Back To The Roots

Dec 2, 2009

One aspect of our market is still the newest. Sport compacts span our market and are strong in both the appearance and performance categories. Within that niche is drag racing for sport compacts. Let’s take a look at the current state of affairs.

Looking In And Looking Back

Greg Nakano, marketing and special projects coordinator for Advanced Engine Management (AEM) gives a bit of history to get us up to speed. He says, “The world of sport compact racing has basically come back to its roots. When the import drag racing scene originally started, it was truly grassroots. Before Battle of the Imports, most of us would get turned away or have to practically beg to get on the track with domestics.” Aside from local tracks in the 90s like Terminal Island in Long Beach, Calif., says Nakano, there just weren’t many places that would let the sport compact crowd race legally. Then Frank Choi started Battle of the Imports, which took a grassroots approach and expanded the sport regionally beyond California. Others followed suit, like the ID Drag Wars in the Southwest.

“These events were imports only,” remembers Nakano. “The stands would be packed and daily driven cars were out there racing. Aftermarket companies filled the vendor rows, music was bumping everywhere and everyone had a great time. It was about racing, but it was also about being part of something that was so different from the mainstream that it became its own subculture. During this period, there was a very small amount of aftermarket manufacturer sponsored racers.”

Bob Scheid, vice president of Fidanza, sees the evolution of the industry this way, “The sport compact drag market has seen many changes in the past few years—some of these good and some of them yet to be determined. Looking at the positives for the market, we see a market that has grown in depth. As a manufacturer, it used to be if you had Honda and Mitsubishi applications then you had the market covered. That has changed dramatically. There is now a much broader array of vehicles being modified. I feel that this helps to deepen the market penetration and broaden its appeal.”

AEM’s Nakano gives us more history and sponsorship tales from the early days of sport compact drag racing.

Nakano reminisces, “We were a tuning shop then, and one of the very few that would let imports in the door. This is when vendor row consisted of a few different shops at the most.”

A Few Years Later

Move forward from the first Battle of the Imports to five years later and the event was a major series. Nakano says vendor row was packed and drag racing teams were factory-backed by Honda, Toyota, GM, Ford and others. The popularity and rapid rise of the sport came from mainstream attention generated by a film, The Fast & The Furious, and from the desire of manufacturers and OEMs to capitalize on the enthusiasm at these events.

Of course, says Nakano, the racers wanted to run at the best tracks, so most of them went with the series with the best tracks.

However, “All of the elements that made import racing rise so quickly from grassroots never really materialized in that series. It did wonders for setting records and improving the technological aspect of the sport, but it was also intimidating for the privateer or newcomer to attend. Being a company with competitive racing roots, we went with the growth, starting with sponsorship of Stephan Papadakis’ FWD cars and ultimately building a world-record-holding Pro RWD sport compact drag car.”

Current Concerns

With that in mind, Nakano talks about today’s concerns, a time when the gate count has come down.

“The major series are partnered, and factory-backed teams are still there, although not in the scope of five years ago. But, the grassroots element has really started to come back to sport compact drag racing. For this reason, we are excited about the future of the sport. It was about the privateer from the start: guys who built their cars with passion, blood, sweat and tears. It’s coming back to that again, only this time around people have more answers to the performance questions that eluded the guys who originated the sport. For that, we can thank the series’, manufacturers, OEMs and all the racers who hung it out there at the pro level not knowing how any of this would evolve.”

Nakano adds that he has seen the technology for sport compact drag racing change over the years, starting with carbs and nitrous, and evolving to aftermarket fuel injection and turbos. He says that because of the return to grassroots participation, AEM has seen an increase in sales for this market.

Scheid sees the market in much the same way, noting that Fidanza has seen a trend away from bling parts accompanied by an increased interest in performance parts—parts they see in action. “What better way to see what parts to use on your street car than to see what is being used at the track? This leads to more manufacturer involvement in the sponsorship of sport compact drag race vehicles.”

Bill Hahn, Jr., CEO and head of engineering for Hahn RaceCraft, Yorkville, Ill., offers this assessment, “The sport suffered from what was essentially over-hyping earlier this decade, and a certain degree of speculation ultimately didn’t play out for a number of teams and sponsors. It’s no one’s fault in particular; the market for motorsports in the USA is becoming increasingly diverse. And, even though the nation now boasts a population of 300 million, there are also considerably more motorsports options than ever, all competing for the same dollars. Today’s trends are towards teams and cars that can stay viable in an increasingly challenging economic climate. Domestics will continue to play a large role, and the emergence of more RWD options may move the sport more in that direction.”

Scheid points out that there is much about the market yet to be determined. For example, there have been many changes in the sanctioning bodies—from the elimination of classes to the outright cancelling of entire series.

“We have seen the NHRA and NOPI venture. This has yet to play out, but a weak showing of participants in many of the NHRA classes may be the cause for NHRA looking to NOPI for help,” says Scheid.

Daryl Sampson, sales and marketing manager for Advanced Clutch Technology (ACT), also sees the market shrinking, “In the last three to four years, I’ve noticed a decline in the sport compact drag racing market at the professional level. The decline has been noticed in the number of fans attending drag racing events as well.” ACT is a sponsor of the NDRA race series.

Participant Viewpoint

On the hard parts end of things, Crower Cams’ Kerry Novak not only watches the market, he knows it from firsthand participation. He and his son raced NOPI and NHRA with GM. He sees another problem in exposure and says it is a major issue.

“All there is, as far as I know, is NOPI. A major problem to me is television coverage. When I watch TV, there is no racing or racing oriented coverage to support sport compact vehicles,” says Novak.

Hahn also has a view on this matter. “The recent merging of NOPI’s promotional prowess with NHRA’s technical guidance will prove to be the right move. In any motorsport with a smaller racer and spectator group like this, it’s important to achieve unity and not split the pie into too many pieces. This merger was the right decision at the right time. Yes, a monopoly is not good either, but the other sanctions will continue to serve smaller markets and slightly different flavors of the sport.”

There are two strong factors that are eroding the sport, in the opinion of ACT’s Sampson, and he sees them clearly. “A lot of the decline in the sport can directly be related to a lack of corporate sponsorship for the racers and a lack of organization. Most of the companies that sponsored (and still do) sport compact drag racing over the years were the companies that were there at the start. These companies were instrumental in bringing the sport to the forefront.”

The other aspect is pure evolution. Sampson notes that much of the fan base that attended and took part in the early drag events have now grown older, and they have been replaced by a younger generation of enthusiast. This younger generation is now into drifting.

“The good news is that grassroots sport compact drag racing participation is back on the rise. This sport is a big part of our roots and we will always support these racers,” says Sampson.

But it’s not all doom and gloom for the market. Novak see the positive and says, “Real racers will race. Some of the names in NOPI have been around for years. No real new trends, but what we’re seeing is the drag racing market is changing in the sense that it was always Honda, Honda, Honda, and now it’s everything. Whatever somebody has, whatever kind of engine, they try and run. Most of Sport Compacts are changing. They are getting away form drag racing and doing what they are designed to do, road racing, rally racing, drifting and some oval track. These are good handling vehicles.”

The Results

So where will this evolution of sport compacts lead us?

Hahn adds, “I think the leveling out from the excessive hype from a few years back has mostly occurred. Today’s teams and cars are the ones that will stay the course. I don’t think this still relatively new form of racing is out of the woods just yet, as drifting is another alternate form of motorsport now cutting into the action. But, Americans love a good drag race, and if we don’t lose too many people to the raft of recent domestic RWD options that have become available such as the Mustang, Hemi cars and the new Camaro, the sport compact drag race scene will live on. No one can deny that the advent of high fuel prices and a tighter economy will encourage more enthusiasts to embrace four- and six-cylinder cars, if only out of necessity, and perhaps that’s just what this sport needs right now!”

Fidanza’s Scheid says, “The future, in my opinion, will have to be a merging of sport compact classes with more traditional vehicles. We are already seeing this happen. Titan Motorpsorts, one of the most prolific winners in NHRA sport compact history, is now running mainly in a more traditional 10.5″ tire class. They are not only competing; they are winning. They and others like them are building legitimacy for sport compacts with the sanctioning bodies that, until now, have ignored them. What the sport compact market will look like in 10 years is still debatable. I think as long as manufacturers support it and teams stay competitive in more traditional classes, it will flourish with a fan base that is energized and growing.”

What’s that old saying about the only thing that is constant being change?