The late Wally Parks established the National Hot Rod Association 60 years ago to herd defiant, envelope-pushing illegal street racers -- "Big Daddy" Don Garlits simply called them "leather-jacketed hoodlums" -- into a safer environment.
So drag racing always has had its colorful personalities and rule-breakers, plenty of mouthy men and women who occasionally punctuated their points with a punch or two, and definitely more drama than daytime soap operas on TV. Moreover, the NHRA has the most thrilling motorsport -- the most extreme and electric sport, period.
So why has the NHRA let NASCAR capitalize on one fight, the post-1979 Daytona 500 bout between Bobby Allison and Cale Yarborough? Those spontaneous fisticuffs captured America's attention, and NASCAR has ridden that energy and interest to the bank a million times.
Meanwhile, the NHRA as an organization slowly lulled its drivers into a Rodney King, "Can't we all get along?' mentality. The burden isn't all on the NHRA -- the drivers have willingly slipped into this coma of camaraderie. Drag racers, like the poor slob in the Pink Floyd song, "have become comfortably numb."
And Bill Stephens, a longtime on-air television commentator, author, and media coach, says it's "time to take the gloves off."
At his Ultimate Garage Media Workshop during the recent Mac Tools U.S. Nationals at Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis, Stephens, using the "editorial we," told a group of about 30 drivers, "If you guys were completely honest, it would change the dynamics of this sport overnight -- and we're not doing it.
"We're afraid to use our passion, emotions, and instinct, We've been conditioned to be politically correct," Stephens said. "Be ready to be adversarial."
He said, "You are the primary delivery system of the energy that drives the sport. You should be putting the listener in the car or on the bike with you. Let them know how intense those few seconds are on the track and what you’re doing to beat the other guy . . . and that there's no feeling in the world to compare with what it's like to win -- even if it’s only the first round -- and how much it sucks to lose."
The future of the sport depends on how well the racers paid attention.
They seemed to try to move toward more of the "Three Cs" Stephens recommended: conflict, controversy, confrontation. No one shoved anyone or accused anyone of cheating this year, but they dipped their toes in the waters of change. Tony Schumacher, the seven-time Top Fuel series champion and eight-time Indianapolis winner who lost in the opening round, said afterward that it's no secret that many of the racers don't care for each other. Three-time bike champion Andrew Hines conceded that losing repeatedly last season to LE Tonglet "was getting old fast."
Top Fuel contender Spencer Massey said, "I really hate losing to the Al-Anabi cars. They're a great team, but to be the best, you have to beat the best – and I think we are the best!"
Funny Car's Johnny Gray meant business: "I warned everyone: if we didn't make the Countdown, we're going to make it really tough on those who did and were tough on us earlier in the season."
And Pro Stocker Erica Enders, acknowledging her considerable fan support, said, "If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me they wanted me to beat the Summit boys [Greg Andrrson and Jason Line], I could probably go race a Pro Stock car for a full season."
Top Fuel winner Antron Brown, who has said he and his competitors "want to rip each other's throats out and steal each other's candy," continued to be honest in his interviews, and so did Cruz Pedregon, who didn't attend the seminar but never has been shy about expressing himself. (He said in qualifying No. 1 in the Funny Car class that he's aggravated that John Force Racing and Don Schumacher racing have hired mechanics he has trained. "The minute I train them," Pedregon said, "they scurry off to the two big teams. It's chapped my rear for a long time.")
So maybe the drivers will pull the sport from its congenial quicksand. Stevens gave them some instructions about how to do that.
He told them, "We need to do something to attract attention, to create a buzz. We need conflict, emotion, energy, passion. It's all up to you to do the kinds of things that are going to make [the sport] impossible to ignore. I'm not saying this needs to be professional wrestling. I'm not saying to become goons who do over-the-wall things to get attention."
Stephens told drivers they "need to be taking the fans, the TV audience, on the run with you. They need to see in your face what you just went through. If you're not selling the experience, the fans are going to say, 'Gee, I thought it was more exciting than that. Maybe not. Think I'll switch over to the baseball game.' If they don't think you care, then why should they? Why should they turn on the TV?"
Use the "Three Cs: conflict, controversy, confrontation," he said. He didn't suggest they get personal, rather he pointed out to "remember, the racer in the other lane is trying to take something away from you, and it's something you don't want them to have. You've worked hard to earn the right to race on the professional level, and if someone were trying to steal something that belonged to you, you'd fight to keep him from getting it.
"If I had something I wanted," he said, "I'd kick, scratch, and do whatever I had to do to keep it or do everything I could to get it back again."
How sad that Shirley Muldowney, for example, was branded as a dissident for projecting that attitude, for speaking her mind -- the very behavior Stephens said drag racing needs today. She had no qualms about calling shady promoters "carny," "crook," "cheapskate," and "fruitcake." And she sure didn't run over and hug the driver who just defeated her when she stepped from the car following a loss. That driver had just taken money from her pocketbook, and by gosh, that wasn't OK. Cory McClenathan, likewise, has been one of the NHRA's most intense drivers, and he wasn't always ready to extol the virtues of the rival who just one-upped him, either.
Stephens assured the racers, "An aggressive attitude directed at winning doesn't mean personal attacks on other drivers, foolishly instigating arguments just for the sake of publicity, or just being a sore loser. It means doing whatever needs to be done to gain an advantage over your opponent. It also means having a warrior's mind set, which leads to an uninhibited ability to celebrate victory or reluctantly accept defeat."
He said, "If you succeed, you need to make it clear you're loving the fact you won what you feel belonged to you and you’re not going to make it easy for anyone else to get it. And if you fail, you need to let everyone know that next time, things will be different. You won't forget who beat you and you'll have some payback for him. Make the fans wonder what's going to happen next. You're just doing something to take your opponent out of his comfort zone."
Stephens rocked the racers from their corporate contentedness that day. He reminded them of what they had achieved and how they had achieved it, restored some measure of confidence for them, and reassured them that it's all right to be assertive.
When the six-race Countdown to the Championship begins this coming weekend at zMAX Dragway at Concord, N.C., we'll see who Stephens' model students are.
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