Okay, so the pandemic that has plagued the world for the past two years and pushed so many businesses into boardroom discussions about sustainability, protocols and Plan Bs is not exactly in the rearview mirror.
On the other hand, let’s hope that the pandemic is least starting to slip into our blindspot as we do our best to blow past it on the highway.
That might be the best way to describe how racing, in particular the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, is looking at the pandemic as another season ramps up. This weekend, the NHRA is in Pomona, California, for its traditional opener. That in itself has such a nice ring to it.
NHRA President Glen Cromwell
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NHRA president Glen Cromwell sat down with Autoweek ahead of the Pomona weekend and said that, like the rest of us, he and the rest of the NHRA can’t want to get back to some sense of normalcy. And that includes normalcy to a race weekend.
Momentum is a thing
“We have a tremendous amount of momentum going into 2022,” said Cromwell, who has been in the offices at that NHRA since 1997 and in the president’s chair since 2018. “At a 40,000-foot level, to me, the momentum is the payoff of the NHRA racing community coming together in 2020 and 2021. It starts with our fans supporting the NHRA, and our drivers.
“Go back to when everything shut down and basically, mid-March of 2020, and we came back in July that year with those events in Indy. And our fans came out and supported our drivers and teams. Our sponsors stayed with us. The track partners, all of our tracks, worked together. To me, the real payoff of everyone coming together and working together is what you’re seeing—the excitement today. It’s a great story.
“I think all properties, sanctioning bodies, to have success you’ve got to work together, you’ve got to communicate, you’ve got to be open, you’ve got to be transparent, collaborative. Those are types of things you have to do to have success.”
The NHRA came through the first year of the pandemic about the best it could have imagined. After starting its pre-pandemic 2020 season with two events, it pulled together nine more national events after the March shutdown and awarded series championships that at least felt legitimate. The NHRA’s Lucas Oil Series and grassroots events that involve thousands of NHRA members were back up and running in June of that year.
Up-and-coming star Justin Ashley topped the Top Fuel qualifying charts on Friday at Pomona.
In 2021, the series was back with a 20-event schedule and the return of its countdown to the Championship playoffs.
This year, it at least feels like it’s full-speed ahead and back to thinking about growth and positives instead of just surviving and advancing.
We See You, NASCAR
Case in point is the recent NASCAR event at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. It turned the NASCAR Cup Series’ traditional Busch Clash season-opening exhibition into a one-ring circus that was hard to miss and almost as hard to turn away from. It was must-see TV, as they say.
An event like the one at the Coliseum had to have every marketer and every racing boardroom in the world throwing ideas against the wall and seeing if they could find something that might just stick. The NHRA was no exception.
“Hats off to the NASCAR guys, their president Steve Phelps, and everyone over there,” Cromwell said. “That was a great, great event. We support NASCAR, IndyCar, F1, USAC, all racing. All racing has to rise together. We’re happy for NASCAR when they do things like that.”
No, the NHRA isn’t going to pave a dragstrip into the sand of Daytona Beach or toss a half-mile or so row of cement barriers along both sides of the Las Vegas Strip just yet. But the NASCAR show does have the wheels turning.
John Force Racing veteran Robert Hight was quickest in the Funny Car class Friday at Pomona.
This year, NHRA has a somewhat lower scale special event on its calendar (hey, tough to top the Coliseum), and one that should create a little buzz at least in drag racing circles. This year, NHRA is hosting the Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout and the Pep Boys NHRA Funny Car All-Star Callout. It’s a Saturday event that will feature the top-eight Top Fuel drivers and top-eight Funny Car drivers in a special non-points exhibition.
Calling ‘Em Out
The Top Fuel Callout will be held at Gainesville, Florida, on March 12, and the Funny Car Callout will be during the US Nationals weekend at Indianapolis in September.
“They’re going to see who’s the baddest on the track,” Cromwell said. “It will be something a little different. Where in the past, when we had the Bud Shootout, the Skoal Showdown, The Traxxas Shootout, 1 would race 8, 2 would race 7, etc. in brackets—we’re not going to do that.
“For the Callout, No. 1 seed gets to go up on the stage, and he or she—Steve Torrence as the 2021 Top Fuel champion gets the guaranteed No. 1 spot, he gets to pick who he wants to race. If he picks the No. 2 to race against, for example, No. 3 will pick whoever that person would like to race, and so on. It’s going to create some controversy and create some excitement into those races. I know we’re excited, the race teams are excited. So, we’re doing some different things.”
But wait, there’s more. Imagine a drag race down the Vegas Strip or even down famous hot rod heaven Woodward Avenue in Detroit, maybe? After all, Cromwell is a Michigan native.
“Could we in the future take a dragstrip into a city and do something similar to what NASCAR did?” Cromwell said. “We’ve had some discussions internally about doing some different things like that.”
Place Your Bets
Another avenue where the NHRA might be a little behind other major racing series—NASCAR even has a managing director of sports betting on its payroll—is on the sports gambling front. NHRA would seem to be a natural for the sports betting community and a way to get more eyes on the series overnight.
After all, what’s more sporting than betting a few bucks that Brittany Force will take out Steve Torrence the next time they line up for a Top Fuel elimination showdown? Imagine betting on every elimination paring that will be shown live on FOX TV on a Sunday afternoon.
“It is a discussion we are having here,” Cromwell said. “We are working and talking to various companies as we speak. Nothing has been finalized yet, but we are going down that road. We hope to have something here in the near future. We’re perfectly aligned for something like that. It’s two cars going down, and you’ve got one winner and one loser. It’s a perfect setup”
Hey marketing guys
And, in case Cromwell and the marketing team at the NHRA’s new office in San Dimas, California, needed any more material to work with in 2022, there’s some exciting new ownership groups and the return of an all-time great. Three-time NASCAR Cup champion Tony Stewart formed Tony Stewart Racing and becomes an immediate championship contender with drivers Matt Hagan in Funny Car and Leah Pruett (Tony’s wife since November) in Top Fuel.
Ron Capps and Antron Brown have broken from Don Schumacher Racing to put their stamp on things with their own teams, as well. Eight-time Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher is back full time at DSR.
Matt Hagan, left, Leah Pruett and Tony Stewart Racing should bring more eyeballs to the NHRA in 2022.
It’s Stewart, however, who is bringing new blood, a fresh set of eyes, and ultimately some fresh ideas.
“It’ll be great,” Cromwell said. “Tony is a superstar. He’s very business savvy. We’re really impressed with what we’ve seen so far. We’ve talked to him numerous times, and he’s asked a lot of good questions and challenged the NHRA.
“Hey, let’s grow this sport together. I believe he’s going to help, and we couldn’t be happier than having Tony joining the NHRA. It’s great to have him be part of the family and part of the team.”
And, for now, as the season kicks off at Pomona, NHRA seems to be one big happy family.
“We’re all excited,” Cromwell said. “This is new owners, new cars, new teams, there’s a lot of good things happening with the NHRA. I think a lot of people want to watch it, to see it, to consume it.”
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