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DI Roundtable: Clocks or No Clocks, NHRA Title Talk, Nights of Fire, Radial vs. World; Lyle Barnett Chimes In

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The Drag Illustrated Roundtable is back and we’ve got a special guest – standout racer Lyle Barnett! The DI team – and Lyle – break down some of the hottest happenings in the sport, including independent races, the second half of the NHRA season and if Radial vs. the World is in a good place these days.

QUESTION: There were a handful of super successful independent races over the weekend. What makes these Night of Fire/thrill show type events so special? Should tracks hold more of these entertainment-focused events? Or is it the once-a-year factor that makes them stand out?

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Nate Van Wagnen: I think what makes them so special is they’re all about entertainment, and they feature lineups you won’t see anywhere else. Events like Night Under Fire at Norwalk or the Northern Nationals at Martin feature cars and drivers that are there to put on a show, not to set a performance record, add to a points total, or fulfill sponsorship obligations. Even big-show nitro guys like John Force are going to do a little big of a bigger burnout or stay at the ropes signing a few more autographs.

As far as the lineup goes, Norwalk had an incredibly diverse group. They had NHRA nitro drivers like John Force, Antron Brown, Cruz Pedregon and Justin Ashley, plus Top Alcohol Dragsters, Top Fuel motorcycles, jet cars and jet semis, gassers, outlaw Pro Mods, plus the Bader family’s legendary fireworks show. Martin had Top Fuel cars, nostalgia nitro cars, and much more that I’m sure I’m forgetting. These races are a sensory overload, and it’s a show you’ll only get to see once a year. PLUS, you can’t watch these races on live feeds or on TV. You have to be there to see it. In this day and age, there’s some magic to that.

I’m going to contradict myself a bit with this response, but I think tracks should consider doing events like this more often. Sure, save the big show for one special weekend or day every year, but a couple smaller thrill show events a year could be a big deal for certain tracks. The Bader family has done this by adding things like jet cars, fireworks, Top Fuel motorcycles or booked-in exhibition acts like that to their other events like NHRA divisionals. If you can get more families or first-time fans out to the track through a thrill show event, you’re more likely to hook them and get them to come back for an NHRA national event, a Pro Mod race, or even a street car night.

Josh Hachat: It’s just such a feel-good thing for the sport when weekends like this happen. Norwalk’s Night Under Fire is always massive, but it’s great to see it back to normal after not taking place at all last year.

Norwalk knows precisely what buttons to push to make fans happy and they offer a little bit of everything, and the same with the event in Martin. Getting to see nitro Top Fuel cars isn’t an everyday thing at U.S. 131, so seeing it go off like that is outstanding. Like Norwalk, Martin has always done a great job booking in the right cars and playing to the crowd. Let’s face it, the crowd at these types of events aren’t looking for rounds and rounds of racing. It’s big flames, fast runs, nitro and as much spectacle as you can provide.

We talked about it last week, but tracks have to embrace that. They have to welcome the circus aspect of the sport because there are plenty of casual fans who will spend a summer night reveling in it. Every track should have something like this lined up for summer. There’s a litany of ways to promote it, ways to attract families and a younger audience and there’s an abundance of exhibition cars and special attractions from which to choose. As Norwalk, Martin and Boise showed last weekend, if it’s an attraction, people will come en masse.

Lyle Barnett: I think you need, and have to have, both. To start and complete a race – in one day – is a huge attraction to me. However, a few times a year it’s fun to bring the camper and spend a weekend at the track hanging out with friends and family. If I had to choose between the two, though, I would definitely lean more towards the quick hitters. We as a society, we have a pretty short attention span. So running a race to a final and declaring a winner in one day – I think that’s the answer. Let’s give the fans an opportunity to see the whole movie – start to finish – in a single day.

Wes Buck: I think it’s both. I think it’s the scarcity of these events that ring the bell in many ways, but that isn’t all there is to it. I think it’s every bit as much the relatively concise nature of these events that make it easy for fans to buy a ticket. You spend the money to go to the football game one Sunday this fall and you can bet your bottom dollar you’re going to witness the start and conclusion of a sporting event. That’s a real rarity in drag racing, and I think it has cumulatively left a little to be desired for race fans who don’t have two- or three-days to invest in an event to see it come to conclusion. I’m as hardcore about drag racing as anyone on planet Earth, and even I grow weary at some of these several-days-long events – especially the ones that lack the festival/multiple attraction vibe that we’ve talked about here in recent weeks.

The fast-pace and condensed schedule that’s utilized at events like Summit Motorsports Park’s Night of Fire, U.S. 131 Motorsports Park’s Northern Nationals and Firebird Raceway’s Night Fire Nationals is possible due in large part to the fact that entertainment value – not competition – is the primary focus.

So, yes, in my opinion, race tracks should be looking to do things like this as often as is realistically possible. I can’t imagine how much the Baders spent in Norwalk last week booking in the likes of John Force and Antron Brown, along with a host of other big name racers from a mind-bending variety of eliminators, but it was a lot. So, it’s not realistic to do produce events of that magnitude on a monthly basis, but I believe two or three scaled down versions of these events, along with an annual ‘main event’ would be doable, and perhaps each of those smaller shows cater to a certain segment of the drag racing fan base.

And let’s see some more one-night-only productions out here in general. How much do we have to rave about STREET OUTLAWS: No Prep Kings or Piedmont Dragway’s Big Dog Shootout or any of these “Cash Days” events before promoters latch onto the idea of starting a race and finishing it on the same day, or inside four- or five-hours?

QUESTION: The second half of the NHRA season starts in Topeka this weekend. How many of the current points leaders at the halfway mark will end up as champs?

Nate Van Wagnen: I think it’s a safe bet to say Steve Torrence will hold his points lead through the end of the season. That team is just on another level, as they have been for quite some time now. Unless someone really steps up in the Countdown or Torrence somehow slips up, I think he’ll get another title.

In Funny Car, it’s harder to say. There are a handful of teams that are running really well. Ron Capps, the current points leader, is certainly capable of winning his second championship, but Bob Tasca III is having maybe the best season of his career right behind him. Maybe he’ll win his first title? Or John Force could add yet another championship to start wrapping up his illustrious career. I think this will be the most exciting championship battle.

I think Greg Anderson is going to maintain his lead in Pro Stock and win another championship. That team really stepped up this year and returned to the form that carried Anderson to his first few titles. Of course, you can’t count out Erica Enders. It would also be cool to see a young gun like Aaron Stanfield or Dallas Glenn win the championship.

Matt Smith will win another Pro Stock Motorcycle championship. I’m calling this with the certainty Wes had when he picked Jay Cox to win in PDRA Pro Nitrous a month ago. Smith has such a strong program right now, and I don’t see him slowing down once the Countdown starts.

Josh Hachat: I’m going to be fairly confident – and not going out on a limb, in the process – in predicting Torrence and Matt Smith will finish what they started. Torrence is on a historic run that will put him among legends like Force and Schumacher, and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he goes on another incredible run to end the year. That team is just a well-oiled machine and we haven’t seen enough consistency in the long run out of the rest of the top teams to expect Torrence to get overtaken.

Smith has been nearly as dominant in Pro Stock Motorcycle and is a step ahead of everyone right now. The new four-valve Suzuki has shown signs, but Smith has been able to step it up when a big run is needed and it always seems like there’s a little more in that motorcycle. Unless he really slips up, I can’t see anyone topping him.

Capps could very well finish atop Funny Car and win another championship, but things are so tight right now in that class. We’ve had seven different winners in 10 races and nobody has won more than twice. Capps has been the most consistent as of late and won in Pomona, but his lead is just five points and there’s plenty of worthwhile contenders. I see this one going down to the wire.

The same is probably true in Pro Stock. Greg Anderson has been on top all year, but Aaron Stanfield has gotten the best of him at the past couple races and has won three of the past four events. Anderson probably has the best car, but Stanfield is championship worthy and you know Enders will be ready in crunch time. Seeing Anderson win a couple races to surpass Warren Johnson and grab a fifth title would be pretty remarkable.

Lyle Barnett: With the Countdown rapidly approaching for TF, FC, PS and PSM, I think you may see a significant mix-up. I still think you’ll see Steve Torrence win the title in Top Fuel, but I like Bob Tasca in Funny Car, and if Aaron Stanfield continues to drive like he has here recently, I think you may well see him pick up his first championship. I gotta stick with Matt Smith to win it all in Pro Stock Motorcycle. In Pro Mod, unless a rule change makes the combination unraceable, I don’t see anyone stopping Josè Gonzalez.

Wes Buck: Honestly, I can’t imagine a scenario where Steve Torrence loses his grip on the NHRA Top Fuel points lead. Drag racing has seen its fair share of dominant forces over the years, but I don’t know that the drag racing community is really conscious of what Steve Torrence and the CAPCO Boys are doing. Their single-season, six-win streak in 2018 is something that even Don Prudhomme, Bob Glidden and John Force, amongst a slew of other hall of famers, couldn’t match. As Josh has mentioned a few times here, he’s way more than on his way to becoming one of the top three winningest Top Fuel drivers of all-time, and by all accounts isn’t remotely close to the end of his career. It’ll be a miracle for the rest of the field if he doesn’t lock up a fourth title in 2021. In doing so, Torrence will join the likes of Kenny Bernstein, Prudhomme, Joe Amato and Tony Schumacher as the only nitro racers to win four world championships at drag racing’s highest levels.

Funny Car, in my opinion, still feels wide open. John Force skipped 2020, but here he is at 70-something-years-old sitting No. 3 in the points. Matt Hagan, fourth in points, is on fire right now. Ron Capps, Robert Hight, Bob Tasca, Kalitta Motorsports’ J.R. Todd – they’re all in the mix right now. When the points are reset in Indy, I think it’s anyone’s game. I’m looking for “Hulk Hagan” to get the job done (maybe we can get an elbow drop in the shutdown to commemorate the occasion?). However, they better get John Force out of the equation quickly, as he’s the last guy you want to leave room for.

Yet again, maybe for the last two or three years, I think Pro Stock is providing us some of the best drag racing competition in the world. Greg Anderson, who is a lock to become the winningest Pro Stock driver in history this season, is out front and performing well, but it’ll be wide-open this fall when the Countdown starts. Erica Enders and the Elite Motorsports team are hot on the trail of a third-consecutive and fourth title overall, so there’s no lack of motivation in that camp right now, but I think some of the toughest competition for Enders will come from inside her pit area as teammate Aaron Stanfield, who has scored back-to-back wins in recent weeks, is coming into his own as a Pro Stock driver.

I don’t think it’s going to be a walk in the park for Matt Smith to earn another NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championship, but between his new long hair and the confidence that comes from being relatively dominant throughout the course of the regular season, he’s an easy pick for me.

Not sure if everyone is throwing in their Pro Mod picks – yet another example of this incredible eliminator not being given the credit or respect it deserves – but I’m going to go ahead and say that we’re going to see Stevie Jackson and Brandon Snider battling it out this fall to see whether grudge racing’s favorite son snags a third chip or if Snider will earn his first. That scenario will likely only be possible if class leaders Jose Gonzalez and Justin Bond do indeed skip a race or two yet this summer – as is rumored – to let NHRA get the rules sorted out.

QUESTION: PDRA heads to Maple Grove for the first time this weekend. How important is it to see series heading into new areas and make their debuts at new tracks?

Nate Van Wagnen: It’s really cool to see PDRA going to so many new tracks this season. I’ve been fortunate enough to follow the series to every race since 2016, and I believe this season has been their best schedule yet as far as tracks go. We’ve been to longtime host tracks like GALOT Motorsports Park, Virginia Motorsports Park, and Maryland International Raceway, plus first-time stops like Beech Bend Raceway Park, Summit Motorsports Park, and now Maple Grove Raceway. It’s fun and challenging for the teams to race at tracks they maybe have never raced at, and it’s great for fans in these new areas that have never been to a PDRA race or won’t have to travel as far as they had to in the past. You also tend to gain a good group of local racers at these new events. It helps to keep things fresh and interesting. I’m going to contradict myself again here when I say that I hope PDRA continues to race at these three new tracks moving forward.

Josh Hachat: I love when series head to new tracks, especially one with a storied history like Maple Grove Raceway. It’s a great way to build a brand and PDRA has done a good job of visiting new markets. The same can be said for the Mid-West Drag Racing Series, which is also debuting at a bunch of new tracks this year, including in Great Bend, Kan. next weekend. Shining a light on your series to new fans is one of the best ways to get a series to grow and I’m happy it’s working out for both this year.

Lyle Barnett: I think it’s awesome and it’s important. For racers, it’s always cool to visit new venues, and run in front of a new crowd. With all of these big name tracks being shut down and some of the uncertainty that still exists in the world, it’s not at all a bad idea to form a relationship with new tracks and give yourself some options.

Wes Buck: I’m all over the map with this one. Sure, it’s great for the PDRA to take their show to new facilities and get in front of new fans, but I think it could also be argued that PDRA could benefit from further developing their relationship with fans at the tracks they have visited regularly over the course of the last few years. If it’s venturing to a new track where a strong future is likely and part of the overall vision then I’m all for it, but going to a new venue just to make sure there’s a certain number of events on the schedule or a certain number of tracks represented on the schedule? I don’t think that’s super important.

I will say that for the PDRA racer base – almost entirely high-level hobby racers – it’s important to keep in mind the experience that is being provided to these racers who absolutely, positively do not have to do this. Keeping things fresh with a new venue or an especially enjoyable part of the country – think “destination races” like our World Doorslammer Nationals in Orlando, the Mile-High Nationals in Denver, the Street Car SuperNationals in Las Vegas, NMCA/NMRA’s season opener in Bradenton, etc. – is something that should be top-of-mind for any traveling series’ decision makers.

QUESTION: It’s been a while since we’ve heard much from Radial vs. the World. How would you gauge the current status of a class that doesn’t appear to be trending in the right direction?

Nate Van Wagnen: It’s definitely not looking good. You see some guys in the class selling off their cars or converting them over to run Pro 275 or another class. There are limited opportunities to run RvW each season, partially because they only seem to want to race in cool, record-setting conditions. Plus, the class has gotten so out of hand performance-wise that only a handful of teams are capable of running “competitive” numbers. It’s going to be interesting to see how many RvW cars show up at the fall races like No Mercy.

Josh Hachat: It almost feels like it’s gone the way of Pro Extreme, where the class has priced itself out of contention. Only a handful of cars could get to the incredible performance numbers we’ve been seeing in RvW and it definitely had a major effect on car count. Chasing those numbers seems fun for a while, but not everyone can keep up and not nearly everyone wants to spend to try and keep up, especially, as Nate pointed out, so few opportunities to race RvW for major money.

Top names have found it’s more worth their while to race in Pro 275 or No Prep or an abundance of other classes, and RvW has lost its way. It’s only for high-dollar Pro Mods now and I don’t believe the future looks all that bright. It’s a tale that almost seems identical to Pro Extreme, another class that lost its way and ran itself into extinction.

Lyle Barnett: Out of hand. That’s the best way to describe it I think. It’s a run what you brung, home run derby style class, but there just aren’t many folks that have that caliber of car, and are willing to spend what it takes to be competitive. If you don’t have a competitive PDRA Pro Boost/ Pro Nitrous car, you’re out to lunch in RVW competition. Unfortunately, I think RVW is on the way out. As radial racers, our demand for fly paper track prep has made it really hard to hold RVW events throughout the entire year. It’s basically a seasonal class. Spring and fall are really the only time of the year to have a race, if you want to see record breaking runs and any amount of side-by-side runs, which are still fairly hard to come by in that style of racing even in killer conditions.

Wes Buck: I’m not sure. According to a recent post on social media from the radial tire promoter Donald “Duck” Long, he has more pre-entries for Radial vs. the World than any other category for the fast-approaching No Mercy 12, which will go down October 14-17 at South Georgia Motorsports Park. However, I would be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that there seems to be far less buzz about RVW than in seasons gone by. Perusing Facebook the other night, I noticed both Jamie Hancock and J.R. Gray had their front-running, and in Gray’s case record-holding, radial cars up for sale. I’m not privy to Hancock’s future plans, but it appears Gray, who a year or two ago looked to be radial racing’s next big star, has moved on to NHRA Pro Mod and isn’t turning back.

Over the years, “Duck” has done a great job developing other categories into marquee attractions and turning their competitors into ‘names’ in the drag racing world. Truth be told, in almost every other instance radial racing was considered ‘filler content’ before Long burst onto the scene. Since then we’ve seen RVW become one of the most exciting and most talked about categories in drag racing history. Who’s to say “Duck” can’t turn Pro Truck into a show that can stand alone? Or perhaps its a renewed focus on Pro 275? I’m not sure what the future holds for RVW, but I know it’s in Donald Long’s hands.

QUESTION: How important are the numbers on the scoreboards to drag racing? It seems as though hardcore fans are extremely interested in seeing the numbers, while the more casual fans are interested more in great racing. Where do you stand on the matter?

Nate Van Wagnen: I definitely think it’s important to see the numbers. The casual fan might not fully grasp the importance of Daniel Pharris running a 3.49 in Radial vs. the World or a Mountain Motor Pro Stock car running a 3.99, but those numbers are huge for everyone else – the hardcore fans, the historians, our fellow media folks, the promoters, and of course, the drivers and teams. Sure, the numbers are over-glorified at times or certain classes get fixated on chasing the next big number, but I definitely think the numbers are important.

Josh Hachat: I’m in the middle here. I definitely want to see great drag racing, but I think it’s also extremely important to see the numbers. I don’t need to see record-setting numbers all the time at each race, but at least it gives me a good frame of reference when watching a race.

The collective gasp and roar of excitement from the crowd when a big number pops up on the scoreboard is always a thrill and I love being in those moments. But seeing side-by-side numbers that are almost identical in a tight drag race is also massively exciting. It’s almost like further validation that what you just watched was outstanding, so I think it’s a great thing to have. It doesn’t have to be THE thing – as in only watching the numbers – but I think it provides a needed and essential part of great drag racing.

Lyle Barnett: Touching on the RVW topic again, that’s the only attraction to that class. Rarely do you see side-by-side runs to the finish line in RVW. It’s a home run derby, and everyone is pursuing a number. I think scoreboards off racing is valuable. Most have a good idea what these cars are running, but no one is chasing a number. They’re chasing a win light! We need more of that.

Wes Buck: I think they’re extremely important, but I don’t think they’re as important as a lot of folks think they are. For me, elapsed times, trap speeds, sixty-foot clockings, back-half numbers – that’s speaking the tribal language. That’s part of the recipe that speaks to the hardcores, and I think we already – for the most part – have those peoples’ collective attention.

Perhaps not the perfect analogy, but if you pour a glass of red wine and enjoy it with a fellow wine enthusiast you’re likely going to have a conversation about the wine’s ‘nose’ and taste profile, as well as tannins and what the juice would best pair with food-wise. That’s the exact opposite of the conversation you’re going to have with someone who’s just trying to enjoy an adult beverage and cop a buzz.

In my opinion, drag racing promoters needs to be focused on people who are just trying to cop a buzz. In this case, that means people looking for quality entertainment. Of course, big, impressive speeds and things like that can certainly help bring people out, but I think a focus and strong promotional effort behind the competition itself – how elite these men and women are in their fields, how close the racing is – and their personalities will do a lot more to bring people back to the track than perpetually laboring over how many clutch discs a certain car has or how impressive their 330’ time is.

As a whole, we’re entirely too focused on those glowing digits on the scoreboard. There’s no doubt in my mind. Seeing the crowds continually being drawn at No Prep events and the fanfare surrounding STREET OUTLAWS is proof-positive that you don’t have to have those numbers to pack the stands and put on a helluva show.

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