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DI Roundtable: Van Wagnen, Buck, Hachat Discuss Doorslammers Stealing The Show, Future Schedules & More!

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We’ve got NHRA racing this weekend – in Indy, of course, since it is 2020 after all – so it’s time for the DI guys to discuss what they’re expecting, who will steal the show and if we’ll see another race outside of Indy this year.

All that and more in the latest DI Roundtable with Nate Van Wagnen, Wes Buck and Josh Hachat.

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QUESTION: NHRA is back at Indy for a third time in less than a month. With the Force news official and seemingly every single possible class at the track this weekend, what do you have your eyes on this weekend?

NATE: I’m really interested to watch the Top Alcohol classes. I’m a little biased here, as I grew up around these classes, but this is a group that hasn’t raced much at all this year, especially in the Midwest. There have been a couple regional races and the Winternationals had the Top Alcohol cars to start the season, then Top Alcohol Funny Car had the chance to race at the last Mid-West Drag Racing Series race a few weekends back.

But this is going to be most of these racers’ first “national event” of the season, though NHRA is treating this as a regional event for Top Alcohol and a divisional for the other sportsman classes. That means the alcohol racers are trying to qualify for an eight-car field, and I’m sure there will be plenty of cars heading home after what should be some tense qualifying sessions.

JOSH: This is an absolute bonanza of a weekend in Indy and if there’s a strength in numbers aspect that gives the NHRA some momentum to finish out 2020, I’m all for it. There will be cars galore at Lucas Oil Raceway this weekend, as more than 600 cars are expected to be in attendance. These days, those are incredible numbers. We’re seeing sportsman cars out in force, full fields in pro categories and a lot of classes involved this weekend as well. Kudos to NHRA and the hundreds of racers for filling the pits, as that scene alone should indicate what’s possible when everyone in the sport comes together.

With fans still allowed to attend this race and the upcoming U.S. Nationals – as well as coverage on FOX – I think it really has a chance to be a galvanizing weekend. Listen, there’s a lot of bleak outlooks with everything going on, but I really think there’s a lot of positives to be found in a weekend like this, building on a race that drew some major eyeballs to FOX a few weeks ago.

Sure, the Top Fuel and Funny Car categories aren’t loaded with supreme talent, and the loss of JFR and no Tony Schumacher hurts that, but there’s a lot working in an encouraging direction. That’s what I’m looking forward to seeing, and I hope the sport comes out of the weekend looking strong and feeling as though it’s viable and relevant in the midst of some pretty hairy times.

WES: I’m looking for doorslammer drag racing to steal the show again. I think that’s my primary takeaway from all this, and it’s something that I’ve been preaching forever. I see Pro Stock and Pro Mod, specifically, as two of the most viable options in existence for growing the sport of drag racing. I hate to say it, but I look at Top Fuel and Funny Car and wonder if we’re looking at a brand of drag racing that may soon be extinct. The strong participation in Pro Stock and Pro Mod – high-level, top-tier participation – amidst a global pandemic is hard to ignore. If I’m NHRA…I’m laying the groundwork this offseason and over the course of the next few years to turn Pro Stock and/or Pro Mod into my marquee offering, or at least a standalone program.

I’m also excited to see Mountain Motor Pro Stock hit the quarter-mile. While these MMPS exhibitions at NHRA national events have certainly created some divide in the category, I understand and recognize the desire of so many racers to – at least once – compete on the grand stage that is NHRA championship drag racing. To see them get to do it at Indy is even more special.

QUESTION: Pro Mod will race this weekend, as well as Pro Stock and Mountain Motor Pro Stock, which makes its 2020 debut in NHRA. Of the three, which one is your best bet to steal the show?

NATE: Pro Mod will probably follow up its thrilling debut at Indy 2 with more great racing this weekend, but I’m also betting on Mountain Motor Pro Stock. Most of the drivers in this class have been racing in eighth-mile competition in PDRA Extreme Pro Stock since that series started its season in May, so they’ve had time to work on their setup from the starting line to the 660-foot mark. JR Carr and his new Frank Gugliotta-tuned Camaro have been nearly flawless, and I’m sure they’ll continue that this weekend. Johnny Pluchino made his debut in the class last season, and with two PDRA wins in three races so far, he’s a heavy favorite to pick up his first Wally this weekend.

JOSH: I’m genuinely excited that we’ll have an abundance of doorslammer action this weekend. Three different classes, dozens of great drivers and we know each of them will be trying to outdo one another. That’s probably especially true for Pro Stock and Mountain Motor Pro Stock, as MMPS will be really trying to up the ante this weekend. Truth be told, though, it’s hard to bet against the Pro Mod class.

Last time we had all four different power adders in the semifinals and three of the four semifinalists going after their first victory. The class really carried things the last time in Indy – especially during qualifying – so to have three killer doorslammer classes this weekend is really a big deal and something I hope gets plenty of attention. KB Racing looked to be back in top form after a slow start to the year, which means things will really heat up between them and Elite Motorsports, while seeing the MMPS class run quarter-mile – how the class is meant to be run, in my humble opinion – will be stellar.

So, I’m copping out and picking all three because I think all three will steal the show and, truthfully, I think they will have to in order to make it a standout weekend.

WES: Shit. I got a little ahead of myself and started rambling about this a little early. I went red, I think.
Anyway, I look for Pro Mod to steal the show, honestly. There’s just so much momentum there…it’s hard to overlook. I am a passionate Pro Stock fan; I love the nuances of Pro Stock racing, the unique challenges it presents, the hyper-competition, the manually-shifted transmissions and the many other things, but with it’s 250-plus mph trap speeds, five-second elapsed times and guardwall-to-guardwall unpredictability, Pro Mod has sizzle that few other classes do.

While some would argue that the readily available parts and engine combinations of Pro Mod make it less attractive than say Pro Stock, where you have literal pieces of mechanical and technological artwork between the frame rails, I do think this is something that keeps Pro Mod growing while other categories have plateaued or started in the wrong direction.Maybe I’m going too deep here. Possibly.

That said, I’ll end with a vote for Johnny Pluchino to follow-up his recent PDRA Extreme Pro Stock victory with a win in Indy. I love how excited and passionate this racing family is, and I think they’re on a hot streak right now that will likely continue at Lucas Oil Raceway.

QUESTION: We asked this a few weeks ago, but as the dominoes continue to fall (no fans at Indy 500, etc) and no end in sight, let’s ask again: Will there be a NHRA race outside of Indy in 2020?

NATE: I’m far less confident than the last time this question was asked. Looking at the next few races on the schedule, NHRA is supposed to head to Atlanta after this weekend. I’m hearing that race is a big maybe. From the racer standpoint, it’s a hard sell to convince some of these smaller teams to drag their stuff down to Atlanta from Indy, where a lot of teams have left their rigs since the first two Indy races and where they’ll need to be again at the end of the month for the U.S. Nationals.

Looking past the U.S. Nationals, you have the Maple Grove race. PDRA just moved their late August race from Maple Grove to Virginia because the Pennsylvania governor’s office wouldn’t even reply to the track’s request for an exception to the state’s limit on spectator gatherings. Will the state respond more favorably – or respond at all – to the NHRA event just a few weeks later? It’s hard to tell, but my bet is no.

JOSH: I’m with Nate. I had my optimistic glasses on as recently as two weeks ago, but it seems like things have taken a sudden and rather large turn for the worse. Considering all the restrictions and bad news we’ve seen and read about during this mess, it’s hard to believe a large turn for the worse was still possible, but here we are.

The Indy 500 shockingly announced no fans, race dates in other series and motorsports are being cancelled and it seems like a forgone conclusion that any upcoming non-Indy NHRA race is going to be wiped out. I was confident Atlanta was going to happen a few weeks ago, but I’ve totally reversed course on that, and everything in September doesn’t look good, either.

It’s going to be difficult for the already large list of “postponed” races to not become outright “cancellations” which is a major punch to the gut. I’m still holding out hope that races like Bristol, Houston and Dallas will take place, and maybe we can all head to Gainesville in the late fall – properly distanced, of course – but with each passing week it seems more and more unlikely.

WES: No chance. I hate to be the uber-negative one in the group, but we have to be realistic at some point. I think we’re creeping up on a point in time where the respectful, honorable thing to do is throw in the towel. How long do you keep everyone guessing? How long do you keep everyone dancing? At some point very soon I believe it’d make the most sense to give people the opportunity to simply regroup.

Right now, with all this stuff up in the air, it’s hard to do anything effectively. Plans are changing, schedules are changing, you spend a tremendous amount of time just contending with logistics – there’s hardly an opportunity to try to improve in any way. Especially considering that I don’t feel there’s any upside right now; there’s no real way to “win” in 2020 other than to survive and that’s what we need to be focused on right now.

A couple months ago – hell, a couple weeks ago – I would have tried to sell you on NHRA using the remainder of 2020 to do something explosive – throw a big money nitro shootout or special, spectacular night race. With those opportunities having seemingly passed (not really, but it having become painfully obvious they aren’t going to happen), I see no sense in fighting so hard to do watered down NHRA national events with limited fans and limited upside in any realm. Especially if the rumors are true that NHRA has fulfilled their sponsorship obligations to Mello Yello and won’t be asked to return any sponsorship dollars.

Let’s pack it in and turn our attention toward a better life – and better race season – in 2021.

 

QUESTION: Continuing along the lines of “what happens next” how confident are you that the motorsports world’s trade show season goes on as planned?

NATE: I hate to say it, because I really look forward to the SEMA Show in Vegas and the PRI Show in Indy, but I really don’t see any way these two major trade shows can happen in this environment. The Consumer Electronics Show (CES), probably the largest trade show in Las Vegas, already announced it’s going digital for its 2021 show.

As for PRI, it seems like 30% of the people who attend the show go home with a serious cold or the “PRI flu.” These trade shows are a prime environment for contagions. I don’t see the city, county or state officials allowing PRI to happen at all in December. If it did happen, the precautionary measures that would need to be in place wouldn’t make it worthwhile, in my opinion.

JOSH: I’m about as confident as any of these races happening in August and September, which as I’ve stated above, is not confident at all. We saw SEMA get wiped out for 2020, and PRI can’t be far behind considering it’s in a cold climate during the middle of flu and “whatever else we have to deal with” season. But it also begs the question: how will these types of shows react and recover?

It’s absolutely impossible to stand pat in this current climate unless you quickly want to become irrelevant and not needed, so SEMA and PRI are going to have to figure something out. Pivoting during this time has allowed some businesses in other industries to thrive in this time, and we’ve seen racers wanting to race in record numbers this year.

The market seems to be relatively stable – and even growing in some respects – so it’s up to these trade shows to change with the times and circumstances. Is it a traveling road show? Perhaps adding in some worthwhile digital experience? I’m not sure, but if they stand pat, we may not have to worry about traveling to Indy in the middle of winter.

WES: These two trade shows are extremely important to our industry. They represent one of the best opportunities for businesses to get face-to-face with customers in an environment that lends itself to conversation and sales. Considering SEMA has already thrown in the towel for 2020 and things in our world don’t seem to be stabilizing or improving too rapidly, I’d say PRI will announce they’re turning their focus to 2021 in the next two or three weeks as well.

Josh makes an extremely strong point here. The big fear has to be allowing our industry to find out they don’t need these trade shows and conventions. I’m prepared to argue that we do, but I think SEMA and PRI had better get prepared to make that pitch themselves here pretty quickly. I think it’s going to be time for some level of reinvention. I could see these events becoming more exclusive – harder to get into, perhaps even more expensive.

As a business owner that displays at PRI and has for a decade, any increase in the cost to display makes my stomach turn, but if participation falls off, I don’t know that they’ll be able to reduce rates. I’d say they’ll be cranking them up. However, with those increased rates will be equally increased pressure on the trade shows to provide massive value to both exhibitors and attendees…and that’s something I can get on board with.

Wild times, guys. That’s for sure.

Photo by Dave Olson

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