Drag Racing Shows its Strength

Feb 11, 2010

Here’s some not-so-breaking news: it’s been a tough year for racing. Budgets of all sorts were examined by financial planners, ranging from CFOs to the family bookkeeper, and they nearly all came to the same conclusion: cut.

Any cost not deemed indispensable was scratched from millions of different budgets, and as a result, the sponsorship dollars and extra cash that usually drives racing grew scarce. Less money means less racing.

Sad, isn’t it?

However, one form of racing is reporting numbers in attendance and participation that seem to buck the general trend: drag racing. Long considered to be the format of racing for the working man, drag racing has once again proved to be a viable option for motor heads and adrenaline junkies to get what they need without having to sacrifice finances to the point that they live in their transportation.

How so? Let’s talk to a few of the manufacturers who attend these events and find out.

Down the Line in 2009

As stated, it has been a tough year for racing. But not necessarily catastrophic.

“All in all,” says JC Beattie Jr. of ATI in Baltimore, Md., “the entire market is down for obvious reasons. But at the same time, that makes for more racers staying closer to home to race. Much like a couple years ago when gas and diesel were so expensive, more racers stayed and raced near home. That works well for companies that are located near lots of drag strips.”

Jesse Powell of Aeromotive in Lenexa, Kan., made similar observations, noting that divisional events, especially in the NHRA, were way up because people weren’t traveling as far.

“Unless a big event happened to be in their area, they didn’t participate,” says Powell. He notes that at the end of the year, things were picking up for nearly everyone’s business.

Powell adds, “In terms of car counts, races and sanctioning bodies, it was fairly good, but it was different. I think things changed a lot in 2008. The way people race is different. People aren’t traveling as far; they’re trying to save money on gas, so they stayed close to home and raced at the local track and attended smaller races in their area. That makes sense, because gas, hotels and food add up quickly.”

He adds that national events did not bring in as many out-of-towners as usual. However, they did make sure that the local people made it out.

Jack McInnis of Dart in Troy, Mich., says, “The last year seems to have most hurt the people in the middle of the market in terms of their spending.”

Taking a regional view, Scott Hall of Moroso in Guildford, Conn., adds, “The East Coast started the season a lot earlier than in the past. Much of this was based on events that allowed typically snow-bound racers to venture south and start their season months earlier. So, when the local tracks opened, many already had some laps on their cars. From a business standpoint, this saw more time on racers’ equipment, and gave us an earlier and longer selling period.”

Even now, adds Hall, Moroso is seeing a good influx of high-end engines already being built. Racers know how to run their programs on a short budget, so the economy isn’t an excuse to not race.

Professionals continue to make it to every event, and the racers who only came out for a few events a year are still able to do that. However, the guys who were not quite at the professional level but still competed all over the country were the ones who had a rough year in 2009-but not as rough as some.

Kerry Novak of Crower in San Diego, says, “It’s been a rough year for all forms of racing. But drag racing, to us here at Crower, has fared a lot better than the oval track market. With so much drag racing on TV, it really helps the sport and it helps us in business. You look at Pinks and similar shows, and they are great for the sport.”

It seems that the small-time drag racer is making a comeback.

“The little guy is really what has made all of our companies. We all like to race, and anyone can drag race. Anyone can buy any kind of car and go to their local drag strip and drag race. Not everyone can oval track race. But, anyone can drag race, and I don’t care if it’s an import car or a station wagon. Anybody can drag race any type of vehicle,” says Novak.

Time to Adjust

When things get tough, the survivors are often those who are able to adapt the best. For example, did tracks or governing bodies adjust at all to make it less expensive to compete? Some of the changes taking place in drag racing were surprising; some were not.

Hall says that tracks have realized they need to make it worthwhile for the racers to stay closer to home, particularly for good money events. Promoters know that organizing a good amount of races and throwing in a few big-dollar events will keep racers local, and it will still keep their schedule full.

“This keeps the local tracks more competitive, and it helps them gain more loyalty,” says Hall.

Unfortunately, not all tracks were able to adapt so quickly.

Beattie says, “I have heard of some cuts here and there, but nothing major. ‘Big-money’ races have slowed down as well, but they are still out there. Track owners have to make a living as well, and this year, they have had to do it with fewer racers and fans. Times are tough for everyone out there.”

Though he also is not aware of any changes to class specifications, McInnis adds, “We have seen a lot of tracks trying to attract multiple types of crowds and the more casual racers and fans to get people in and involved.”

And more changes could be on the way.

Powell says, “I think if people are being conscious of the almighty dollar, then sanctioning bodies and tracks need to be doing the same. Otherwise, they’re not going to get those racers and manufacturers. I think that is one of the reasons the ADRL has done so well the last couple of years. They found a way to cater to not only a different market, but have found a new way to race.”

Powell says that a lot of people, he included, were skeptical of the ADRL (National Guard American Drag Racing League) at first. He felt it was just giving away tickets and wasn’t attracting enthusiasts. That changed once he participated in one of its events.

“We saw firsthand what those guys are doing. They have a great venue, and they treat their racers like royalty, all of them. The Juniors get the same rewards the adults do. They make it very easy for their racers,” says Powell.

Though they give tickets away to fill the stands, says Powell, the ADRL does fill the stands. “The whole family can come to these races, be entertained and still have money for a few beers, sodas, hamburgers and hotdogs. They can buy a T-shirt. It’s great for the industry, because they’re bringing new people in, and they’re renewing a sense of passion and nostalgia back into drag racing.”

If there was a trend in drag racing in 2009, it seems that it was a return to the nostalgia Powell mentioned. He wasn’t the only one to make that observation.

“We’re really close with a local drag strip here in San Diego, the Barona Drag Strip, and it’s hard for them. They can’t really lower their prices, although they’re doing their best to keep the price down, because they have lost a lot of advertising dollars,” says Novak. “So, they’re really relying on the local drag racers. But, I’ll tell you this: they do antique drags twice a year, and this year, they had more cars than they have ever had. That tells me that although we all watch the news about the economy and all of the bad things going on, going out and having a fun weekend running your car, barbequing with your buddies, is really what drag racing is all about.”

Expectations for 2010

With 2009 having been a tough year, many are looking forward to a new year and a new tune in 2010.

“In my opinion,” says Beattie, “as consumer confidence increases and the stock market moves ahead, the racing market should get better with it. All of the sportsman classes have done fine on the national level: NHRA Stock, Super Stock, etc., have had 100-percent of entries for full fields at almost all of the races. The more expensive and faster classes have suffered some slow down, but all in all, I think everyone who has made it through the past year will be just fine.”

While agreeing that 2009 seemed to end on an upbeat note for most manufacturers, McInnis hedges a little, saying, “Obviously, I can’t predict the future. But, it seems to be that people are getting a little less frightened of where everything is going. There’s not a whole lot more money in the system floating around out there. And, people are not just all of a sudden deciding to spend a lot of money. Buyers are still being very cautious. However, a lot of the kneejerk fear that was taking place a year ago or even six months ago has abated.”

Most economists agree that fear was one of the contributing factors to the downturn in the economy. With fear fading, there may be areas that will present good opportunities to become profit centers in 2010.

“I’ve had several phone calls the last couple of months with oval track engine builders. Many of them have gone back to drag racing. Why? Everybody can drag race. They have gone back to drag racing because it’s doing well and it has volume. I really think 2010 is going to be a great year for the drag racing market,” says Novak.

With the emphasis on local drag racing, Powell says it’s a good idea for shops to take a look at manufacturers who offer contingency. Each of those manufacturers may become profit centers.

“If I’m a small shop where guys buy parts for their dragsters, why wouldn’t I carry the companies that offer contingency in the venues where these guys are racing? It’s an opportunity for the racer, the customer, to get something back for their purchase. I know contingency is small amounts of money, but these days every little bit helps, and I think it’s important for manufacturers to support the racers when they can,” says Powell.

Contingency certainly offers a lot of potential. McInnis sees additional areas as well.

“Speaking for Dart,” says McInnis, “one of the things that we’re doing to try to help our customer, who is the local engine shop or speed shop, is to package these short-block assemblies and kits. Our intent is to let them compete in a market they really couldn’t compete in before, which would be the factory crate motor market. The average shop, price to price, just can’t go after that business. What we’re giving them is something they can buy and resell, adding some value. No, it’s not as cheap as a typical factory crate motor, but it’s a much better piece, and it’s priced so that they can get into that market and offer a lot more value for not a whole lot more money.”

Of course, we cannot discount the fact that racers will also be looking to get as much life as possible out of every part of their vehicle. That means repairs will be needed.

“With racers and the rest of the country being more cost-conscious, the rebuilding, upgrading and fixing of what they have already is important. We are building a lot of new transmissions, converter and super-dampers, but we are fixing and upgrading more than ever. Every nickel is important to our customers, as it is to us. So good areas to focus on for 2010 is the repair and upgrade end of the business,” says Beattie.

Do It Today

One of the frustrating aspects of the economic events we have all endured recently is that so much was beyond our control. However, there are still many things speed shops can do to assert themselves in positive ways.

Racers have realized what they really can afford to do, and they have learned ways to conserve, says Hall. Now, they really think twice about needing that “trick-of-the-week” part.

Shops should make sure that they have plenty of good information about the parts they sell and be able to educate their customers. That way, the customer feels that he is investing in both the knowledge of his local shop and the part itself.

“Mainly, the shops have to continue to sell trust and commitment before they sell parts. Staying open late to help a racer may yield you more profit in the future, especially when word gets around from a grateful customer,” says Hall.

As another way to earn customer loyalty, Beattie brings up contingency again, or a variation of it, saying he would offer customers some sort of local contingency to run your product or use your service.

“The NHRA, IHRA, NMCA, etc., have their own contingency programs for part purchases and the running of decals. But not everyone runs in those series. Why not work with your local track to put money in the racers’ hands? A $50 or $100 bill in a loyal customer’s hands is worth a lot more than just the monetary value.”

Novak suggests that shops be more involved with their customers.

“We have increased our local sales by simply going to the track more often and racing with the individuals. If you go to the races and get involved, the racers will identify with you.”

McInnis concurs, also advising shops to have somebody go to the track, walk the pits and talk to these guys. “This is a relationship business. You have to get out and meet people and build those relationships. Friendship with a customer is a good thing.”

He adds that when racers are trying to stretch their dollars as far as they will go, a good personal relationship, which is always key, shows its true value.

According to Powell, “People do not race unless they love it. Anything you can do to support that will go a long way toward earning and keeping their business.”

One of the most positive results of everyone operating on a tight budget this last year is that it has returned drag racing to its roots.

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and it has always been fun to go drag racing to meet your friends,” says Novak. “Professional drag racing has gotten to a point where it’s very commercial and very expensive. The average person could never do it. But, anybody can go and bracket race. You can race twice a year, or 10 times a year. It doesn’t matter; go as often as you like.”

Sounds like a good plan for this drag racing season.