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DI.com Blog: Change is in the Air…

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By Ian Tocher

Make no mistake about it; major changes are in store for drag racing in this country right now, with ramifications likely to be felt to varying degrees for years to come. Practically no significant aspect of the sport will be left untouched in 2013, from sanctioning bodies to race teams to media coverage; it’s all on the table.

Of course, as goes NHRA so goes drag racing, and the most significant development this year for the gang from Glendora has to be the coming on board of Coca-Cola’s Mello Yello brand as their pro series title sponsor.

This scenario was last played out by Coke’s marketers in 2008 when Full Throttle took over from Powerade, which in ’02 replaced Winston as the series’ marquee sponsor. And each time, promises flowed from Coke execs that the NHRA and its stars would be prominently featured in advertising and promoted through their products. Their record in this respect, however, has been underwhelming, to put it kindly. Heck, I live in Atlanta, worldwide headquarters for Coca-Cola and home to a long-standing NHRA national event, but I never saw any “activation” of the Powerade or Full Throttle sponsorships beyond anything I’d come across through my regular drag racing haunts.

Still, I remember feeling so encouraged five years back; after all, what could be better for NHRA from a marketing standpoint than going Full Throttle? Well, apparently, getting “mello” is the answer. NHRA corporate speak claims Mello Yello “is a much larger brand” than its predecessor, with “tremendous resources” available to promote NHRA and by proxy drag racing overall. Third time’s a charm? Seriously, let’s hope so.

The NHRA also implemented a major shakeup this season for the way its product is delivered, electronically, live and in print. Gone from the ESPN2 broadcast booth for national events is Paul Page, with veteran pit reporter Dave Rieff taking over the anchor position alongside returning analyst Mike Dunn. Better story formats for presenting the races have been promised, too, so watching NHRA on TV should provide a different viewing experience if nothing else.

It’ll be a new experience for national-event fans at the track this year, too, as longtime PA announcer and walking NHRA encyclopedia Bob Frey retired when the 2012 season came to a close. In his place will be not one, but four announcers sharing time in the tower, as Alan Reinhart, Bill Stephens, Joe Castello and Nathan Hirschi will take a team approach to keeping trackside fans informed. The move is not without precedent, as the ADRL did something similar in recent years with the distinctly different stylings of announcers Al Tucci and Brian Olsen complementing one another in the booth.

Additionally, reflecting the tough atmosphere that exists for all print publications nowadays, National Dragster has cut its delivery rate from weekly to bi-weekly, hoping a new members-only Web site will suffice to take up the slack. The NHRA house organ also sports a new (but incredibly familiar) look this year meant to get away from straight race reporting and concentrate more on the people and issues that make up the sport. As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Meanwhile, over on the IHRA side of things, the circus masters have left the building and some veteran racing execs are back in control of the 43-year-old sanctioning body. Late in January, the ownership group of Palm Beach International Raceway and Memphis International Raceway, featuring longtime drag racing professional Jason Rittenberry as president and CEO of the parent company, purchased IHRA outright from Feld Entertainment, which owns and operates the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, as well as Disney on Ice, among other entertainment properties.

Granted, it’s not as if the new ownership group has nothing but IHRA on its corporate plate, but according to Rittenberry the IHRA acquisition is just one more step toward building a much larger drag racing empire.

“Our goal from day one was to be an all-encompassing company,” he said. “We want to find quality tracks to acquire and to have our own quality content to put at those tracks. We also want to take some of the ideas that we have as a company and implement those through an established brand and the IHRA was the brand that we chose to really go after.”

So far, with this year’s IHRA schedule already set, the only significant change has been the addition of the Palm Beach venue to the 2013 Nitro Jam tour, but it’s easy to imagine with more acquisition announcements to come, next year’s IHRA might offer quite a departure from the old. How it will affect professional and sportsman racers remains to be seen, but it looks like change is in the works, regardless.

Speaking of change, is there any other way to describe the eighth-mile doorslammer world, where since 2005 ADRL has reigned supreme, but for 2013 an upstart challenger has arisen?

First there was the unexpected ownership change for the ADRL at season’s end. Now, it was no secret that Sheikh Khalid Al-Thani was ready to unload the money loser he’d purchased late in 2010 or that acting series president Tim McAmis was more than ready to get out of the race promoting game and go back to running his chassis shop, but who ended up with the keys to the ADRL was more than a little surprise to many.

Kenny Nowling, unceremoniously ousted from the ADRL president’s chair not long after the Sheik’s purchase, emerged as the organization’s new owner—despite apparently not being the highest bidder. Undaunted, his rival bidding group led by Jeff Mitchell, Larry Pearce and David Hubbard (MPH Motorsports), promptly formed the X-treme Drag Racing League (XDRL) with several former ADRL employees in key management positions.

Now, both series are on the cusp of their 2013 seasons, with Nowling intent on proving he can recreate the magic of the ADRL’s early years and the XDRL group determined to upset the incumbent as the country’s premier eighth-mile racing organization. But as I’ve written here before, I fear these options are not necessarily beneficial to the overall doorslammer racing community as sponsors and racers will be pressed to choose which they will provide with long-term support and leading perhaps to either organization—or both—failing in the end.

No doubt there will be a lot to watch in 2013 as change takes its course through all the national organizations and many regional series, too. The question is, will it be change for the better, or worse?

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