Opinion

When Performance Trumps Performing

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Drag racers are their own worst enemies when it comes to performance versus performing. Almost without exception they’re willing to sacrifice showmanship in their pursuit of speed and unfortunately the major sanctioning bodies typically encourage and reward the decision. Sure, lip service is given to the idea that “drag racing is show business and we’re competing with Little League Baseball and NFL football and concerts and movies for the consumer’s attention,” but in the interest of reducing downtime and running on schedule, anything that might create a disturbance is discouraged.

Currently, that contradiction is nowhere more prominently on display than in the ADRL, where much of the buzz and excitement of the early years has been lost to the pursuit of perfection, on the track by teams and prep crews, and in the tower by series officials.

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Not so long ago each ADRL race brought with it not only the anticipation of record runs but the somewhat sinister realization that someone’s car probably would be going home in more pieces than it arrived. It was just the nature of the game when you brought together dozens of fearless drivers and race teams dedicated to “swinging for the fences” on each pass down the ADRL eighth mile.

The fans knew it, the officials knew it and most significantly the racers knew it; the only unknown was who’s car as they rolled in on Thursday would be headed for the chassis shop for repairs by Saturday night. Would it be a series newcomer, intent and maybe a little overzealous in their desire to break into their first ADRL field? Or would it be a regular, perhaps a legend of the sport even, who gets just that little bit too far out of shape before aborting a run gone bad in a hurry? It made for a compelling show.

Now, I’m not arguing for guaranteed carnage or wishing for life-threatening and wallet-emptying accidents at any drag race; however, it’s indisputable that the potential for disaster sells tickets. Consider how popular the NFL would be without the big hits, or why Professional Bull Riding has risen to such prominence, or even what would happen to NASCAR if every race went clean and green.

The truth is, people, us, we, the fans, are intrigued by that which we cannot or would not do. But one of the biggest selling points for drag racing has always been its egalitarian nature; that is, that practically anyone can do it. As long as you have some sort of vehicle that can pass a basic safety screening, you’re told to head on down to your local strip’s test-n-tune session and put the family truckster through its paces in a controlled and safe environment.

But that suggestion—and appearance—that anyone can drag race also diminishes the sport’s perceived level of difficulty and daring. How many times in casual conversation with a non-drag racing fan have you heard something along the lines of, “Drag racing? Isn’t that where they just go in a straight line from A to B? How hard can that be?”

Of course to the informed the obvious answer is “Pretty darned hard!” but looking in from the outside it’s an understandable attitude. After all, guys like John Force, Tony Schumacher and Greg Anderson make it look so easy. And with state-of-the-art track preparation, even Pro Mods, those paragons of mechanized mayhem, have been calmed down to the point of appearing practically tamed. They’re not, of course, as drivers like Roger Burgess and Rickie Smith were recently reminded, but at no time in history have the odds of making a strong pass been so high as long as the car stays “in the groove.”

And therein lies the problem. Steps taken to ensure quick, fast, efficient runs, whether through electronic aids like traction control or advanced track prep techniques, have come at the expense of the show. Traditionally, drag racing was all about smoke and fire and edge-of-control race cars and drivers with big ones that clanked when they walked—even if they were a woman! Dyed-in-the-wool gearheads who often drove some pretty mean street iron themselves held drivers with nicknames like Big Daddy, Snake, Mongoose, Jungle, Greek and yes, Cha-Cha, in such high esteem because they realized, they knew, that those drivers were doing something special, something that they, mere mortals in comparison, could never do.

I’m not so sure most of today’s fans, and certainly not casual observers, harbor the same reverence for (or at a minimum, recognition of) the talents of a Spencer Massey or a Jack Beckman or an Erica Enders, and all because it looks too easy. It looks like they, the fans, could do the same if only given the opportunity.

They couldn’t, of course, but the watered-down show that comes at the expense of record-setting runs makes it seem that way from the stands.

And it’s not limited only to drag racing’s highest levels. The search for the perfect pass in my opinion was a major factor in the fall from grace that Outlaw 10.5 suffered just a few years ago and that’s well on its way to doing the same for the ADRL’s Extreme 10.5 class.

When Outlaw 10.5 came to national prominence in the early- to mid-2000s it did so with wild drivers in wild cars doing wild things on a regular basis. Perhaps not so surprisingly the nicknames were out in force, too, as the Hitman, Outlaw, Bad Brad and Ax Man piloted supercharged and nitrous-breathing beasts to sky-clawing passes on a pretty routine basis.

But then came the realization that those crowd-pleasing wheelies weren’t the quickest way down the track. And after that came the ability to better control and then practically eliminate them. And soon after came the waning interest of fans and media as they turned attention to the yet untamed Limited Street class that eventually repeated the cycle and handed the mantle to EZ Street and so on and so on.

When drag racing becomes boring, regardless of the performance involved, it becomes expendable to all but the most zealous of fans. On the other hand, provide a show full of wheelstands, wild runs and Wow!-inducing moments and maybe, just maybe, it can regain its stature as the most exciting and unpredictable of motorsports.

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