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DI ROUNDTABLE: Van Wagnen, Buck & Hachat Break Down NHRA Return This Weekend In Indy

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After what seems like an eternity – and nearly five months without NHRA racing could be deemed an eternity – NHRA returns to official action this weekend in Indy, the first of back-to-back races at Lucas Oil Raceway. This weekend will showcase all four professional classes (Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle) and a national television spotlight on FOX, leading to plenty of anticipation to the weekend.

Drag Illustrated’s Nate Van Wagnen, Wes Buck and Josh Hachat discuss the first NHRA race since February, what to expect, the absence of one John Force and what makes this weekend a success.

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QUESTION: It’s finally here. The NHRA is racing for the first time since February. What are you most looking forward to seeing this weekend?

Nate: I’m most looking forward to seeing some sort of normalcy at the sport’s highest level. Sure, local tracks and regional series have been back to racing for some time now – and that’s a huge deal – but I believe it’s also going to mean a lot to the industry to have NHRA Mello Yello Series drag racing back in action – especially since it’s going to air on FS1 and network Fox. As the NASCAR ratings have reflected, people are looking for something to watch in the absence of other sporting events. Drag racing stands to get a ton of new fans out of these first two races back.

Josh: Every time a major organization comes back, it’s like a little normalcy returns to our lives, even as there is certainly nothing normal about racing in Indy two weekends in a row in July. Still, it’s been time away TWICE as long as any off-season, so NHRA could be racing on the moon for all I care, as long as I get to see some racing. Even with all the rumors swirling, we’re getting huge fields in every class, which is a nice first step to the sport representing itself well on national television. Like Nate said, these are two important weekends for the industry, and I hope the NHRA and its drivers can make the most of it. The build-up to this has been a long time coming, and I know teams are thrilled to return to the track, so I’m excited to see this go down.

Wes: I think I’m with the majority in saying that it’s just nice to see drag racing’s major leagues return to action. I don’t even know what normal looks/sound/feels like at this point, but any variation of NHRA championship drag racing happening right now is a positive for our industry and a welcome distraction from a lot of things happening in our country/world right now.

To be a little more specific, I’m looking forward to what could and should be a helluva show from the factory hot rods. There are 22 cars on the Pro Stock entry list – many of which are legit touring pro teams – and I believe there’s a real chance they steal the show this weekend. We’ve seen participation issues – to varying degrees – in Top Fuel and Funny Car well before the coronavirus gripped our country, so it’s no surprise to see a slew of unfamiliar names on the list for those categories. This is likely the result of NHRA beating the brush and drumming up participation in every way possible. Kudos to them for that effort, but I do have some concerns that our nitro program this weekend is going to be lacking. No shots fired there, just stating the facts. Those eliminators are weaker collectively than we’ve seen in a quite awhile.

QUESTION: Perhaps the biggest story – or at least one of them – is JFR not entered for Indy and possibly all of 2020. How are you processing this news?

Nate: It’s certainly a tough blow. Regardless of your opinion of John Force as a racer, you can’t deny what he brings to the table as the sport’s biggest star. He’s been a fixture at NHRA national events for decades, and it’s just going to feel weird without him – or his stable of drivers, crew chiefs and crew members – at these upcoming races.

Josh: For me, it goes beyond John Force. We know what his absence means and it’s truly strange not having the most famous guy in the sport at the track. But there’s three other super talented racers who won’t be there and two of them – Brittany Force and Austin Prock – have been vitally important as young, talented and in the case of Brittany, female, stars. Brittany really came into her own last year, but it seems all of that has been put on hold. With no Robert Hight, we’re also losing arguably the most talented driver in the class – and possibly in nitro racing – and that’s massive, unfortunately.

Wes: It’s hard to wrap your head around this news. NHRA without John Force? Considering he’s been the focal point of this whole dog and pony show for better than 30 years, his absence in Indy this weekend will be difficult to overlook. Personally, I can’t really imagine a national event without what seems like a dozen JFR-logo’d rigs filling up a large portion of the pits. It’s going to be weird.

Not sure there is any other way to say it. Before everyone loses their minds, though, and plays this as some huge bad deal that will cripple the NHRA, I do think this represents a significant opportunity for the sport to embrace a new star – or collection of stars. The door has never really been open like it is right now, and I truly hope someone steps up to the plate and steals our hearts.

QUESTION: Who deserves the most credit – team, official or otherwise – for making these back-to-back Indy races happen?

Nate: I think the credit should be spread pretty evenly among NHRA officials, the teams and the track operators that have races remaining on the new revised schedule. Obviously, it starts at the top with NHRA. The series could’ve taken the path that other spectator-driven sports organizations took – canceling the season completely – but it didn’t. I’m as disappointed as anyone else that it’s taken NHRA this long to get back to racing, but I also realize it’s taken an incredible amount of work from everyone involved at NHRA to build the framework and make it possible for racing to return.

Similarly, the teams have faced some serious challenges to prepare for this season. This group has been off for twice as long as the usual offseason, and they haven’t been able to operate as they would during the usual offseason. They weren’t allowed to work in their shops for the first couple months of the shutdown. Teams started testing at Lucas Oil Raceway yesterday, and for many of them, that was their first time on the track since February. We should keep that in mind when we’re watching Saturday’s two qualifying sessions – in the heat of the day, mind you.

Josh: I think a lot of people have had input with this, and that’s a good thing. NHRA has worked closely with a huge amount of race teams, finding a way to make this work. Nothing is perfect – especially in these times – but that teams large and small were consulted on these races and beyond is meaningful for the sport to keep moving forward. With the situation they are in and no massive TV contract, returning in July is probably the only thing that was feasible, as much as it seems like a missed opportunity we didn’t see this two months ago.

I do think teams all up and down the roster deserve credit for making this happen. From DSR going with 8 cars – and that’s a massive commitment – to make TF and FC look strong to teams like T.J. Zizzo entering and beyond, it has an impact. We need as many people working together to keep the sport moving forward these days, and I think we saw a lot of that in this instance.

Wes: It’s super challenging for me to add much to this that hasn’t been said by Nate and Josh, but I’ll use the space to acknowledge that the credit for putting these two back-to-back events in Indy together should be spread evenly amongst everyone involved. It takes a real strong desire and a considerable amount of time and money to get these trucks, trailers, cars and teams to the race track – especially with the entire world seemingly upside down and on fire – so I do think the racers and team owners deserve a massive pat on the back and “thank you” from all of us.

QUESTION: Can NHRA do anything differently/new to really stand out during this opportunity this weekend?

Nate: One of the biggest opportunities to stand out was missed completely. They jumped over it, actually. What’s cooler than watching 11,000-horsepower nitro cars leave the starting line with eight-foot-tall header flames at night? Nothing, right? Well, instead of running at night, both pro qualifying sessions are scheduled to run in broad daylight – 12:30 and 4 p.m. Throw us a bone and give us one at dusk! I’m sure this has to do with the available TV timeslots – there’s no other explanation that makes sense – but I still think this was a missed opportunity.

Beyond that, I don’t think there’s anything NHRA can do with its on-track product to change it up or stand out. On the TV side, I think they need to take this opportunity to highlight our sport’s diverse personalities. If the racing doesn’t hook a new fan or two who stumbles on the race on Fox, surely one of the stars of the sport can.

Josh: Like Nate, I am also lamenting no night racing. It seems like another opportunity missed for what could be NHRA’s biggest selling point, especially as I see qualifying being broadcast at 8 p.m. EST on Saturday night. I mean, why not do it live and really open some eyes? But being as that can’t be changed, having a smooth, incident-free weekend is really what you have to shoot for. If there’s a way for quicker turnarounds, non-stop action, I’ll gladly take, but maybe the best way to stand out these next two weekends is everything running smoothly and presenting a high-quality representation of the sport.

Wes: I don’t want to be that guy, but I feel like NHRA had a massive opportunity – perhaps once in a lifetime – to make sweeping changes to their program, explore new ideas, do new things and be so lucky as to blame any/all failures/problems on a global pandemic if something they tried didn’t work out. What more can you ask for?

I’m with Nate in that I would have ran these races almost entirely at night. If I’m paying all this money for all this TV time from FOX, I’d have demanded they work with me. I’d have sold them on it. I’d have gotten them excited about putting drag racing’s best foot forward and have the sport be something FOX was genuinely excited about putting in front of their viewers. I’m terrified that we’re going to show two lackluster qualifying sessions on national television because we’re running them quite literally in the heat of the day and follow that up with a bunch of aborted runs on race day.

It seems NHRA has a penchant for minimizing some of our sport’s biggest selling points. Header flames? I mean, can you really ask for more? I struggle to come up with a valid example of how crazy it is not to “lean into” header flames. It’d be like having a Garth Brooks concert and chaining the guy to a single spot on the floor in the center of the stage. Garth Brooks’ whole schtick is running around like a mad man. That’s what he does. Why would you even consider taking that away from him? Nitro cars throw flames out of the exhaust! It’s a huge part of the show. It feels like we should be going to the ends of the earth to make sure header flames are a huge part of the show – especially since we’ve basically been married to the sensory-overload aspect of drag racing from a promotional standpoint for as long as I can remember.

How many times have we heard someone say that drag racing doesn’t translate that well on TV? I’ve heard it a lot. I’m telling you right now – header flames fix that almost entirely.

QUESTION: What do you hope to see from this weekend, i.e., what makes this a success or something memorable?

Nate: Regardless of what happens this weekend, we’re always going to remember this race. But some exciting storylines certainly couldn’t hurt. I want to see an underdog win this race. Someone who’s held on through the shutdown and stuck it out to continue the dream of racing at the sport’s highest level.

There are full fields in all four pro classes – 22 Pro Stock cars! – and that’s without John Force Racing’s three Funny Cars and two Top Fuel entries. We’ve got returning fan-favorites in Top Fuel and more than a few new drivers debuting in Pro Stock. That’s a great formula for new, exciting headlines.

Josh: I hope we see great side-by-side racing, a swift pace in between rounds and teams that quickly knock out the rust so they appear in mid-season form on national television. To me, that’s a successful weekend. If someone tunes into FOX on Sunday and sees almost non-stop action, that’s going to be massive for the sport.

Having just two qualifying rounds really puts a premium on action on Saturday, too, so that’s extremely exciting. Saturday qualifying – with big fields, no less – hasn’t mattered this much in a long time, so that’s already a success in my book. It will make things interesting for eliminations, where I’m hoping the standout competitors deliver in a way that has us all on the edge of our seats Sunday afternoon.

Wes: Success this weekend, in my opinion, is completion. If they’re able to crown winners on Sunday afternoon without any sort of drama – major accidents, COVID-19 related issues, etc. – I’d say it’s a success. And I’m certainly hopeful that is the case. There have been a handful of confirmed cases of coronavirus in the drag racing community, so I’m hoping everyone follows the protocols in place, plays along and are able to return home safely.

Here’s also hoping that the show on Sunday – to be broadcast on big FOX – is as good as possible. From what I understand there has been a lot of effort put into making sure it’s a success, and that’s good news because my feeling is the only real upside to racing this weekend in Indy is the chance of exposing our sport to some new fans on television.

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