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NHRA, NASCAR-WCUP, EDITORIAL: Dangerous Bill's Great NASCAR Adventure

18 September 1998

Dangerous Bill's Great NASCAR Adventure (or What Can Drag Racing Learn from NASCAR?)

Story or portions thereof may be used so long as the byline is displayed as follows:

Bill Pratt

I went to the NASCAR race at Richmond last night. My boss Rod Rohrer of Acuity Technology footed the bill. Thanks, Rod! As a long time drag racing fan and announcer, I took the opportunity to compare professional stock car racing to professional drag racing. Many things about the NASCAR event impressed me; some did not. For one thing, I could not believe the number of people they got at that race. They absolutely packed the place. It was sold out -- 83,000 screaming race fans and you could not see "bleacher" anywhere in the crowd until the end. Unbelievable. I loved how people were into their favorite drivers. They cheered wildly every time their hero drove by. Whatever NASCAR is doing to make stars out of these guys, pro drag racing had better pay attention.

Another thing I really liked were the florescent lights that faced the racetrack, at car level, all around the oval. They were great. You could really see the cars clearly the entire way around the oval. We REALLY need this for drag racing at night. When you think about it, what we usually get to see at almost all drag strips are the cars burning out and launching. After about 500 feet all you usually see are two black silhouettes and the scoreboards. If I were the President of Drag Racing, I would immediately sign an executive order mandating these lights as a necessity that should be purchased by every drag strip! Of course, they are probably expensive as heck and no doubt would get hammered by drag racers much more than by NASCAR racers. Richmond had them mounted inside the oval, facing outward to the track. Since centrifugal force naturally pulls the stock cars towards the outside, there is little chance of one of them ramming the lights.

Another thing I found interesting, especially as an announcer, was that once the race began, there WERE no announcements, at least none that made it over the din of the racecars. Everyone and I mean nearly EVERYONE, either had a Racing Radio-type deal or an AM/FM radio/Mickey Mouse ears combo strapped to their heads. I will admit to borrowing one of the AM/FM radios and catching the race that way. Nicely done. Do they broadcast over the AM or FM band at NHRA or IHRA events? I know we simulcast the P.A. announcements on FM radio at Maryland International Raceway, but I don't know how widespread that practice is. Of course, I am as afraid as anyone of what pabulum the NHRA might attempt to feed the masses through a new communications device. Of course, the amenities were nice, but no nicer than at Bill Bader's Norwalk, Ohio, facility. We need to get the REST of the drag racing world up to Norwalk standards.

OK, enough nice stuff. Now, a little about the thing I HATED. Namely, the parking off Carolina Avenue to the east of the racetrack. Getting in was a breeze, and the free parking at the industrial park (right next to building C -- a pleasant 10-minute walk to the track) was great. HOWEVER, getting out of there was, without exception, the WORST special event traffic flow control I have ever suffered. And you are talking to a guy with 25 solid years of fighting his way out of rock concerts, the last 15 years in the kill-or-be-killed Washington, D.C. area. I swear to whatever God you believe in, it took me TWO HOURS to go five miles along Carolina Avenue last night. Well, I should say this MORNING, because I parked my butt in the car at 11:30 and I finally made it five miles to the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike at 1:30 a.m.!

The Henrico police had closed off my planned escape route, a left onto Carolina Avenue, which I surmised would have placed me on Route 64 in a few minutes, then down to south Richmond and a nice dinner and drinks with my cohorts. Instead, I was forced to drive Northwest, in the opposite direction. No problem, I thought, checking out my great RIR map (which I had obtained from the excellent website earlier in the day). I'll just hop up to the first left at Meadowbridge Road, whip down to another quick left at Laburnum, then an easy right onto 64 and down to meet my pals. Two surreal hours later, I gladly copped a right at Richmond-Henrico and drove several miles to Route 295, then 13 miles down the eastern side of 295 to Route 64, where I shot back into down and to my hotel room at about 2:30. This might seem a bit out of the way, but when I compared it to taking a LEFT, and having to navigate two additional sides of Richmond International Raceway, I found it a welcome bargain. I kid you not -- at times I sat for 20 minutes without moving an INCH! I found myself PRAYING for ten feet, and two car lengths gave me a sense of accomplishment like a cross-country trip.

Of course, like most traffic tie ups, when I got up there, there seemed to be no real reason for the holdup. By the time I got to the hotel, the Acuity gang had been out to dinner, had played a little billiards, and were back calling it a night. My caloric intake for the day consisted of an ice cream cone and two handfuls of honey roasted peanuts at the track. This parking fiasco was a totally unnecessary downside to an otherwise great day of racing for me and for hundreds of others. Can anyone out there tell me just what WAS the holdup on Carolina Avenue in Richmond on the night of September 12, 1998?

Have you been waiting for my comparison between NASCAR and Drag Racing? OK, here it is. I left Richmond totally envious of the fan following the NASCAR racers enjoy. The packed stands of hard-core fans rooting for their favorite drivers was incredible. I took the opportunity to soak up NASCAR info from all those around me. The consensus: most fans cited the drivers' personalities as the reason they loved or booed their favorite or least favorite, respectively. The pro-Jeff Gordon, anti-Jeff Gordon thing is neat, with younger, newer fans and of course the ladies cheering for the Rainbow Warrior, and the older, grizzled veteran fans booing him and all he stands for. Of course, coming from a guy who last paid attention to NASCAR when Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, Bobby Isaac, and the Allison brothers were battling it out, ALL these guys represent the "New NASCAR" to me. Of course, I rooted for the "drag racers" in the field. These included John Andretti (in Richard Petty's car with the "43" proudly emblazoned -- I guess the number doesn't belong to the driver in NASCAR), anybody with a Jack Roush engine, and the Joe Gibbs machine).

The cars themselves were neat, I guess. Friends tell me the horsepower is up around 700 at this time. Not bad. I even was gracious every time one of them told me "Just wait until you hear these cars fire up," or "Here, you'd better put in these ear plugs -- these cars get REALLY loud." While I'll admit that the constant drone of these things for 400 laps can get on your nerves, my friends clearly are not READY for the sound of even a blown alcohol car, let alone a nitro fueled flopper or dragster! I found myself dying to put a fuel funny car or top fuel dragster in front of this crowd. I imagined NHRA or IHRA contracting with a Top Fuel team to do exhibitions down the straight-aways of every NASCAR race on the tour. Nothing fancy -- just a hellacious burnout followed by a 300-foot launch! How about Shirley Muldowney? She would be ideal. Clean, hard running, and a three-time world champ with proven fan appeal. I don't know how receptive NASCAR would be to the idea, because their premiere category would seem mighty tame by comparison.

As for the actual racing, I know it's apples and oranges, but until the last few laps, it just didn't do it for me. I do admit to learning many of the intricacies of NASCAR racing last night. The strategies involved with when to pit, for instance, were fascinating. AND I could actually relate to the drivers and cars -- in fact, I employ many of the moves I saw last night in my twice a day run on that stock car track called the Washington Beltway. Still, in the final analysis, the Exide NASCAR Select Batteries 400 came down to a four-lap DRAG RACE between Jeff Burton and Jeff Gordon. The fans were on their feet the entire time as the Rainbow Warrior tried to take it way from the hometown boy in a fender to fender shootout. Burton held off the number 24 car by about four feet to keep the win in Virginia.

So what can Drag Racing learn from NASCAR? Well, there's that cool lighting up the cars thing. Beyond that, NHRA and IHRA need to learn how to make their stars into STARS. John Force is there. Scotty Cannon is there. But who else is at that level? What does NASCAR do to make their fans love specific drivers so much? Is it the TV coverage? One thing's for sure: it's hard to turn drag racers into stars when the only faces you see belong to Bob Frey and Steve Evans. I personally have no idea why, but for some reason, many of the drivers in the field of 42 had fans who knew and loved them. Most of these guys are names I have heard in passing, but I can't really place seeing where they've been promoted heavily. I think that means, outside NASCAR, they probably are no more well known than OUR top drivers. So what is NASCAR doing to get the fans to relate to these guys? Drag Racing should send in a spy to find out right now.

Of course, there is that magic number: 42. That's it -- only 42 teams to keep track of. Only 42 teams to learn and grow accustomed to. I asked my friend Donna, "How many NASCAR teams are out there at this level? 100? 200?" Donna pointed to her T-Shirt. "You see these 42? That's it!" Forgive me for this, but for a moment I actually got the thought "Gee, a NASCAR List (The NRL?) would be pretty easy to do!" It was a passing thought, I promise. But interestingly, 42 is roughly the size of three 16-car professional fields, say Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. Could we run such a race in 3 hours 15 minutes 41 seconds -- the official time of the Richmond race?

Three hours -- four tops -- is about the max "they" say most fans can take for any kind of show. Just look at baseball, football, concerts, etc., to see my point. You begin at 7, you're out by 11 (but hopefully, not into the kind of traffic I experienced). Could we turn three professional classes around in four hours? Probably not with today's rules. But at some point, we might want to think about it with rules like restricting racers to one block, or one blower, or whatever. NOW you're talking strategy. You go like hell during qualifying, but now you have to make it last for four rounds of quick-turn around competition. How hard do you push it? The total elapsed times of the pairings of 16 fuelers, 16 funnies, and 16 pro stock cars for a first round would be about 72 minutes, assuming three minutes per pair (with burnouts, etc.). That means 36 minutes for the second round, 18 minutes for the third, and nine minutes for the final. We could do a first round at 7, a second round at 9, a third round at 10 and the finals right at 11.

Where are the alky cars, and the dreaded pro stock motorcycles and trucks? Well, just like the NASCAR series, they would have their own race nights. The supertrucks (or whatever they call them) and the Busch Grand National cars ran to finals Thursday and Friday nights, each the "star" of that particular day. I don't know if Thursday night racing would work in drag racing, but somehow it works in NASCAR. (Oh, by the way, did you notice that NASCAR's main event ran on SATURDAY night, giving everyone a nice, leisurely Sunday to get back home and relax for work on Monday? But I digress...) Where do the sportsmen fit in? Well they fit in all the slots left in the three-day schedule. What if we run a couple of rounds each day? Friday night could be as many of the Super classes as we can run, and a Pro Stock Truck and Pro Stock Motorcycle race to the final. Saturday could be all the remaining Sportsman classes down to, say, the semi finals, plus the Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car races to the final. The sportsman class semis and finals could fit within the four Pro rounds on Sunday night. On the other hand, why don't we have our PRO race on Saturday night (you know, like, when all the fans are actually there) and run the Pro Stock/Motorcycle deal or the alky dragster/alky FC deal on Sunday? All mornings would be for qualifying. I'm not trying to solve this thing here, I'm just saying that, like NASCAR, drag racing needs to get itself into a nice three to four hour window for television and to increase and hold fan interest.

What can NASCAR learn from drag racing? I dunno. Seems like they are packing the stands and satisfying the fans already. In my fevered imagination, I can see a hybrid of the two, however. How cool would one-lap, two-car, side-by-side drag races be in an elimination format? VERY COOL. Heck, I would even give em a lap to warm up and get a rolling start! Beyond that, however I can't think of a thing drag racing can tell NASCAR, except to fix the damnable traffic situation at Richmond International Raceway's northern edge. Two hours to go five miles is BEYOND unacceptable, especially when the route ends with a direct artery to a major highway. Both lanes going up Carolina Avenue alongside the racetrack should have been diverted to the Richmond-Henrico Turnpike and out to Route 295 or ANYWHERE away from the racetrack. I'm still dumbstruck by the lack of effective traffic management. Heck, I went to Indy for five straight years and never ran into such a problem. Oh sure, I always got lost, but that was due to my severe lack of any real navigational skills, not to the traffic management of the well-organized local constabulary. I usually didn't know where the heck I was and it often took me two hours to get back to the hotel, but at least I kept MOVING!

See ya next time.

Bill Pratt