PRI Magazine January 2014 : Page 8
R elentless innovators since the days of the first quarter-mile tracks, drag racing businesspeople continue to tweak, tune and adapt in 2014. No matter the modern day obsta-cles, these motorsports professionals are creating economic horsepower in the drag racing market by implementing more efficient communication methods and greater product value. “If you don’t pay attention to providing value to your fans, racers and sponsors, you have no chance of success,” said Aaron Polburn of the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), Norwalk, Ohio. Bob Beucler of The Dragtime News , a Lebanon, New Jersey-based online publication covering the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, said that the drag racing market has undergone recent changes in participation patterns. “Unlike years ago when racers would race two to three times per week—some-times at two different tracks in the same weekend—racers now are being more selective about the events at which they’ll compete. Factors include distance—which equates to fuel— and payouts,” he said. Steve Wolcott of ProMedia Events, Santa Ana, California, said that drag racing sanctioning bodies need to main-tain rules that keep participation affordable to racers. 8 “Sometimes the difference between six seconds, 200 mph and six seconds, 250 mph to the fan is not all that noticeable,” Wolcott explained. “If you are running 6.0s at 250 mph, running 6.40s at 220 mph is not a whole lot different to the fans. But it’s a whole lot different to a racer as far as what parts they need to buy, what crew they need to support, what they need to do to run the better times.” Bill Bader Jr. of Summit Motorsports Park, Norwalk, Ohio, said that he believes the current state of the economy is the new norm. “I think our mindset ought to be: This is the hand of cards we’ve been dealt; how do we work within this framework? That way, if it does improve, it’s just a bonus for us,” he said. Anthony Vestal of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), Glendora, California, said that the social media explosion con-tinues to be the hottest trend in drag racing. “NHRA is working hard to maximize its online footprint in this very important Even with a battle against inclement weather at race tracks across the US in 2013, a number of drag race events fared well, with many experiencing increased car counts compared to previous years. And optimism prevails for an even stronger race season in 2014 from a number of promoters and sanctioning body reps. Photo courtesy of NMRA Ford Nationals. Performance Racing Industry | January 2014
Drag Race Market: A Straight Line To Increased Profits
Relentless innovators since the days of the first quarter-mile tracks, drag racing businesspeople continue to tweak, tune and adapt in 2014. No matter the modern day obstacles, these motorsports professionals are creating economic horsepower in the drag racing market by implementing more efficient communication methods and greater product value.
“If you don’t pay attention to providing value to your fans, racers and sponsors, you have no chance of success,” said Aaron Polburn of the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA), Norwalk, Ohio.
Bob Beucler of The Dragtime News, a Lebanon, New Jersey-based online publication covering the mid-Atlantic and Northeast, said that the drag racing market has undergone recent changes in participation patterns. “Unlike years ago when racers would race two to three times per week—sometimes at two different tracks in the same weekend—racers now are being more selective about the events at which they’ll compete. Factors include distance—which equates to fuel—and payouts,” he said.
Steve Wolcott of ProMedia Events, Santa Ana, California, said that drag racing sanctioning bodies need to maintain rules that keep participation affordable to racers. “Sometimes the difference between six seconds, 200 mph and six seconds, 250 mph to the fan is not all that noticeable,” Wolcott explained. “If you are running 6.0s at 250 mph, running 6.40s at 220 mph is not a whole lot different to the fans. But it’s a whole lot different to a racer as far as what parts they need to buy, what crew they need to support, what they need to do to run the better times.”
Bill Bader Jr. of Summit Motorsports Park, Norwalk, Ohio, said that he believes the current state of the economy is the new norm. “I think our mindset ought to be: This is the hand of cards we’ve been dealt; how do we work within this framework? That way, if it does improve, it’s just a bonus for us,” he said.
Anthony Vestal of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), Glendora, California, said that the social media explosion continues to be the hottest trend in drag racing. “NHRA is working hard to maximize its online footprint in this very important Area through its Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as via its YouTube Channel,” Vestal said. “NHRA recently surpassed 500,000 fans on Facebook and topped 50,000 followers on Twitter, and those numbers continue to rise every day. NHRA is working hard to engage those audiences with compelling and entertaining content so those numbers will continue to surge upward.
“The ability to communicate messages directly to fans through these social media tools has provided a tremendous shift in the way companies conduct business, and NHRA encourages all of the race teams, sponsors, vendors and tracks within the drag racing industry to really focus on this important part of their business model in the coming years,” he added.
Kenny Nowling of American Drag Racing League (ADRL), O’Fallon, Missouri, agreed that social media has been an important and effective way to introduce new fans to the sport. Since reacquiring the ADRL in late 2012, after having sold it in 2010, the ADRL’s Facebook followers have grown from roughly 22,000 to 40,000 in one year. “I think we are going to see that number grow at least six times this year,” Nowling said. “I think using social media, live streaming the event so that the fans at home can interact with the announcing crew, that’s where we are going with our television.”
“The beautiful thing about social media is that we are directly hitting our customer,” said Steve Earwood of Rockingham Dragway, Rockingham, North Carolina. “We know this guy has interest—otherwise, he wouldn’t be on our list. He’s either called in here or emailed here. He’s been to one of our events or he’s been to one of our forums. Not only are we hitting our target market, it’s free.”
In our coverage of the drag racing market a year ago, 2013 was expected to be a banner year. We asked our contacts if the 2013 results met those expectations, and we heard mostly positive responses.
“The 2013 season has been a very good one as the economy continues to make a comeback,” NHRA’s Vestal said in October. “Our fans continue to want to experience NHRA’s thrilling brand of racing live, and that’s a great sign. Once again, NHRA offered exciting championship battles during the Mello Yello Countdown to the Championship that capped a tremendous season of ontrack racing action. The highlight of the season was NHRA’s entrance into the Boston market. The Auto-Plus NHRA New England Nationals at New England Dragway, in Epping, New Hampshire, was an outstanding inaugural event in every sense, and massive crowds filled the facility all three days.
“At the grassroots level of the sport, we also saw growth, as there were increases in sportsman participation in the Lucas Oil Series and the Summit Racing Series,” Vestal said. “Four of the seven NHRA Divisions reported increased total car counts from their divisional race schedules, and that’s very encouraging.”
He added, “In the sportsman ranks, we’ve seen increases in participation in Top Sportsman, Top Dragster, and, as a result of those higher car counts, we have increased the amount of races on the schedule for each of those categories as well.”
IHRA’s Polburn told us that the sanctioning body exceeded expectations in 2013. “We had the best financial year in the last five,” he said. “We exceeded budget numbers in membership, sanctioned race tracks and sponsorship while reducing operational costs. Our Summit Racing sportsman programs were the catalyst. As they grew, so did membership and IHRA-sanctioned venues.
“On the IHRA side, I see the frontgate spectator business growing in 2014 simply because the format we have put together has wide appeal,” Polburn continued. “It will be a hybrid of our successful Nitro Jam format combined with a more traditional competition structure.”
Polburn said that IHRA’s Canadian events are always robust. “In 2013, we also saw substantial increases in our Northern Nationals in Martin, Michigan, and a great first year event in Bradenton, Florida,” he said.
ProMedia’s Wolcott said that, overall, 2013 was a good year. “We thought it would rebound better than it did, but all in all, 2013 was definitely not a bad year. It wasn’t a banner year, but it wasn’t a bad year either. I would say that it was in the middle, and I would say that people are more optimistic for 2014.”
For its NMRA series, ProMedia introduced a class two years ago called Coyote Stock. “You could buy a sealed Ford Racing Coyote crate engine for about $6000, and you could go heads-up racing with NMRA,” Wolcott said. “We’ve sold upwards of 30 of those engines so far. These engines are only good for this class. We’ve been having eight-, 10-, 12-car fields, and we’re expecting to have upwards of 24- to 32-car fields in Coyote Stock in 2014.”
New for 2014, NMRA will be introducing a Coyote Modified class featuring the same 5.0 engine platform. “It is powerful right from the factory,” Wolcott said. “With easy modifications, it can make a lot more power.
“In Coyote Modified, we will allow certain modifications to the engine, and we will also allow the addition of power adders like turbochargers, superchargers and nitrous,” he added. “It’s the next evolution of heads-up drag racing for Ford Racing’s popular Coyote-engine platform. We announced the rules and we have never had this large a response to a new class.”
Wolcott said the GM-produced, LS-engine platform has produced another popular segment. “We have a series called the LSX Challenge Series, and it runs as a part of our NMCA Muscle Car Nationals. It’s like a series within a series,” he said. “The LS segment is red hot, and it’s one of the top-selling categories for almost all the performance manufacturers out there. It’s a very efficient, powerful engine, and it’s affordable and easy to work on. We’ve got some special race categories that cater to LS Performance enthusiasts and we run them at our LSX Challenge Series events.”
On the West Coast, ProMedia promotes the NMCA WEST Street Car Nationals. “Because we cater to sportsman racers, they don’t have the time or the money to haul their cars from California all the way to the East Coast and back,” Wolcott said. “We have our series broken into regions. NMRA and NMCA are pretty much east of the Mississippi River. On the West Coast, we have the NMCA WEST Street Car Nationals. We have heads-up and sportsman drag racing for West Coast enthusiasts. We’re just finishing up our second year with that series and we’ve had incredible success.”
Ryan Haas of Forward Sports Marketing, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, promoters of Super Chevy Show, Fun Ford Weekend and Mega Mopar Action Series, said drag race car counts at the company’s events increased from the 2012 season by an average of 10–15 percent in 2013. The biggest impact was made at East Coast events, he said.
“It will continue to be strong in the East in 2014, but will also show growth in the Midwestern and Western US,” he said.
“Camaro street performance and drag radial classes are very popular at Super Chevy Show events, and the same on the Fun Ford Weekend series for the Mustang 5.0L cars,” Haas said. “Many of the East Coast tracks are running 1/8-mile distance at events for bracket racing.”
ADRL has returned to a free ticket distribution model at its events. “We distribute all the tickets through marketing partners and retail partners within each individual market,” Nowling said. “And, subsequently, we charge $20 for parking and generate our revenues off of sponsorship, parking, concessions and souvenirs.
“The 2013 season was a huge success based on the fact that, in spite of some bad weather, we hit our revenue goals at each and every event,” Nowling continued. “That’s all you can hope for at the end of the year is to be in the black. I would say on a scale of one to 10, it was probably a seven, which going into a year of getting the company back, we were very pleased.”
Nowling told us that ADRL has already tripled its sponsorship base from 2013 going into 2014.
All of ADRL’s events are run on a 1/8-mile track, primarily out of the concern for safety, Nowling said.
The sanctioning body’s Pro Extreme division of door slammer cars continues to impress. “We continue to see just mind blowing performance barriers being shattered,” he said. “Statistically, if you look at the Pro Extreme class over the last several years, I don’t know if any other class in the history of drag racing has ever seen the performances. I mean, five years ago, these cars were running 3. 90s at 185–188 mph. Now these cars are running 3.50s, about to get into the 3. 40s. So it’s from 0–215 mph in 3.5 seconds in 660 feet. From a performance standpoint, it’s mind boggling.”
“At least here in the Northeast, car counts are going back up again at tracks’ weekly bracket racing programs and also at NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series events,” said Beucler of The Dragtime News. “Englishtown’s (New Jersey) LODRS event in September 2013 was particularly well attended.
“The big growth area at tracks is the X275 and 10.5 tire classes,” Beucler continued. “These classes are drawing racers to the tracks who are not interested in bracket racing. These events also draw more spectators than weekly bracket programs, which is great for the tracks’ food and souvenir sales.”
Hanna Motorsports in Enfield, Connecticut, runs exhibition race cars at 70 events per year throughout the country. Al Hanna, former nitro Funny Car racer and current owner of the Hanna Motorsports professional jet drag racing team, was inducted into the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame in 2013.
“We’re like a motorsports rock band,” Hanna said. “In other words, we totally depend on going to events under contract and having people pay to see us perform. At the end of the day, we get a paycheck. We go around the country and one of the things we’ve noticed with the economy the way it was—unlike some businesses that are totally affected negatively—a lot of the tracks that we participate in are still able to function based on the fact that fans don’t have to travel that far. So the business has been OK, and we have done OK.”
Hanna said one difficulty for the drag racing market is recruiting new fans. “I think one of the big challenges about the performance industry is educating those that are not in it,” he said.
Earwood, of Rockingham Dragway, said that the track had a good year in 2013 despite a bout with inclement weather. “We had more rain this year than we had in a number of seasons,” he said. “With good weather, we had some great events. We had a few very successful bracket weekends. The sport compact import business is getting stronger. Those have done well. We included drifting this year, and that’s been quite a boost.”
To market Rockingham Dragway’s events, the company hired a full-time staff member devoted strictly to social media. “The Facebook and the Constant Contact and the things that an old guy like me detests, I’ve realized that that’s what’s happening,” Earwood said. “With the exception of Super Chevy, I’m not spending any money electronically on TV or radio; it’s all social media. I’m curious to see how that goes.”
Earwood said he is very excited about the 2014 season. “I’ve had more groups call me in the past month about events for next year than I have for five years,” he said in October. “We’re getting back on the Nitro Jam schedule. We’ve added some other exciting events. We’re hoping to host two of the ADRL events next year, which we’re excited about. These events do great for us.”
Summit Motorsports Park celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. “We were a little weather impacted, but, overall, I think 2013 was a very good year for us,” Bader said. “We did not necessarily feel any adverse effects from the economy, or the weakend economy. We focus very heavily on mom, dad and the kids. We have very user-friendly kids pricing. We do free parking. We have never charged for parking in the facility’s 50-year history. We do a lot of things for 12 and under free. We do a lot of ticket bundling. We do a lot of very aggressive marketing and promotion in the marketplace.”
Bader said that the racing industry should focus on delivering value to the customer. “I think it’s a mistake to start pruning back and cutting out creature comfort features—things that enhance the guests’ experience in our home. So, we continue from a front-of-house perspective to deliver those creature comfort features. We continue to offer guest service. We have a no-hassle, no-worry refund policy. It’s called the ‘Bader Family Guarantee.’ It says that if you ever come here and we fail to meet your expectations, we’ll solve the problem to your satisfaction. Whatever that means, including a full money-back, on-the-spot refund. So we put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. We focus on family, we focus on fun, and we focus on value.”
For the future, Bader said he is quite optimistic. “The exciting thing will happen when people realize what a great live audience sport this is, how exciting it is and how powerful these cars are,” he said. “We don’t really translate well on television because you can’t smell nitromethane, you can’t feel 7000 horsepower. But when people come out and they experience it in person it does excite all of the senses, and invariably a first-time attendee will say, ‘Wow, I had no idea.’
“We need to understand that our audience has changed,” Bader continued. “Our customer will always be our core customer, but we can’t hang our hat on only that customer base 50 years from now. We’ve got to figure out a way to reach new fans, and in order to do that we need to understand how to communicate. Is it still through a radio spot? Is it network television? Is it a mommy blogging site? The world is changing, and the makeup of households is changing, and we need to understand and craft those messages accordingly.”
Summit Motorsports Park has two signature events that it is known for, according to Bader. “The largest single-day event that we have is called the Night Under Fire,” he said. “It is 40 years old. My father created it. It is legitimately the largest single-day drag race in the world. We have 40,000 people that attend that show. That event is held annually in August. The other one is our national event, our Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals, and that is July 4 weekend.” In 2014, it will be July 3–6.
Hawkins Speed Shop in Richmond, Indiana, has been in business for 60 years and has a varied client base, ranging from drag racers to the circle track racers, according to Jordan Ray. “We have those dedicated customers who always come to us,” he said. “The winter time is the time to prep your race car and get it back ready for the next season, so that tends to be a large portion of our business, from people getting their race cars updated to the normal guy working in his garage, getting his hot rod ready.”
Race fabricator Jerry Bickel of Jerry Bickel Race Cars, Moscow Mills, Missouri, said that business was extremely good in 2013. “Parts and complete cars, everything we do here has been extremely busy,” he said. “We’re doing mostly Pro Mods, Top Sportsman, Pro Extreme, and turbo and nitrous cars. I think 2014 is going to be just as good.”
Dynamic Sales Opportunities in Diesel Racing
While diesel is not threatening to oust gasoline as the preferred racing fuel in the United States any time soon, there are sales to be made via the diesel racing niche of the market.
Here’s just a sampling of the performance upgrades diesel racers will want on their cars: air intakes, exhausts, turbos, injectors, wheels, tires, brakes, head bolts, studs, intercoolers, tuners and transmissions.
“There are several new performance upgrades for diesel engines including new pistons, rods, lift pump, injectors and turbos that will get any street truck close to 900–1100 horsepower,” said Ron Knoch of the National Association of Diesel Motorsports (NADM), Kansas City, Missouri. “Just five years ago, the trucks were lucky to be around 600 hp; now they easily reach 900 hp if the diesel enthusiast wants to invest in his truck. Sled pulling is growing in the 2.5 class along with the standard 2.6 class. The 2.5 is a street class, so the trucks are licensed, while the 2.6 class is trailered by most competitors. And drag racing has started to grow in the ET bracket class.”
Knoch said the diesel motorsports market is still strong even on the cusp of the EPA shutting down many of the DPF Delete tuning options that have been available in past years. “Most of the diesel shops have gone back to building performance from the bottom up, so to speak. That involves upgrades to engine components or parts that will enhance the performance of the diesel engines,” he said. “The tuners offered a quick power adjustment with very little Investment; however, the OEM engine could not handle the power many times, which resulted in broken parts. Now, shops are installing the upgrade parts first to add the additional power customers seek legally.”
Diesel racing is a rural sport with roots in the farming communities, according to Knoch. “There are too many diesel trucks available in the rural markets to slow the growth down much,” he said.
Truck counts for racing in NADM are anywhere from 50 trucks for small events to 300 for larger events, Knoch said. “The average is 80–150, though, with pulling being more predominate in the Midwest and drag racing more in the West.
The most popular NADM class is the ET Bracket street class, according to Knoch. “It is a class where speed doesn’t matter, but accuracy at the tree and a good time gets the win,” he said. “The next popular class is the heads-up, fast-as-you-can-go Unlimited Class (Pro Street), and it is not for the faint-hearted, but for the experienced racer with all of the safety equipment.”
Randy Cole of the National Hot Rod Diesel Association (NHRDA), Marysville, Washington, said the diesel competition market in both drag racing and sled pulling is the strongest it has been since the market fallout in the late 2000s. “We saw a 48-percent growth in competitors and a 51-percent growth in spectators during the 2013 season,” he said.
“Purpose-built vehicles seem to be the new trend in both drag racing and sled pulling in the NHRDA,” Cole explained. “In the past, we saw many competitors that tried to make their daily drivers also weekend warriors. The new trend seems to be purpose-built vehicles that compete in their dedicated classes to take the performance level and set new national records in all of our categories. Many of these teams are now getting corporate sponsors to back the teams.”
Cole said the diesel motorsports market is becoming more mainstream— not only in the US and Canada but across the world. “For example, this year at our World Finals, a team from Thailand brought their Pro Stock truck to Texas and got to meet teams from the US and Canada. And they are already planning to return next year.”
Ron Olsen of Hypermax Engineering, Gilberts, Illinois, said the diesel racing market is healthy. “The organizations are doing a good job of standardizing classes nationwide,” he said. “Also, the competition is getting better.”
For racing entrepreneurs who want to service the diesel racing market, Olsen advised, “Make sure you have stock in place when the season begins.”
Bill Bovensiep of ETS, Charlotte, North Carolina, said the popularity of diesel versus gasoline in the US compared to Europe is inverted. “Let’s say 10 percent of the cars on the road, including trucks, in the US are running diesel, and we run 90 percent gasoline. In Europe, it is just the opposite.”
DTS has 16 race fuels used globally, Bovensiep told us, and of those, two are diesel. “Is the market growing?” he asked. “There is potential for the market but not nearly like it is in gasoline, total. Gasoline still prevails.” —Nick Gagala