Five things drag racing needs to do

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kenloweQueensland drag racing school operator and fuel system whiz Ken Lowe ponders on what drag racing has to do to keep its spectators around.

If drag racing were a bus, then I am a passenger on that bus. I don’t get to steer or even flick the turn signals but I can talk to other passengers (all of you) and complain to the driver.

As usual I have more questions than I have answers. Often, I find as soon as I do find an answer, it only makes another half dozen questions. I hope this does not wander about too much, because the questions and subsequent answers often take us different places. Please bear with me. Complex situations seldom have simple answers.

Something that has been on my mind for a while now, is where do new racers come from? As a motor sport, is drag racing growing or shrinking? This concerns me for at least two reasons, first since I have spent my life drag racing it is important to me and second my business supplies drag racers so is my client base growing or shrinking?

And once you have the answer, the second part of that question is why? And lastly if it is growing then good, how can we grow it faster? But if it is shrinking, how can we reverse the direction?

These are not rhetorical questions but things we need to answer if we are to ensure we are still around in the future.

Let me qualify one point here before we go any further. Profit drives us all. Drag racing is no different. A drag racing event takes two groups of customers, brings them together and the result is more at night than you had in the morning. Spectators pay to attend the race, consume food and drink and are entertained for a price.

Racers pay entry fees to attend the event, consume food and drink and work their butts off.

If the racer does well on the day, the idea is that with his winnings he will go home with more money than it cost them to survive the day. If it was really about making money they would make more working at McDonalds for the day (probably less work too).

So if it is not about making money then it has to be about respect. I will cover more on this later, but consider that point – respect.

Drag racing is an entertainment medium. Drag racing is a participation medium. Both are true statements, but I believe it has shifted from a participation medium of yesterday to an entertainment medium of today.

  • Make it an event
  • Historically, at one point many spectators were interested parties that had a desire to potentially participate and their attendance at the track was to learn about how to do something that they aspired to, but I think that is changing. Big events such as the Winternationals at Willowbank Raceway only confirm this. There are many races where there are a lot of quality race cars with few spectators yet those cars are at the Winternationals and the place is packed, by comparison, albeit less packed than it has been before.

    People attend the Winternationals because it has grown from just a race to an event. Maybe I should capitalise that – an EVENT.

    If most of the spectators came to a race to learn about something they wanted to participate in then attendance at smaller events would be strong, and it isn’t. The Winternationals is a large event that appeals to spectators expecting to be entertained.


  • Make it entertaining
  • The declining spectator attendance at major races confirms my theory about the changing composition of the spectator crowd. Now they are here for a show, a spectacular if you will, and the declining attendance also confirms that maybe we are not as good at the show stuff as we should be, or maybe we don’t treat our drag race spectator-customers with the respect they demand and deserve.

    No shade on hot days, oil downs and a slow show, all contribute to taking a good show and ruining it for the drag race spectator. We need to give them a good show and do it for them in comfort. Because that is what our competitors in the entertainment business are doing.

    I understand that pro categories take more start up time, which is okay as that is part of the show, building anticipation. This is not the case with the sportsman categories though.

    If you look at a brick home, most will call it a brick home but in fact it is a brick and mortar home. They bricks won’t stand by themselves as the pro categories can’t stand by themselves. The pro categories need the sportsman categories to fill in the spaces between the pro shows. I have both pro cars and sportsman cars and understand the different dynamic. Having said that, if I was running a drag race show during a sportsman category I would stand on the opposite side of the track to the stands (bleachers) and watch the crowd. If their heads weren’t swivelling back and forth like they were watching a tennis match I reckon they would be getting bored and a bored spectator is not a happy spectator.

    People have a short attention span. To ramp up the show I would want two cars staged up on the start line, two in the water ready to start the burn out and two running behind ready to pull into the water. As soon as the pair on the start line leave, next pair to start the burn out and by the time they are completed and rolling into stage the first pair are close to making the turn at the end. The show has to be faster.

  • Reduce the stoppages
  • Don’t even get me started on oil downs. They are a show killer. Watch what happens to the spectators in the stands when the tractor comes out. Exodus.

    They have advertisements on television, because it is free. If you pay to go to a movie during the movie there are no advertisements. You wouldn’t stand for it and neither will our paying spectators. How many racers work hard to get their new car ready for the Winternationals and they debut the new car there? Sadly too many.

    Why too many? Because a high percentage of them have left a hose loose or didn’t do up a rod bolt correctly or something of that ilk and the result is an oil damaged show. If I were running Willowbank I would expect a car and racer to have competed in at least three races prior to an event and even then they have to race with the understanding that if they put oil on the track it will cost them, not in parts, but in cash. Sorry, but that is the situation because the show is just too important. If you can’t tighten your nuts and crap falls off your car then you may need some test track time.

  • Make a big deal of things
  • I have raced at 90 different race tracks in my life; Willowbank is just about the only race track that does not bring the competitor back in front of the crowd after the race. This is a huge design error as the slow parade in front of the grandstands of the race cars and drivers returning to the pits certainly are part of the show and allow the crowd to actually see the face of the racer and engage and interact with them. At Willowbank the racers disappear into the darkness and half of them are never seen again. A huge part of the show just never happens.

    Track announcers are critical to the success of any good show. Most of the crowd needs to be told they are seeing something special. The world’s best track announcer, Bret Kepner, worked with UDRA and on more than a few occasions when we won an event while towing back up the return road we got a standing ovation. I have won lots of races and only when Bret was announcing did we get that kind of response. I have never seen that interaction at Willowbank because you can’t, the track is not built that way.

    I have watched the monster trucks fill the grandstands with expensive tickets and they are doing entertainment stuff that fills the stadium and keeps the television royalties coming in as well. They crash on purpose. We can’t do that.

    NASCAR has been the world leader in successfully selling motorsport entertainment but even today they are struggling. The stories I have heard is that they have removed 40,000 seats from Daytona to ensure the stands look full. I heard the reason was to install larger seats which sounds plausible as I do believe they were abusing their customers asking them to sit on an 18″ wide seat for several hours during a race. I don’t think you can afford to take your customers for granted and certainly can’t abuse them.

  • Make it comfortable
  • Fifteen years ago at one of the old New Year’s Series races at Willowbank I was sitting in the stands watching the race. It was as hot as the hinges of hell. I went up in the tower to ask Dennis Syrmis to come down and sit in the stands with me – he declined saying it was too hot.

    I pointed out to him if it was too hot for him I bet it is too hot for the spectators. I told him then a couple of steel poles and some shade cloth or shade sail would go a long way to improving the viewing conditions for our customers. Over the next several months I persisted with the idea and finally I was told it was too expensive and that it would cost over $250,000 to do this. Sceptically, I accepted this as it was not my job to run the race track.

    I raced for many years at Bowling Green Kentucky race track which had covered grandstands and the facility always had a crowd, even at small events. Nothing has changed and Bowling Green still packs them in. You can’t abuse your regular customers.

    A99Q9964Traveling and racing Slamfest with Russell Pavey and his Top Doorslammer Corvette we have taken the show from Tasmania to Darwin and just about every race track in between. The single overriding observation is that every race is packed with spectators.

    This is because at the smaller tracks when the show comes to town is much like when the carnival comes to town. You must go on that day, because it won’t be there next week or next month, and may not come next year. Any salesman knows to close a deal they must create a situation where the customer must do this now. Slamfest is just that.

    Many of the races have produced record breaking crowds. This is not a declining spectator situation.

    In closing I cannot stress how important it is to ensure that drag racing does not abuse our customers. We have to have a snappy and clean show and keep our customers comfortable, entertained and do it at a price they can afford.

    Is it more complicated than that?

    Stay tuned for part two of Ken Lowe’s editorial here on Drag News. We’d love to hear what you think about Ken’s views, write them below!  


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