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WADE: NHRA’s ‘Fixing’ Isn’t Helping Pro Stockers

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Published in Racing
Monday, 22 April 2019 08:00
Susan Wade

SEATTLE — The NHRA’s unsinkable Pro Stock class has weathered all kinds of “fixing.”

And this month marks the first time it will be absent from an NHRA national event since it burst on the scene in 1970.

The NHRA cut the Pro Stock schedule from 24 races to 18 in another attempt to reduce costs and increase fan interest. The teams were just starting to adapt to the 2016 rule changes that ushered in the electronic-fuel-injection era. At steep costs, teams were forced to toss out their carburetors and distinguishing hood scoops. In an effort to achieve transparency with the fans, the sanctioning body ordered teams to back their cars into the pits and leave engines uncovered. Cars were equipped with shorter wheelie bars and an NHRA-controlled 10,500-rpm rev limiter.

Then in 2017, the NHRA ponied up $5,000 and several sets of Goodyear tires to entice the drivers at the U.S. Nationals to perform smoky burnouts to excite the crowds. Never mind that the NHRA leaned on no other class to emphasize the sport’s entertainment value.

And never mind that this wasn’t a stand-alone contest. This Battle of the Burnouts took place during qualifying for the race with the year’s biggest payout and the one that set the field for the Countdown to the Championship. So a lot was at stake for these racers, and doing long, smoky burnouts — something that was the traditional hallmark of the Funny Cars, not the Pro Stock cars — had the potential to ruin a run.

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As if all that weren’t enough for the class, Ken Adelson, the NHRA’s chief strategy officer and executive producer, led the move to remove the Pro Stock class from the FOX Sports broadcast. The Pro Stock class was edited from the primary coverage and “given” its own hour-long show — aired the Tuesday following the race.

Surely, the NHRA knew Pro Stock fans, and the sport has plenty of them, would be angry that the gesture came about 72 hours after everyone knew how eliminations unfolded. The NHRA is keenly aware fans want to know results immediately.

After all, it has live timing on its website and up-to-the-minute updates on its social media outlets. Evidently, it didn’t figure Pro Stock mattered. Moreover, the initial show followed a college basketball game —and the worst-case scenario happened. The game went into overtime and sliced into the Pro Stock broadcast by 28 minutes, spoiling the live viewing, as well as recorded viewing for those who used their DVRs to enjoy the show at their own pace.

It brought back cringe-worthy memories of the ESPN days when that happened on a regular basis, with the NHRA always playing second fiddle to just about any other sporting event.

The NHRA couldn’t help the overtime basketball game, but it could have prevented it by choosing a better time slot – preferably on Sunday, on race day.

Why not piggyback the Pro Stock show onto the one that showcases the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes? Why did it trim a three-hour show, split off the Pro Stock class coverage into its own hour-long program and then fling that off into the midweek as an afterthought? Pro Stock fans might be willing to wait a couple of hours, if the wait means the teams and sponsors get the coverage they deserve.

The content of the initial Pro Stock show, despite the considerable talents and knowledge of hosts Brian Lohnes and Bruno Massel, was a bit chaotic. It seemed the NHRA was making a genuine effort to include all the elements it thought it needed to include.

However, it seemed to be trying to cram too much information into the show, while still using insider lingo and throwing out names with which a newcomer to the sport — a targeted audience — would not be familiar.

In fairness, it’s a skinny tightrope to walk between talking down to informed viewers and educating new fans, but it had two extra days following the live broadcast to solve that problem.

Honestly, if the NHRA knew it was going to go this route with a “separate but equal” Pro Stock program, it should have laid the foundation for it as early as last December. It should have introduced viewers to the drivers and their teams, explained what Pro Stock racing is about, followed their offseason preparations, and gotten viewers in the groove.

If this Pro Stock program was presented in reality-show style, it might make the other classes envious. That’s not to suggest the producers adopt a tawdry, “Real Housewives”-type, cheap vibe to it. But watching car after car go down a race track — while it does give the sponsors more exposure — doesn’t make anyone care about the racers. The brand loyalty that once epitomized Pro Stock competition has no chance to return if the viewers don’t connect with the personalities.

Maybe the Pro Stock class itself has been an all-too-willing enabler. Maybe the competitors should start pushing back against these initiatives. Maybe they should be proactive. Privately, many were angry with the Tuesday-TV dismissal. But when offered the chance, none chose to speak publicly. Actually, Erica Enders showed leadership, rallying the class in diplomatic fashion, encouraging her colleagues to work within the system to make the situation better.

One has to wonder what would happen if the next time the NHRA tries to “help” the Pro Stock class, the drivers respond by saying, “No, thanks.”

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