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DI Roundtable: Breaking Down Hagan vs. Force, Stevie Fast in NPK & NHRA at the Halfway Point

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The Drag Illustrated Roundtable rolls on, touching on a huge variety of topics creating waves in the drag racing world. The DI team dishes on Hagan vs. Force, the first-half of the NHRA season, “Stevie Fast” in a No Prep Kings car and more.

QUESTION: This fall World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis will host their first-ever hot air balloon festival. Last fall, Texas Motorplex hosted an EDM music festival. Amongst Bandimere Speedway’s biggest events is a Christian electronic music festival. Tulsa Raceway Park just added an oval track, and regularly hosts “mud bog” events and concerts. Texas Motorplex just announced what their plans for what amounts to a week-long festival leading up to their NHRA national event. Is this what life looks like for a successful drag strip in this day and age? 

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MIKE CARPENTER: I certainly believe so. Every major venue, whether it be an NBA arena, NFL stadium, etc needs a variety of events to stay alive, especially in the offseason for each respective sport. These arenas are simply too expensive to exist for only one thing. The same applies to drag racing in a lot of ways. As we’ve said, much of the entertainment or festival aspect of drag racing has dwindled, and it’s become so specialized and expensive. Outside of your one-off shootouts and things like Street Car Takeover and test-n-tune nights, you’re basically filling your calendar with very specialized events that attract a very specific crowd. These alternative entertainment sources bring in the mass-market crowd.

JOSH HACHAT: It absolutely has to look like this. The tracks that recognize this and take advantage of their facilities are the ones that stick around and grow. It’s no surprise places like Bandimere Speedway, zMAX Dragway, Summit Racing Motorsports Park – all facilities held in the highest regard – are the ones willing to think outside the box. The ones that don’t? Well, we’ve seen what happens there as well and, unfortunately, it’s usually not good.

Being able to adjust, add events that hit a number of audiences and being open to new ideas allow tracks to not only stick around, but to prosper as well.

My local track, National Trail Raceway in Columbus, has added a variety of unique events, including a tremendous Christmas lights production during the holiday season. Judging by the traffic that’s backed up for literal HOURS, it’s put a new lease on life for the track. Having the same schedule and the same races year after year isn’t enough, especially with the abundance of entertainment options available to people now.

A track that offers a little bit of everything is a good way to stand out and it’s likely a good way to possibly turn them into racing fans as well.

WES BUCK: I really think it does. When I look across our industry at the most successful venues, it’s almost always the tracks that are true, multi-purpose complexes. Obviously, this has been going on for quite awhile and isn’t a completely new concept, but it seems to have become more widely accepted as the pathway to success for a race track owner/operator in recent years. I’m paraphrasing here, but I remember DragRacingOnline.com founder Jeff Burk always saying that drag strips are essentially an open-air bar and grill, and drag racing’s the entertainment.

What I believe some of these tracks are doing is booking new bands at their bar, basically. You’ve got the music festivals popping up, you’ve got Tulsa digging a mud pit – and reportedly doing quite well with it. Galot Motorsports Park has a truck and tractor pull arena. Even Eddyville Raceway Park in Iowa, which we’ve been talking about a lot here lately, actually has an asphalt oval track on the property, which currently serves as their shutdown/return road, but still – the vision entailed hosting multiple types of racing events all the way back in the early ’90s when Carl Moyer spent millions renovating the facility. I think it’s just thinking outside the box and getting out of your comfort zone, even as it relates to drag racing.

Rockingham Dragway had a no-prep event a couple weeks ago in their shutdown area with the cars racing back towards the starting line in an effort to simulate an illegal street racing environment. Tuscon Draway in Arizona has been doing a deal like this called Beyond 1320 for the last few years and had a lot of success with it. It’s how these tracks can become or maintain financially viability, and in my opinion a surefire way to grow our sport.

QUESTION: Hagan and Force got heated in the shutdown following the 16-time champ double-bulbing “Hulk” Hagan in Pomona. Juicy Burger or Nothing Burger?

MIKE: Maybe a Nothing Burger, but please, let’s MAKE it a Juicy Burger. We need more of this! This is what makes drag racing exciting. Hagan and Force already have a rivalry dating back to when Force snatched the championship from Hagan. I don’t expect these guys to get in a fist fight, but there is nothing wrong with a little heated discussion. And you have to love Force’s interview with Amanda Busick after the scuffle. He said something to the effect of that “these guys are better than he is at this point, and he’s doing whatever he can to compete.” The most successful drag racer of all time still refuses to go down without a fight, and everyone else needs to take notice. That line alone is why John Force is probably the best there ever has been at endearing himself to his loyal fans.

JOSH: Mike definitely put it best here. I definitely didn’t take it as a Juicy Burger – yet. But I would be more than happy if it became one.

He probably didn’t quite mean it this way, but I loved Force’s line of, “This is raceday. I’m going to do what I want to do here.”
I love the panache there, even if it quite wasn’t fully intended. Force is the man and to be the man, you’ve got to beat the man (Ric Flair Woo!). I also love that Hagan isn’t going to back down, either. He’s the defending champ, he looks like the Incredible Hulk and he’s going to stand up for himself.

Like we said a few weeks ago in our roundtable, Hagan’s star power has never been more apparent and him not being afraid to show some emotion – in all forms – is great for the sport. If it means a nice little DSR vs. JFR duel, sign me up 100 times.

There’s no need to make too much of a minor kerfuffle, but let’s not try to brush it off, either. This type of stuff is great for the sport – as long as it’s genuine – and I’m fine with more of it. So, again, if the opportunity for a Juicy Burger is there, let’s take it and run with it.

WES: I don’t think a miscommunication or a screw-up on the starting line is groundbreaking – these things happen a lot in drag racing, whether at a NHRA national event or during a bracket race at your local track. I can hardly remember a drag race that hasn’t included some sort of starting line snafu or drama – a double-bulbing incident like this or Rickie Smith taking forever to stage or the roll-out supposedly being different in one lane over the other or whatever else. Not exactly a new issue, but when it happens under the bright lights and on the big stage that is a NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series event in front of the FOX television cameras, it becomes a little more meaningful. Personally, I loved it. I actually want to see more gamesmanship on the starting line – even though I believe Force accidentally lit both bulbs.

Truth is, our sport is almost too squeaky clean sometimes. I had a television producer tell me that one time when I was pitching a reality show to them. Our sport, at times, is clean, proper and polite to a fault.

We need controversy and confrontation like this – it’s that simple. This is the type of thing that forces people to take a side, and that’s what drives interest, sells tickets and grows ratings, and those are the things that get the attention of sponsors and marketing partners. For me, Hagan and Force getting heated was more meaningful and significant for our sport right now than if Steve Torrence had swept the Western Swing. I know there are people rolling their eyes right now, saying it was inconsequential and that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill, but…that’s my job.

My job is to make mountains out of molehills, and I appreciate Matt and John making my job a little easier this week. These are the caught-on-camera moments that will make Matt Hagan a superstar and while I’m sure it wasn’t scripted or planned, he took full advantage of who he happened to be beefing with in drag racing’s most beloved and accomplished driver. Masterful. The importance of happenings such as this cannot be overstated. Juicy Burger.

QUESTION: The NHRA hit the halfway point of its season as it finished off the Western Swing in Pomona. Largely, they’ve returned to great crowds and good television ratings, and have displayed pretty solid racing thus far. What’s your impression of the 2021 season thus far in what’s still been a tough year to navigate?

MIKE: I think everything has gone as smoothly as possible so far. The NHRA has had to shuffle some dates, but kudos to them for being flexible and working with the local regulations to get some crucial venues back on the schedule – most notably Pomona. Southern California is usually pretty nice year-round, but the NHRA caught that area during a heatwave and it was interesting to see the drivers and crew chiefs battle the heat at a place that is normally very cool in February or November. We’ll have to keep our eyes peeled and fingers crossed on the recent COVID wave that is making its way across the nation. Hopefully, it gets under control before it derails the absolutely critical fall racing schedule and the offseason trade shows.

JOSH: Truthfully, I consider it a pretty big win. NHRA didn’t even have its first two races of the season – Pomona was rescheduled in July, for crying out loud – and there’s been numerous alterations, postponements and cancellations. Despite all that, it’s been a fantastic first 10 races, as the series, teams, officials and fans have all waded some of these precarious situations tremendously well.

We’ve seen huge fan turnouts at multiple events, including Gainesville, Atlanta, Norwalk, Denver (which was a massive, massive turnout), Epping and Sonoma, and that’s been fantastic to see. Part of me is worried about how the rest of the season will play out, mostly because I’m concerned we’re going to see a repeat of last year where things are severely limited and heavily restricted.

That’s another worry for another day. For these first 10 races, we’ve seen great racing and a number of impressive performances through what still seems to be some trying times. Steve Torrence’s 2021 is nothing short of incredible, while guys like Matt Smith, Aaron Stanfield and Greg Anderson have really shined as well.

I’ve been impressed with how everyone has worked together to try to make the most of it and on more than one weekend, things almost felt like normal.

WES: Considering everything that we’ve endured, I can’t help but feel grateful. Think about this: A year ago, Summit Motorsports Park – one of the most prominent drag racing facilities in the world – was closed; they didn’t hold a single race. To be here, right now, at the tail end of summer and to have had a host of massively successful races take place, huge crowds assemble on more than one occasion, television ratings booming, new sponsors, new drivers and teams – it’s nothing short of amazing.

Unfortunately, it looks like we’re not out of the woods yet, but I have a lot of confidence and faith in this community to weather any storm. I’ve joked before that drag racing is somewhat recession-proof. It’s not that things don’t change with the ebb and flow of the economy and the world in general, but this uniquely passionate and dedicated group of people are going racing. One way or another, maybe a little less than last year and hopefully a little more next, but come hell or high water…they’re going racing.

On that note, I’d like to use this opportunity to praise those uniquely passionate racers – a group of people that everyone in this industry benefits from in some way or another.

I’ve seen all sorts of praise heaped on NHRA for hosting events during Covid, for PDRA soldiering through with their full season almost as scheduled, and a host of other promoters for doing what they had to do to get their events off. That’s great, and it’s true. We appreciate them. However, it’s the racers who are drag racing’s heroes. Not any sanction or series or creative promoter. It’s the racers.

They deserve to feel whatever victory deserves to be felt about how our sport was able to not only survive the global coronavirus pandemic, but in some instances thrive. Have to cut your purse by bunch to make things work? No worries – racers got ya. Gotta change your date 37 times or move your event to a new facility in a different state? No worries – racers got ya. What’s that? You’re going to have to institute a mask policy and force a group comprised almost entirely of right-leaning conservatives to wear a face covering while working on a race car in the scorching summer sun? No worries – racers got ya.

I’m so proud of these people it’s painful. There’s nothing that can stop us.

QUESTION 5: WHO YOU GOT: There’s a little bit of controversy brewing online following a comment made on social media by one “Stevie Fast” Jackson. After being asked by why he doesn’t build a car to compete on STREET OUTLAWS: No Prep Kings, the two-time NHRA Pro Mod champion replied, “They won’t let me on that show because there would be no more show after I DDT’d the field by 1/2 a second.” Fast-rising NPK star Justin “Lil’ Country” Swanstrom fired back with an offer to lock in a race, but nothing has come of it as of yet. If it were to go down…who you riding with?

JOSH: I mean, it’s hard to wager against “Stevie Fast” considering all that he has accomplished. The man has proven he can drive anything in any class, in any series. He’s certainly not going to be intimidated and he’s surely not backing down from a challenge. That being said, I’m not so sure he wipes the floor with all the NPK guys, simply because it’s a distinctly different type of racing.

I’m confident he could hit his stride pretty quickly and become a dominant force in the process, but it might take a little bit of a feeling-out process (though that’s not exactly Stevie’s style). In that regard, it’s smart for anyone to call him out right off the bat. It’s great headlines, you’re at a distinct advantage initially and it’s a big “W” if you send him packing. Seeing Stevie and his team solve NPK would be a thrilling watch and he’s made-for-TV entertainment, so sign me up all day for this one.

And sign me up some more if we’re booking some NPK shootouts or grudge matches. The build-up and trash talk would be epic and I’m sure Stevie would deliver.

WES: Wow! Making us choose sides already? Honestly, I typically lean toward experience in situations such as this. Who’s been operating in this arena the longest? Swanstrom’s been on the scene in no-prep for a minute now, and seems to be hitting his stride – winning the No Prep Kings event in Valdosta, and steady staying in the thick of things. He’s no slouch out here, and he’s got top-tier equipment, but I don’t know how you bet against “Stevie Fast” Jackson in this situation. Jackson’s ability behind the wheel and his experience racing a cornucopia of different door cars and engine combinations, as well as the tuning expertise of Billy Stocklin and Phil Shuler, gives me reason enough to believe the reigning, defending NHRA Pro Mod world champion has what it takes to win wherever he may roam. This is a bit of a Michael Jordan versus LeBron James debate, though, as it’s not going to happen, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable to debate! Tomorrow? At noon? Off the trailer? I think you can go with “Lil’ Country”, but at a NPK event scheduled in the future? Stevie’s got it. I love ’em both and appreciate what they are doing for themselves and the sport of drag racing.

MIKE: It’s hard to bet against Stevie no matter where he’s racing, but I think this is Stevie doing his thing as far as trash talk more than anything else. He’s probably the undisputed king of getting everyone up in arms before a tire is turned in the water box. I think he’d be successful on the No Prep Kings circuit, but is that really what Discovery and Pilgrim Studios want? Probably not.

Those production companies have doubled down on the traveling roadshow they currently have, and it’s hard to throw new names in the mix constantly when you’re basically trying to film a TV show. They do a great job of building the characters they have, and to throw in a wildcard, even for a race or two, would mean they would have to take away critical airtime from one of their regulars. This is where you have to look at No Prep Kings through a different lens than we view a standard drag racing event.

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