Views from the Grandstand

NHRA Is the USA

The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) is a perfect microcosm of the United States and the world

In the small West Texas town where I grew up, my introduction to motorsports was Penwell Raceway. John Force and “Big Daddy” Don Garlits were among the competitors over the years to grace the quarter-mile drag strip in the desert scrub west of Odessa.

Of course, as a kid I was more impressed with the booming “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday,” radio and TV ads than the motorsports legends. Little did I know how well the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) reflected national demographics..

While NASCAR touts its “diversity programs,” the NHRA actually has diversity. More than perhaps any other series in motorsports, the drag racers look like America — white, of course, but also brown and black, male and female, young and old. The breadth of that diversity was on full display in the Funny Car class last season, when 61-year-old Force captured his 15th driver’s championship by winning the last two races of the season to edge out 27-year-old Matt Hagan. Third in the points was Force’s daughter, Ashley Force Hood, making the 1-2-3 final standings a 60-something, a 20-something and a woman.

John Force Racing is one of the most outstanding examples of a successful family racing business you’ll ever see. Force is still in championship form, and his son-in-law Robert Hight (he’s married to Force’s oldest daughter, Adria, the chief financial officer of John Force Racing) drives for him and won the 2009 Funny Car crown.

Ashley, 28, was second in the points in 2009 before her third-place finish last year. Her 21-year-old sister Courtney is rising through the ranks of the second-tier Top Alcohol dragster series, as they try to build on the success of a long line of female drag-racing stars such as the pioneering Shirley “Heart Like a Wheel” Muldowney and Angelle Sampey (who raced under the surnames Seeling and Savoie), one of the most accomplished pro stock bike riders of all time.

To succeed, in fact, the Force females will have to get by Melanie Troxel, the only woman to register wins in both funny cars and Top Fuel dragsters. Also among their competition are such rising stars as Hillary Will, a former gymnast and college springboard diver; Erica Enders, a standout junior racer whose exploits were made into a hugely successful Disney Channel movie; and Karen Stoffer, Angie McBride and Katie Sullivan, all of whom finished in the top 20 in the pro stock bikes in 2010.

The Force operation is far from alone in terms of providing openings for drivers of all types, though. Another great example is Don Schumacher Racing, which is grooming its own young guns, with Funny Car driver Hagan joined this season by 28-year-old Spencer Massey, who will pilot a new Top Fuel dragster. It should be great fun to witness the battle between these two and Ashley for the title of drag racing’s next superstar.

Schumacher is nothing if not an equal-opportunity employer, as he proved again in January when he hired Johnny Gray, 57, to drive for a new Funny Car team and paired him with longtime crew chief Lee Beard — making the driver-crew chief combination Gray-Beard.

In fact, veterans dominate the NHRA landscape. In Funny Car last year, the top five following Force, Hagan and Hood was rounded out by 44-year-old Jack Beckman and 35-year-old Bob Tasca. And in Top Fuel dragsters, the top five were champion Larry Dixon, 44; Tony Schumacher, 41; Cory McClenathan, 48; Antron Brown, 34; and Shawn Langdon, 28.

Brown and the Pedregon brothers are three more NHRA success stories. Brown, a black driver, is the only contender to win races in both Top Fuel dragsters (nine) and on pro stock bikes (16), and his rise to fame came on the heels of the success of Tony and Cruz Pedregon. Coincidentally, both brothers own two season-long titles in Funny Car and have excelled as drivers and role models for two decades.

The NHRA, like almost every other motorsports series, has its share of problems. It doesn’t have enough sponsors to go around. Its mainstream media coverage is virtually non-existent, and its coverage in the motorsports press leaves a lot to be desired as well. Even its official website is only mediocre.

But none of that dampens the thrill of the competition, which for me is enhanced by the fact that so many different types of people succeed at it. The NHRA just kicked off its 60th season, and the races are usually televised on a same-day tape-delay basis by ESPN2. I encourage you to tune in or maybe even catch a race in person. It’s the American thing to do.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

LOOSE LUGNUTS

Off to a bad start, Part I Robby Gordon entered the Dakar Rally again this year, trying to improve on his third-place finish in 2010, but his Hummer broke a wheel bearing early on the fourth day of the two-week marathon and couldn’t be repaired in time for him to continue. Already, though, Gordon has promised that he’ll be back down in South America next January.

Both competitors and race officials seem happy with the way the race is growing after four years in South America, but I have to admit I miss the old rally route in Africa. The stages through the Sahara desert and across the Atlas mountains seemed far more impressive, and the current layout, which begins and ends in Buenos Aires, has nothing to compare to the original Dakar Rally’s finish on the gorgeous Atlantic Ocean beach in Senegal.

Part II Tired of the calm and corporate “new” Tony Stewart? Miss the good ol’ days when “Smoke” wasn’t just a nickname but was what came pouring out of Stewart’s ears? Well, the “old” Tony reappeared briefly in January, far away from the world of NASCAR. Stewart went to Sydney for a Sprint Grand National event but did more beatin’ and bangin’ off the track than on it.

Stewart participated in his heat race but was conspicuously absent the rest of the night, and reports soon surfaced that he got into a scuffle with Sydney Speedway owner Brett Morris. Stewart allegedly smacked Morris with his helmet, and Morris responded by giving Stewart a black eye. Stewart was later questioned by police, but no charges were filed.

German engineering The last thing I need to do is watch even more cars go round and round, but I’m already excited that Germany’s DTM touring car series is scheduling a 12-race slate in the United States starting in 2013. The plans call for six races in conjunction with NASCAR Sprint Cup races and six to be paired with the Rolex Grand-Am Series. If you’ve seen the DTM races on the Speed Channel, you know why I love those vehicles — they’re souped-up production machines that still greatly resemble street cars, just like NASCAR used to have. The DTM series currently features Mercedes-Benz C-Class and Audi A4 cars, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see former participant BMW jump back in as well.



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