SNOHOMISH, Wash. — With another round of personnel cuts at the end of August, NHRA has left drag-racing fans wondering what the sport will look like in 2021 and beyond.
Assuming the coronavirus is contained, will John Force Racing return with its four entries —three champions and the 2019 rookie of the year; will formats return to three days; and purses return at least to early-2020 status? What will fans get to see once they’re allowed to show up en masse?
Will fans still show up in big numbers and what will the schedule look like? Will there be fewer races; or might there be eight-car fields instead of 16?
Still, NHRA may need to find a way to bring some pizzazz to the program and part of the solution to that problem could come from north of the border.
Meet “Ricky Hollywood.”
The driver of the Bone Shaker jet truck — Canadian Rick Kopp — could bring an element of fire and fun, noise and shock, maybe even a bit of nostalgia.
So what if Kopp goes by “Ricky Hollywood?”
Flashy nicknames for the drivers and cars were the lure and legacy of early drag racers. “Jungle Jim” Liberman, Ed “The Ace” McCulloch, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Connie “The Bounty Hunter” Kalitta headline a long list of wild, attention-grabbing nicknames.
Cast members of the popular “Street Outlaws” — which draws more than 1.5 million viewers on cable TV — have prickly or trendy names: Big Chief, Murder Nova, The Reaper, Azn and Farmtruck. The snarling, sneering WWE combatants star in a world swirling with words such as raw, smackdown, slam, and throwdown. The iconic Grave Digger, Maximum Destruction, Arachnophobia, Snake Bite and Towasaurus Wrex add dash to the Monster Truck lineup.
Popular drag-racing champion Gary Scelzi said, “Why reinvent the wheel? If you find something that works, copy it.” So maybe Ricky Hollywood can put people in the seats.
Kopp said, “People go just crazy” when they see Bone Shaker, the 1981 International Transtar 4300 race truck that’s powered by a J-79 General Electric turbo jet engine that was built for use in military fighter and bomber aircraft.
“They’re buying T-shirts. They’re looking at the truck,” Kopp added. “They’re saying, ‘Oh my gosh — I can’t wait to see this! What time does it go out?’ It’s because it’s something totally different that people don’t get to see every day.”
Fans certainly don’t often get to see a truck like Kopp’s. He fondly calls it “a shoebox,” but it’s more like a showbox, with flashing blue-and-green lights.
Bone Shaker is propelled by an engine that’s 16.5-feet long, one that generates 18,000 horsepower, with dual smokestacks that belch out fire as impressively as an oil refinery and an afterburner that would melt or incinerate anything in its immediate wake. And riding shotgun with Kopp in the cab is a chrome skeleton.
“And the fans eat it up like candy,” he said. “Once we do our pass and come in, the fans are back there for autographs and hero cards and the whole nine yards. It’s a lot of fun.”
What Kopp envisions for drag racing is what the Monster Truck circuit has figured out. He said, “Every minute of the show they’ve got the people’s attention. Kids are going, ‘Daddy, look at this.’ And they’re grabbing onto their arms. It’s a full family deal. They get involved in it fully.”
That “Wow!” factor is the missing element Kopp believes could transform the appeal of the NHRA. He knows drag racing already is cool with the broad spectrum of cars, the diversity of drivers and fans, and the speed and quickness.
But he’s convinced an act like Bone Shaker can increase the excitement level.
Six years ago, Kopp and John Force crossed paths at St. Thomas Dragway in Sparta, Ontario. Force was grand marshal of an event called the Hardcore Horsepower Shootout. Kopp and Bone Shaker were booked in to entertain.
And in a letter of endorsement shortly afterward, Force said Kopp “did a great job at this venue. It was evident that he really supports his fans and sponsors. … Rick ensures that he spends time meeting, greeting, autographing and taking pictures with everyone who visits his pit. I have to say that not all drag racers will devote the time, energy and resources that Rick does in these areas. Hollywood’s goal is to ensure that everyone who supports the sport of drag racing has a great experience. He truly believes that people make the difference in the sport that he loves.
“Personally, I believe in this approach,” Force wrote. “Rick and I are very similar in our approach to racing. We believe there is a win-win in every interaction, whether it be business or personal — there is something for everyone.”
Kopp said, “I have learned a lot from John before and after this event, once again proving it’s all about the fans. Give them a show that they will never forget and before you know it, you have a following for years to come.”