team (but did bring a $1 million scholarship for winning last year’s Indy Lights championship), and owner Sam Schmidt holds the option on his contract.

As he tried to race on, his performance suffered. Askew had finished third and sixth at Iowa — the previous two races before Indianapolis. After the crash, he was part of a multicar accident the next week at Gateway and has not finished higher than 14th in the four races since Indy.

A year after winning seven Indy Lights races, Askew has fallen from 12th to 18th in the standings and slipped considerably off the pace. He said he struggled in team debriefs, had difficulty giving feedback and has gone through a personality change that was noticeable to those close to Askew.

Spire Sports + Entertainment, which represents Askew and was among those who pushed the driver to see a doctor, noted Arrow McLaren SP did not reveal that Askew was suffering from a concussion in its Thursday announcement he would miss next week’s race.

“Oliver clearly demonstrated his talent until Lap 91 of the Indianapolis 500, and I hope this does not become another case study of why athletes do not tell their teams they are injured,” said agent Jeff Dickerson. “The reason they do that is because more often times than not they are replaced. In motorsports, there is always somebody to replace you, and whether it was Dale Jr. or Oliver Askew, there is always another driver available.

“I hope this is not a barrier to progress for other drivers — especially young drivers afraid of losing their job — to notify their teams they are hurt. I hope the team proves me wrong because the good news is, the kid has had a head injury for the past month and has still run 14th in IndyCar.”

After finally seeking medical treatment, Askew said he was relieved to learn there was something wrong. He said doctors told him the injury has a “100% recovery rate” and he believes he will be able to race in the IndyCar season finale next month at St. Petersburg. He’s been rehabilitating with exercises and tasks that strain the brain such as deliberately going to grocery stores and the airport.

“Honestly, you know, if I had not gone to see medical professionals I would probably stay in the car,” Askew said. “But now after hearing what’s wrong and that it could get worse, God forbid I have another hit, I know I did the right thing. I think I can be an example for young drivers now in stepping up and saying something is wrong, I need to have this checked out.”