The challenge to increase crowd numbers and the scarcity of a national sponsor has seen the need for drag racing to evolve and adapt in order to address these and other issues. The case of dwindling Top Fuel fields recently saw a rule proposal for the 2014 season that would see the integration of Top Fuel and Fuel Funny Car into a homogenous bracket to be known as Nitro Eliminator.
The rule submission highlighted a need for change in the sports premium category, the change proposed combining Top Fuel and Funny car into a single bracket. A 0.30 second handicap for Funny Car’s during qualifying and eliminations was proposed to provide even competition, citing that it was crucial that both funny car and dragsters are perceived to have a fair and equal chance of winning an event.
It was thought that this would bring about positive changes to the sport allowing it to step up to the next level and also provide an opportunity to present full fields and foster individual team and driver fan bases. Rivalry is an essential ingredient to all sport and a rivalry between funny car and dragsters would spur additional spectators and reinvigorate the old fans.
It can’t be denied that in recent years drag racing has been struggling with market appeal. Disunity and gossip within the sport has raised its head on a number of occasions. Such occurrences could be contributing to lower spectator attendances at traditional events, loss of some high profile teams and sponsors that are already far and few between. The sport has been left somewhat floundering to find a solution to its ailments.
For more than a decade Top Fuel has been promoted by many to be the face of the sport and the key to the sports entertainment solution, yet little progress has been seen in acquiring a much needed series sponsors or realising a growth in the sport. Perhaps more questions need to be asked of the current processes and plans that are in place and to determine if they meet the best interest of the sport.
It can be said the fans don’t come to see dragsters or funny cars, they come to see and smell Nitro, it is the one thing that is unique to drag racing over any other motorsport. So what is the best way to showcase Nitro to the fans?
At the recent review of rule submissions ANDRA has determined that the Nitro Eliminator proposal was a “no go”. The rejection* of this proposal has led to widespread discussion on the future of Nitro Funny Car and indeed to a less extent Top Fuel. Has the sport missed an opportunity to show that it is capable of adapting to change or are we in for more of the same?
Last year, ANDRA CEO Mal Bulley put into motion a proposal to change the way nitro classes are raced at championship events. This involved submitting a rule change allowing Nitro Funny Car and Top Fuel to race in the one category, believing that this would temporarily bolster nitro fields and grow the sports appeal to its fan base.
This submission would then be voted on by the ANDRA board members when presented to them. Mr Bulley’s submission can be found HERE
“There’s no doubt Drag Racing in Australia has a very strong and sometimes detrimental alignment to the sport in the USA. Unfortunately we lack around 300 million consumers to make a bigger show work,” ANDRA CEO Mal Bulley said.
“Teams in both Top Fuel and Funny Car put a massive effort into racing and most are finding it very difficult to race a handful of events let alone a full season.
“The rule change proposal regarding Top Fuel and Funny Car was actually withdrawn before going to the board. Although there was a great level of excitement generated amongst fans and members, the Top Fuel category were resistant to implementation of this change.
“The current rule change process does not allow for formal discussion on any proposal until an actual rule proposal is submitted. I see this as a fault in the process and one we’re looking to improve on.
“ANDRA has embarked on a very strong change management plan and with our STARS (Sponsors, Tracks, ANDRA, Racers and Spectators) model of engagement and consultation, all parties were considered,” Bulley continued.
“Having a casual discussion on the pro’s and con’s does not draw any significant debate as was seen in this case, yet when the proposal came to bear it was only then it was taken seriously. If nothing else it united Top Fuel teams on a common cause, this lead to the withdrawal of the submission based on the view that more cars were about to appear on the scene.” He concluded.
Top Fuel Australia’s spokesman Renzo Pinazza believes that there are some fundamental issues that need to be dealt with first in order to get Top Fuel to the showcase level it should be without confusing the issue with a new eliminator.
“Here we are with just over three months to go to the start of a new calendar year and there is no official race calendar,” Mr Pinazza states.
“My job is to get Top Fuel working to the best it can and for the benefit of the sport, but it makes it difficult when you can’t present to a potential sponsor race dates or the type of exposure the race will get.”
When questioned on the viability of combining Nitro Funny Car with Top Fuel even for a short period of time whilst numbers were down, Pinazza said, “There is no need to do that, we have up to 12 Top Fuel cars ready to go for next season.”
“What Top Fuel needs is help from both the tracks and ANDRA,” he continued.
“If we can’t get that it will be interesting to see what will happen.
“Top Fuel prize money has remained virtually constant for many years yet costs associated with running these teams are escalating.”
Not just unique to Top Fuel, but to any racer that follows the national series, is the ongoing costs of getting a team to the track, housing and feeding the crew and the cost of hauling the car around the country. This really starts to hit home when you add to the cost of actually racing.
“If we can get some help to cover some of these logistical costs it would make it far more appealing for racers to bring their cars to the track,” Pinazza said.
“We know it is going to take time to fix the issues we have, but combining Nitro Funny Car and Top Fuel is just not viable.
“It comes down to the fundamentals of funding.”
Pinazza was also surprised as to the lack of consultation with and between Top Fuel Australia and Nitro Funny Car Australia. Drag News Australia suggested that that all Nitro classes may benefit if Nitro Funny car ran as a bracket, even an exhibition one at Top Fuel rounds. The more nitro cars that are present would surely enhance the sport and additionally give the Funny Car guys an advance race date that they can work with.
“Nobody from Nitro Funny Car Australia has been in contact with me, so I can’t see how we could co-operate on this matter.” he concluded.
The Nitro Funny Car team owners have a different view of the situation reflected in a statement provided to Drag News Australia on the submissions withdrawal/rejection.
“Nitro Funny Cars Australia Pty Ltd congratulates Mal Bulley on his efforts in submitting this rule change and while we understand that the proposed combined bracket was not the perfect outcome however it would have allowed an opportunity for the sport of drag racing to provide the spectator with a product they have been asking for.
The management of Nitro Funny Cars Australia Pty Ltd express a disappointment with regards to the obvious lack of business processes applied to this decision asking instead who made this decision to not grow the product.
Do they have the best interest of the growth of this sport which could be undertaken with this well hidden premier product, or was it a decision based on continued attacks by certain areas for personal reasons who's only regards are there ego's and elitist attitude which abound in this sport much to its determent?
Are we surprised – No! Is it disappointing for the sport – Yes.” The statement concluded.
Member and Funny Car team owner/ driver Christine Steffens stated “If the effort that has gone into keeping the Top Fuel style Funny Car off of the Australian Drag Racing calendar and me out of driving our Crocodile car was put into growing the sport, Drag Racing in Australia would be unstoppable.”
“When there were at least 10 cars ready to take to the track in 2010, a concerted effort was made to create events but difficulties and circumstances out of our control where encountered when our major tracks were having financial difficulties, and the older tracks were just not up to today's horsepower needs,” she continued.
“This cannot be about individual egos and selfish desires to be the big fish in a small pond (currently drag racing is a very small pond in Australia) it must be about the overall good of the sport.
“We are constantly told that nitro fuelled cars are what brings spectators into the facilities so in reality shouldn’t we be using this product in the best possible manner by showing the crowds as many cars as possible to make drag racing events a viable choice for the entertainment dollar.
“Whilst I understand the need some people will have for a championship, my personal thought is that I don't care if Top Fuel Funny Car is a championship bracket. What I would like to see is 4 or 5 meetings a year (not all at Christmas time) with a 12 month calendar for notice, planning and an appropriate payment arrangement,” Steffens said.
“This would see all those Top Fuel Funny Cars come out of the shed and head to the race track and give the sport a chance to market something new and exciting.
“The spectators would then witness the greatest spectacle on earth - side by side Top Fuel Funny Car flames and thunder.” she concluded.
Funny car stalwart Rodney Bailey gave his thoughts on the rejected proposal too.
“Whilst I didn't see this proposal as the ultimate answer, I felt it did possess the ability to showcase a wider and more varied show than currently on offer,” commented Bailey.
“As the sport Australian drag racing is battling crowd withdrawal, I did see this as a way of dressing up our show to give it a different angle of appeal to new and old spectators alike.
“The reality of the situation is if you change nothing then the result will remain the same,” Bailey remarked.
“Racers in all categories are facing very substandard administration these days, with regards to event exposure and organisation.
“Administrators’ are ignoring genuine efforts from those who want to raise their hand and be a part of the decision making processes that effect the investments and livelihoods of racers.
“Personally I cannot see how by just turning up to a board meeting and voting on event styling, example categories, involvement and the like without lifting a finger to help promote an event. Help specific facilities to upgrade track maintenance or assist in the running of events earns you an ability to affect racers lives.
“I was a member of the ANDRA Divisional Council for four years and I knew that when I no longer had the time to be an effective member that could contribute something of value to help others, I made the responsible decision to stand down from my position and allow another person who would be able to undertake the se duties take my place,” he continued.
“With a more visionary and enthusiastic administration of the sport it would be nice to think that we ( Nitro Funny Car) could return to running multiple national events at venues other than the Perth Motorplex.
“The Top Fuel Funny Car situation has been an ongoing saga for two decades now. Without putting names out there I know for sure at least 5 genuine NEW starters in this class if it were given a fair hearing for championship status,“ Bailey said.
“Unfortunately all of these guys want some commitment from ANDRA and the tracks before they go any further and invest further dollars in the dying sport of drag racing.“
Bailey draws on an example of the recent success and revival of Fuel Funny Car in Europe where in some ways paralleled the Australian situation with a lack of racing, planning and commitment.
“I befriend Swedish Top Fuel Funny Car racer Leif Helander, who he told us that the racers there finally were given a commitment for four rounds with 12 months’ notice. This attracted 6 entrants to the first round of the series and was deemed to be an extremely successful event." he said.
“However to do this here would clearly require the effort of the current administration to move beyond their comfort zone.
“If nothing happens, we will all know that nobody has gained a more proactive attitude than what is currently out there or alternatively decided to vacate their position to allow the sport to once again grow and prosper."
On questioning the reliability and viability of Nitro Funny car Bailey had some strong opinions.
“I have been running Top Fuel Funny Car for 14 years now and purchased my first car at the age of 24. I did this even with an upbringing well below the poverty line,” recalled Bailey.
“These cars are not easy to run and require dedicated crew with skills to match, but it is clearly not impossible as I have been very successful over these 14 years.
“During these years I have had to endure paying other racers to come to events and like many others have been let down by tracks not meeting their contractual arrangements when it comes to payment for our service.
“Having said that, I must also say there are a few guys and girls who are looking out for the best interest of the sport with regards to it administration and I would like to pay tribute to their ongoing effort in a tough environment.”
Ricky Steffens also weighed in on the situation.
“If the Top Fuel Dragsters could fill an eight car field at every event then the need to combine the two would not be so necessary,” stated Ricky Steffens.
“Even though the rule book allows for a four car qualifying field there is no way that this could constitute a championship as this is really the same as exhibition style racing. Rarely do we see a full field of dragsters so the need to fill the class is a legitimate one.
“What difference would it make to combine all Top Fuel four wheel vehicles, other than to please the crowd who have taken the time and have spent their hard earned dollars to see these vehicles on a race track?” he questioned.
Top Fuel racer Phil Lamattina took a different perspective on the proposed Nitro Eliminator bracket, to him safety was foremost in his mind.
“As a driver, I was nervous at the thought of it,” he said.
“It’s dangerous enough as it is without adding the element of giving the car in the other lane a handicap start. The possibility of an on track incident increases and outweighs the risks that we already face.
“I also can’t see how it will work, as it is a driver’s instinct to go when you see or hear the other driver move you go. This would surely put the Top Fuel driver at a disadvantage?” he suggested.
Drag News Australia changed the proposal up a little applying the handicap after the race which would remove both his safety and increased risk elements fear.
“The crowd won’t understand why the Top Fueler didn’t win when it crosses the finish line first. It’s first to the finish line after all.” said Lamattina.
In summation Lamattina didn’t feel that the proposal would bring more teams to the category either.
It seems we are going to go into 2014 with the formula used in previous years. Will the growth that is desired materialise?Will our premium class of Top Fuel continue to be just that or will Top Doorslammer’s continuing ascent provide a better bang for the promoter’s buck? Of course there is always the dark horse in the form of Outlaw Nitro Funny that may ultimately provide the solution the sport has been waiting for, the return of crowds and sponsors.
*”Rejection” was shown on the outcome of the rule submissions on the ANDRA website, it was later revealed that the submission had been withdrawn.
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