Weeks, months and sometimes years of building and preparation.
Days of travel, practice, tuning and adjustments.
Hours of registration, check-in and setup.
Minutes of strategizing, focus and anticipation.
Seconds of exhilaration.
Those who love drag racing know that everything about the sport is a matter of time. With success on the track measured in hundredths, and even thousandths, of a second, the slightest edge can make all the difference.
For shops serving the drag racing market, understanding that time is of the essence-turnaround time, installation time, and, of course, elapsed time-is vital to earning and keeping the business of weekend warriors.
If it’s winter heading into spring, then it’s time to get serious about the drag racing market for 2012. Can the sport build on some of the traction it regained last year? Are there ways shops can help racers make the most of their budgets? And how can the industry as a whole support and sustain an activity that’s a timeless classic?
It’s the Economy
It seems that any discussion of the performance market these days starts with the economy. Is this the year those discussions turn to cheers?
“Moving from 2011 into 2012, there is a resounding feeling of confidence that the economy can improve, and those who have performed the best in the market will emerge in a position of strength,” predicts Carl Robinson, motorsports manager for Mickey Thompson Performance Tires & Wheels, Stow, Ohio. “That being said, there are those who operate with a tone of caution. Reality tells us that we should combine the two schools of thought by keeping a good eye on the things we can control such as inventory levels, advertising and capital expenditures, while investing in the development of satisfied customers.”
Citing a study from an unnamed sanctioning body, Robinson says it appears that participant attendance at events has dropped about 20 percent in the past few years, meaning fewer opportunities for speed shops and an increased pressure to make the most of every sale.
“As we are all a part of today’s global economy, it’s impossible to deny that all businesses built on the foundation of ‘wants vs. needs’ have seen challenges in the past four years,” he notes. “The best way to overcome that is through offering good products at the correct price with consistent customer service.”
Part of the strength of the drag racing industry is the notion that racers will race, regardless of what’s going on in the outside world. A passion for the sport means that they will find a way to get to the track, regardless of budget constraints.
Pete Miller, owner of Transmission Specialties, Aston, Pa., explains how this can work to the advantage of speed shops in a position to freshen up existing engines and cars.
“We found the economy directly affected the purchasing decisions for most racers,” he says of 2011. “Many racers trended toward repairing or upgrading existing transmissions and racing converters rather than purchasing new units, as the funds were just not available.”
With at least one noticeable exception.
“The heads-up classes, which are driven by high horsepower, were one of the few areas of growth,” he adds.
In response to that trend toward rebuilding, Transmission Specialties is creating a Racing Converter Lease Program for 2012 as a way for racers to try a new converter for as little as a week with no purchase obligation, Miller notes.
Predictions of a somewhat stable economy naturally lead to optimism surrounding the coming drag racing campaign.
Thor Schroeder, national marketing and new product manager for Moroso Performance Products and Competition Engineering, Guilford, Conn., believes “this year is going to be stronger and will be a step toward getting this form of racing back to the big car-count days of a couple of years past.”
The keys to success, he adds, will be “everyone staying positive, gas staying below $4 a gallon, and hoping that the mainstream news (media) doesn’t put the public in panic mode.”
Expectations of good things for the drag racing market appear to be a theme among industry suppliers.
“I think racing in general will start to see slow and steady growth,” says Kelli Wilmore, VP of marketing for Impact by MasterCraft Safety, Brownsburg, Ind. “I believe where we will see dramatic increases specifically in the drag racing market is internationally. We have seen quite a bit of interest in our products with drag racing enthusiasts in Europe, and we definitely have our eye on this market.”
Another market Impact is watching, she adds, is the youth drag racing sector, which has shown strong growth potential and involves parents making safety a top priority for their little racers.
At MAHLE Clevite, Ann Arbor, Mich., Bill McKnight, team leader – training, says that the market last year “was, for us, up about 10 percent from a pretty slow 2010.”
And will that trend continue?
“I don’t expect another 10-percent increase,” he says. “I figure we’ll be lucky to keep last year’s gains and maybe add 2 percent.”
Shops should already be in the planning stages in order to take full advantage of increased opportunities this year.
One way to do that, notes Schroeder, is to “have an open mind when listening to customers. Realize that drag racers are looking for high-quality products at the right price, with sanctioning body approval and name-brand recognition.
“Most racers work hard all week trying to balance work, home commitments, getting the car ready, getting the tow vehicle ready and finally packing everything up. If they need a part at the last minute, they should feel confident in knowing it will go on as intended and not ruin a race weekend that should be enjoyable.”
But gaining that position isn’t always easy-or cheap.
“The first challenge is the escalating cost of doing business,” says Robinson. “Fuel costs, equipment maintenance, personnel expenses, taxes.-¦ How can a business pass these expenses on? For some, the answer is, you can’t!
“The reality is these never-ending expenses come from your bottom-line profits and in order to keep the customers coming back, you must provide a good product at a competitive price, followed by extraordinary customer service.”
The manufacturers are understandably excited about many of those good products for the drag racing market.
Here’s a rundown of their hottest offerings for 2012:
Robinson/Mickey Thompson: “We have three. The first is the M/T 3169W 10.5-inch Bias-Ply Drag Tire that currently dominates the world of small-tire racing with 5-second performances at speeds reaching 250 mph in the quarter mile. Next, the tire of choice for the fastest drag radial cars on the planet is the Mickey Thompson ET Street Radial 3763R. And finally, the final phase of the PRO-5 Drag race wheels has been released and sales have been soaring.”
Schroeder/Moroso: “Our company has always been known for the number of different drag race oil pan applications that we offer. Our Custom Department produces variations of our production part numbers as well as custom one-offs. In our Competition Engineering line of products, our Slide-A-Links are well-known for letting leaf spring-equipped cars and trucks hook-up for better 60-foot times.”
Willmore/Impact: “Again looking at the junior market, we offer the Mini Champ helmet, Junior Drag gloves and Junior Drag driving suits with integrated arm restraints. Impact also offers vehicle safety items such as custom race harnesses with a variety of attachment ends. In late 2011, we also introduced a line of Kevlar drag parachutes for race vehicles that exceed 300 mph. The benefits of Kevlar include increased fire protection and a lighter weight.”
McKnight/MAHLE Clevite: “For 2012, it’ll be carbon steel compression rings for Sportsman, Comp and stock classes. The rings offer 30-percent more strength than ductile cast iron rings with the same dimensional size, plus the ability to reduce the radial wall for a lighter ring pack without sacrificing strength. With our OE ring volume in carbon steel, we can make this change for the customer without changing the price of the ring set.”
Miller/Transmission Specialties: “The 10-inch Lock-Up series torque converter is our hot ticket. The growing trend toward the high-performance overdrive transmission, especially from the under-40 crowd, has led to the development of a matching 10-inch lock-up converter for the 4L60E and 4l80E transmissions. It includes a billet front cover, oversized billet lock-up piston, all furnace-brazed fins and a stall speed from 2,800 to 4,500 rpm.
As shops prepare to jump into the drag racing market for 2012, there are plenty of trends to watch for and options to consider.
For instance, Miller warns that “the demise of the Powerglide transmission core is the largest obstacle to the future of the drag racing industry. The end of the supply of PG cores means it is necessary to develop all-aftermarket component parts including pump, valve body, all small internal parts, and of course, an aftermarket case. The challenge we see is to develop these aftermarket parts in a cost-effective method so the bracket racer is not priced out of the market.”
He notes that TSI has already developed an aftermarket PG pump and will introduce a new valve body in 2012.
He also has an idea on what he believes the American people should do to help the sport.
“The best opportunity to increase profitability is to elect someone in November who doesn’t believe attempting to make a profit in a brutal business environment is committing a mortal sin and should be taxed to oblivion,” Miller says.
When shops are engaged with drag racers, Willmore reminds them to present a complete range of potential product upgrades, including safety equipment.
“Because drag racing is essentially the purest form of competition and tenths of a second could mean the difference between hero and zero, the challenges that shops encounter are getting the racers to spend their paychecks on safety equipment versus products that provide 25 more horsepower,” she explains.
Stressing the importance of safety-and explaining how it directly affects the customer in front of you-will set your shop up as an expert to be trusted.
“Become familiar with the safety and technical bulletin updates for the series and sanctions that your customers race in prior to the start of the season,” Willmore suggests. “If there are any rule changes or safety updates, make sure to have the newly required products in stock prior to the start of the season. This type of foresight will make your shop the natural choice for products and services year-around with the deeply loyal drag racing crowd.”
Gaining specific product knowledge of all the pieces of a drag car can be daunting, but it’s important for shops looking to connect with racers. Take wheels and tires for instance, says Robinson.
“Pay attention to the details,” he recommends. “If you decide to add tires and wheels to your product offering then it becomes paramount that you equip your sales and service staff with the best tools available. Education regarding application and installation of racing tires is relatively technical in nature. Make sure you are aware of what’s popular in your region. Go to the races with your staff. Build relationships. Understand the current trends. It’s important to know that your customer has done his research. The Internet is full of information and most folks believe what they read.”
Going to the races is not only fun, but forges a vital business connection with the racers you serve.
“A shop that is involved with racing does gain credibility in the customer’s eyes,” says Schroeder. “It elevates the business from one that just sells parts to one that has a specialist or specialists to help in the buying process.”
If your shop doesn’t race its own car, Schroeder suggests sponsoring your best customer(s), as funds allow. He also recommends attending the national trade shows to gain overall market perspective.
If all of this sounds like a big commitment, that’s because it is. But it’s time well-spent in a sport in which every second counts.
“The biggest challenge shops face is knowing enough detail about the product lines you carry in order to add value to the sale,” says McKnight. “You add value through product knowledge, inventory on the shelf and through your understanding of the drag racing business. The fundamental question should be: ‘Why should customer X buy this product from me?'”
Now’s the time to know the answer.