Butts in the Bleachers
by Ed Miller
Drag racing seems to have a people problem. The problem, as simply as I can put it, is that there aren’t as many people who are interested in spending their pocket money to go to your local drag strip on the weekend as there used to be. As the legendary Professor of Pro Stock Warren Johnson pointed out during the recent NHRA Season Finale telecast from Pomona, even for such a big event as that, there were still several large empty areas of the grandstands concealed beneath tarps instead of being used to seat ticket-buying race fans. The plain truth is there’s simply a great deal more competition for your entertainment dollar these days than there has ever been before.
Not all that many years ago, a race producer’s biggest worry was that the competing races on or near the same date as his event could draw away some of the crowd who might otherwise buy tickets to his race. It was a real problem, and those of us who put on large scale events were scrupulously careful to be sure we made a point of not stepping on one another’s toes. It was generally considered a poor strategy to compete head-to-head with another regional race on the same date; it could mean bad business for both events, and leave each of you with a skimpy gate.
Here in the 21st century, though, the whole definition of competition has changed. It’s no longer his race versus my race competing for your hard-earned bucks. Nowadays, race producers are finding that the real competition is not just with other races, but with other forms of entertainment altogether. The competition is a zero- sum game where the most interesting diversion wins a spectator’s spending money for that weekend. A lot of people would really just as soon go hear a concert or see a movie or a play as go to a drag race.
I’m not one of those people. I’m a nostalgia fuel racer, pure and simple. I can enjoy a bit of contemporary Top Fuel and Funny Car racing if there’s just no old cars running, but if it doesn’t involve nitromethane, I’m simply not interested. Some people who like to watch drag racing also enjoy football, baseball, basketball, or others of those stick-and-ball games. Not me. I look at it in the very same way Ernest Hemingway did. “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” If your ass ain’t perched on the line out there, and if your future longevity and the specter of imminent death isn’t hanging on the outcome of your chosen sporting event, then it’s just another kiddy game to me.
Even though it may be drag racing, if there are no seriously over-powered, ill-handling short-wheelbase cars, there is no heart-pounding action and down-track drama to thrill the crowd. The entertainment value of a local bracket race has effectively disappeared because there is simply no shock and awe for anybody save possibly the participants. The pits may be jumping, and the track operator may have turned a small profit, but look at the dusty ol’ cobwebs growing in those empty bleachers. Another way to say it is that while there may be something of a drag race going on, if there’s not a dynamic show being presented that is aimed at drawing and entertaining a large and diverse crowd of spectators, your head count is gonna be short.
I saw the light after watching a capacity crowd fill San Antonio Raceway a couple of years ago to see the IHRA Nitro Jam. Of course they had Fuel Funny Cars and Top Fuel Dragsters. But they also had drag racing Monster Trucks, Jet Funny Cars, a Wheelstanding School Bus, a Jet Semi racing a Jet Fire Truck, Captain America, and all manner of things to draw kids and families through the ticket gates. Yes, it was a drag race. Yes, some door cars ran. So did some altereds and dragsters. But it was, overall, a real family friendly event with a lot of exciting things for the kids to enjoy, not just a drag race pure and simple.
To me, it was kinda like going to see Disney Presents Spiderman on Ice, except at a Drag Strip. It was not the kind of event that I would want to produce, but I sure did envy the size of the crowd they drew, and I learned from it. So did the NHRA. At their Texas Fall Nationals a few months ago, they advertised a nostalgia Funny Car exhibition, a jet car exhibition, and fireworks…all in addition to an NHRA National event.
NASCAR recently learned the same lesson. The date scheduled for their recent event at Texas World Speedway fell on the same day as the Final Four Basketball Tournament at Cowboy Stadium in Arlington, about 30 miles away from the roundy-round track. NASCAR thought it over, and decided to take the unprecedented step of rescheduling their race to the next day. They concluded that too many potential ticket buyers might opt to go see round ball if they forced the fans to make an either/or decision. As it turned out, with the events on different days, they both ended up pulling good crowds.
Just before the deadline date for this article, the Circuit of the America’s road race course in Austin announced that the owners of Formula 1 have scheduled next year’s U.S. Grand Prix race for Halloween weekend. That’s the same date that Texas Motor Speedway is holding their fall 2014 NASCAR event, with a truck race on October 31st, the Nationwide series on November 1st, and the Sprint Cup race on November 2nd. Both the Grand Prix and the NASCAR race each generally draw over 100,000 race fans. No one knows how the competing events will divvy up the racing marketplace between themselves next Halloween weekend, but I just don’t see how it could possibly be a good thing for either group.
This is a lot to think about, and I don’t really enjoy the direction that those thoughts lead. The trend is clear, though. You’ve got to draw a big enough crowd to pay the bills and earn some profit. If racing alone won’t do it, then the event needs to have some other added ingredients to increase ticket sales. A deliberate head-on scheduling clash between major events just seems suicidal to me.
And, to get back to our subject of Nostalgia Drag Racing, you have to understand that the racers are competing not just against the car in the other lane, but also against blockbuster movies, touring pop bands, school graduations, hunting season, holiday activities, big-time stick or ball games, and all manner of other competition that has nothing at all to do with drag racing, but absolutely everything to do with attendance.
Nostalgia Drag World - by Ed Miller, photo by Connell R. Miller