Ron Capps 2020 (NHRA Photo)
Ron Capps 2020 (NHRA Photo)

Is NHRA At A Crossroads?

NHRA’s professional drag racing series completed an 11-race season that was about half of its usual schedule in coronavirus-marred 2020. And thanks to the efforts of NHRA president Glen Cromwell and a skeleton staff, all of the races were run in front of spectators and without a dime from longtime series sponsor Coca-Cola.

The beverage giant abandoned its agreement that was supposed to run through 2023 and the sanctioning body filed suit against its former sponsor in September.

NHRA officials navigated the minefield of state and local public-health restrictions and kept racers in solidarity despite two deep purse reductions. NHRA was fortunate to sign Camping World to replace Coca-Cola as fans and racers are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the influence Camping World owner Marcus Lemonis is expected to bring.

FOX has forged an attractive TV package that expands coverage on its primary network and includes an NFL-adjacent event.

The sport is expected to have back its biggest star, 151-time winner and 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, back on track when the delayed season begins March 11-14 at Gainesville (Fla.) Raceway.

Justin Ashley (Top Fuel), Aaron Stanfield (Pro Stock) and Ryan Oehler and Scotty Pollacheck (Pro Stock Motorcycle) were first-time winners and the bike class had seven different winners in eight appearances. Cromwell said, “We’ve got some good, young talent coming up.”

And if elite drag racing was truly on the skids, no one could tell by watching Don Schumacher Racing. Team owner Don Schumacher is working to keep his entire contingent on the track this year, and he is talking about adding a fourth dragster. That would give DSR eight cars.

In addition, Kalitta Motorsports has been adding associate sponsors in the offseason for its three-car team.

With so many triumphs over tribulations, NHRA has “some momentum,” Cromwell said, “and obviously some challenges” as it heads into its 70th season.

“This next season is still going to be fluid,” Cromwell said. “We’re optimistic about our 22-race schedule, but we still have to deal with this pandemic. Every state is different with its restrictions. We worked with Florida, Texas and Indiana very closely and we feel comfortable with those places. But we have more events to navigate. You feel like it’s going to turn around. We talked about it all the time in March, April and May. I did not think we’d be sitting here in January talking about the same things. Plans change daily. You just have to be nimble.”

According to Cromwell, NHRA might be able to restore purses to pre-pandemic levels.

“It depends on economics. We want to get back to that full purse,” he said. “Hopefully, we can make some announcements soon, when we get back to full force.”

Veteran racer Ron Capps, the 2016 Funny Car champion, sees nothing but positives for the sport.

“Honestly,” he said, “I think the most positive thing in years has come out of this crazy 2020 COVID year. I think the Camping World thing sort of piggybacked on the big announcement with FOX and some of the TV shows we’re going to have next year, not only more live TV but the network showing us coming out of the NFL football games. That’s unbelievable for our sport.”

Capps says Camping World’s investment is “the first thing (his team’s sponsor) NAPA looked at. Camping World is a major, major company. They have sponsorship with NASCAR and MLB and all kinds of big, big sports. That has a huge impact on what their decisions are, what they do with NHRA. The fact NAPA has been with me for 12 years says a lot about our sport.”

On the flip side, Capps understands the frustration some expressed with the sanctioning body.

“The NHRA did a lot of things this year,” he said. “Yes, they had to cut purses. But you have to remember there are a group of owners that were in contact with them and we were trying to get through the year. For a lot of teams, people weren’t going to get paychecks — people with families — if we didn’t get back to racing somehow. We got back to racing. Look what came out of that: Camping World and FOX jumped in. So I’m pretty excited about what’s going to happen.”

Tami Powers, business development manager for Alan Johnson Racing, said, “I don’t know if the NHRA is at a crossroads. I think every business is at a crossroads every year. Every race league is at a crossroads every season. You have to be able to engage your fans in a renewable way every season. You cannot settle for status quo, ever. We’ve all been put in a time-out this year, and that has given us an opportunity to double down on reinventing how we do business. This is the time you double down. You have everyone’s attention. We’re all in a time-out. People are thirsty and hungry to engage right now. You can do it by reaching out and having these conversations.

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