This story appeared in the last printed issue (May 2018) of Drag Racing Edge. We reprint it here because it got so much attention with regards to class racing.
TAXES, DEATH & CHANGE
They used to be the core sportsman classes; Comp, Modified, Super Stock and Stock. They were the elite of the elite, the stepping stone for a racer to graduate up into the pro ranks. Not so much now as it’s a little harder to happen in today’s world.
Naturally we have several racers who have managed to make the jump into the pros; Shawn Langdon, Leah Pritchett, Erica Enders and others; but for each, there were somewhat extenuating circumstances.
Think back to the 1970s when Super Stock competitors made their way into the pros, Pro Stock especially; Ronnie Sox, Bill Jenkins, Herb McCandless, Ronnie Lyles, Hubert Platt, Dick Landy; et al. It’s a little harder to do that today for a number of reasons; all mostly the number of Benjamins ($100 bills). All that being said, what really is happening to those core sportsman classes? Are we seeing them go away to an extent? The answer is: Not really.
The truth is: Class racing isn’t dying. Bracket racing isn’t dying. Drag racing isn’t dying. It’s just changing. Nobody really likes change, but besides paying taxes and dying, change is another inevitable fact of life.
The classes in question here are Super Stock and Stock. Comp Eliminator has its own set of participant issues and it appears as if the “super categories,” (Super Comp, Super Gas and Super Street) are holding their own as far as participation. But is “class racing” going away? It used to be that winning class at a national event was the highlight of anyone’s resume. Not so much anymore. And when we say “class,” what we’re speaking of is the individual classes which make up each eliminator.
As a bit of an explanation; you used to have to win your class in order to qualify for the eliminator portion of the event. Then it changed to class winners and certain qualifiers, followed by just qualifiers. And naturally with now 24 NHRA national events, class racing is not contested at each one of them, making the eliminator portion of the event the main affair. Winning “class” isn’t what it used to be and has turned the eliminator portion of the show into (pardon the expression) a glorified bracket race.
“I think what’s exciting today with regards to ‘class racing’,” says ClassRacer.com’s Ken Miele, “is heads-up racing such as we have with the Factory Stock classes. In general terms, fans might have a hard time relating to handicap starts and such, but they understand heads-up, first to the finish line.”
However, the truth of the matter is that just like drag racing as a whole, class racing is not dying. We’re certainly not seeing a growing pattern like we did in the early days of the sport but that’s only to be expected of any activity after a period of 50 or 60 years in existence. But what we are seeing is a growing age of the competitors who are still competing. We’ve mentioned this before but, we are seeing second and third generation racers coming into the sport. However, what we’re missing are first generation racers. Those who are so enthralled with the automobile that they want to try their hand and seeing how well it performs. The problem is that there is very little to be enthralled with today’s “almost drive themselves” cars coming out of Detroit (and of course all other parts of the world). Is that maybe the reason for the lack of first generation racers? Certainly we’re seeing some but none to the extent as to when the sport was growing. Once again, maybe that’s to be expected.
The addition of the Jr. Dragster class was to bring some sort of “little League” to the sport and for the most part it’s been successful, but there still remains a void before some make the jump into a big car.
“The Jr. Dragster classes have been great for the sport,” says Michael Beard, “but what I see are kids so heavily involved in Jr. Dragster racing from about age eight to 16or 17. When it does come time to graduate into a big car, some might have felt they’d like to do something else. They’ve spent their whole young life at the track and now there are so many other ‘kid things’ they’d like to try.”That of course doesn’t help the sport and we only hope they return, which in most cases they do, but in the meantime it leaves a hole. But are we seeing an exodus away from the core sportsman classes?
However, we certainly don’t want this to sound negative in any way. As Miele says, “When you think about all the bad going on in this world today; shootings, floods, wars, etc.; and we’re out there doing what we love and enjoying ourselves… we have very little to be negative about.”
We’ve actually been speaking for years about the “graying” of our sport, the growing age of the competitors. How someday there won’t be enough “gray hairs” around to fill the fields. But very little has changed in that regard and we’re still speaking of that spectacle. And the fields are still being filled! Conceivably one might think we’re going to get to that point at some time, but that time has yet to come. And it might not… or it might. The truth is that no one knows if the Sun is even going to come up tomorrow, let alone whether one day there won’t be enough competitors to fill the fields.
“At one of our races,” says Beard, the promoter of several Loose Rocker bracket events, “I went up and down the staging lanes asking ages. What I found was that roughly 25-percent of the participants were under the age of 30, which I believe speaks volumes for footbrake-style racing. And I believe that we’re seeing more of the core sportsman racers looking at the barrage of big bracket events and trying them out. After all, while a lot of racers continue to race the sportsman classes for that winner’s trophy; the Wally; from a financial standpoint the bang for the buck is just not there anymore.”
It’s no big secret that the majority of the money for a win or runner-up at a national or Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series divisional event is garnered from contingency sponsors. For those not familiar with the process, as an example, the win money from the NHRA in one of the core sportsman classes amounts to only $1,500 to $1,800. That amount has been the same for decades and while in earlier years one could walk away from the event with $15,000 to $20,000 and more depending on how you play the “decal game,” today you’re lucky if you can get $10,000 for a win. The reason? Contingency sponsors aren’t there like they were and as such, the payouts aren’t there as well.
All of which might make bracket racing more enticing, especially in this day and age of big dollar bracket events seemingly popping up all over. Events where you can literally walk away after a win with tens of thousands of dollars, not to mention the two advertised as Million Dollar Races.
One of the things which made bracket racing popular was the economic factors of the classes. While Super Stock racing requires a bit of a financial investment, especially on the engine side of things, bracket racing really only requires a running automobile. Naturally though you see some rather expensive bracket cars out there, but they’re only due to the personal tastes of their owners. The fact of that matter though, is that even the slowest of cars can win a bracket race. On the opposite end of that spectrum though, it does sometimes take a rather expensive engine to win in Super Stock.
While Super Stock; and by the same token Stock Eliminator; is essentially an expensive bracket race where competitors “dial-in,” there are those instances where two cars in the same class have to race on a heads-up basis, first to the finish line wins with no breakout. That’s the point where having a fast (read as: expensive) engine becomes necessary.
Bob Bagley has been racing almost exclusively in class races since his first time down a track in 1962. “Kids today can’t afford a $60,000 or more race car,” he says. “And there are little reasons for a person to go class racing because there are so many other things, not mention other exciting classes to race. I believe that had it not been for the COPO Camaros, Dodges and Mustangs, class racing would have been in big trouble. But again, the typical teenager, car kid, he or she can’t afford it.”
Although, if we follow the analogy that class racing is really a bracket race, then it stands to reason that any type of car, as long as it fits the class, can win. “Unfortunately though,” adds Bagley, “there is such a thing as peer pressure involved. A guy shows up with what amounts to an inexpensive Stocker or Super Stocker and he sees the new COPOs or other high-dollar cars in the class, almost immediately peer pressure takes over.
“A run of the mill Super Stock 350 Chevrolet engine runs about $35,000 and up,” Bagley said. “Add in the trick trans and converter and that’ll add about $7,500. I’m not sure why we aren’t looking at any of the crate motor classes such as what IHRA had. Every manufacturer has a crate motor for not much more than $2,000. When you add some sort of crate trans and maybe a spec-type car, you can have an inexpensive way to go class racing.”
A little known fact are the CRC cars from General Motors. They are basically what Bagley alluded to in a spec-type car. Built on the same assembly line as a COPO Camaro yet are minus any COPO-special badging and a motor or trans. Is that the ideal “spec car?”
“One of the problems we have in the sport as a whole,” says Bagley, “is the mystique of the automobile is gone and the same is happening in the motorcycle world where Harley Davidson is having problems selling bikes.”
So once again we ask the question: “Is class racing dying?” It certainly died on the IHRA side of the fence where for 2018 they have decided to eliminate all of their sportsman classes and simply run a bracket racing program. Part of their reasoning was their statement of, “We cannot continue to throw money at these classes that have such low racer turnout.” It’s the same reasoning as to why you don’t see Super Stock, Stock, Comp or whatever classes competing on the local weekend scene. Track operators could no longer continue to run those classes when only a few cars showed up. However, those cars and racers didn’t just quit, they simply concentrated their efforts to running the bigger national and divisional event series’.
A little bit of a history lesson here, but in the early days of the sport, tracks survived on the weekly events with class racing; and in some instances even classes like Top Fuel. It was probably sometime in the ‘70s when those core sportsman racers decided to abandon the local tracks for the glory of national event racing. Bracket racing had yet to really catch on but had it not been for that form, there probably would have been many more tracks close their doors. Hence bracket racing became the salvation of local tracks.
Bottom Line: Drag Racing is alive and well regardless of the class.