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Live Broadcasting And Drag Racing Not A Good Fit

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 11 2018

The NHRA puts on a heck of a show. Unfortunately, it’s a show that is not a great live television show. (File photo by Marc Gewertz/NHRA)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor

It was extremely heartening a couple of years ago when it was announced that the great product that the NHRA puts on the track would finally, finally, get its due from a broadcast partner. Fox Sports would replace ESPN as that partner in 2016 and the promise of watchable drag racing was at hand.

Most exciting for fans had to be the part of the announcement that boasted Fox would broadcast live final-elimination round coverage of many of the series’ top events.

But two seasons into the Fox deal, it has become apparent that NHRA events, as currently structured, and live television are not compatible.

Few racing events have proven compatible with live television. The speed and the noise and the visceral excitement that make attending an automobile race such a wonderful experience just do not translate to television – no matter how big the big screen and how qualitative the living room sound system.

That goes for the NHRA in spades. Unless you are track-side, the visual impact of 330 mph and masochistically loud noises of 10,000 hp fuel cars is incomprehensible.

American racing grew and then faded along with those humans who treasured the sport of their youth. That would be a fan base of baby boomers who, in the 1950s, ’60s and into the ’70s viewed automobiles as something much, much more than mere transportation. To those folks, cars stood for things like freedom and emerging popular technology and, an entire culture sprung up around the automobile.

To watch those cars get “souped up” to unnatural levels and then put on a track to compete against one another, was exciting in a way that is tough to understand by audiences targeted by the NHRA, NASCAR and IndyCar today.

Over the past decade and a half, officials from all auto racing series have found themselves challenged in their efforts to remain relevant – at the track and, especially, in the living room.

How do you keep a demographic which views automobiles as status symbols at best and mere tools at worst, who have hundreds of cable channels to watch and thousands of web offerings in which to log into, sitting in a grandstand or on a couch interested in three- and four-hours of cars going in circles or, my gawd, going in straight lines for 1,000 feet on gorgeous and valued Sunday afternoons?

Gimmickry has been the answer to that question.

Gimmickry has been the response of both television networks and track promoters: Cars of Tomorrow, Chases, Countdowns, stage racing, even playing fields, four-wide and Gopher Cams. There is constant, loud, babbling, overly dramatic on-air analysis in the living room and jumbotrons, promotions and theatrics in front of the grandstands.

Few of the gimmicks have captivated Millennials, most have offended the dwindling core of traditional fans right out the door.

It’s really not fair to label Fox’s move to broadcast the bulk of NHRA events live on Sundays a gimmick. In fact, it should be applauded as a great attempt to purvey the true nature of a Sunday at a drag strip.

But sometimes even the most laudable of actions end up as splats on the windshields of reality.

Reality in this case is the current nature of NHRA drag racing: There is just too much down time on the track to keep people glued to their couches.

Engines in the fuel cars are rebuilt top and bottom after every run. Clutch plates need to be replaced. Those things must be done in an hour or less – much to the chagrin of many competitors. “We don’t like it,” iconic Funny Car driver John Force told the Los Angeles Times in 2016. “We need the time. But it’s not our choice what to like. We want the opportunity to tie into new sponsorships.”

Downtime for those actually attending the events is easier to bear. Between rounds, fans can trundle on down to the carnival-like midways which jam NHRA race venues these days. There, they can do everything from indulging in mega-carb and dangerously-fatty foods to watch the engines being rebuilt, which is highly cool up close and personal on a once- or twice- a season basis.

But downtime in living rooms is another matter. The channel changer becomes the tool of choice and, the guess is, more often than Fox and the NHRA would like, more intriguing fare is just a button-push away.

Fox’s weapon to combat the lengthy downtimes that have become a part of the sport has been to fill the big screens with “features”. That is, live interviews and canned infotainment ditties.

Rather than being compelling and/or entertaining, the time-fillers have become trite, redundant and, in some cases, offensive to viewer sensibilities with their preachiness and condescension.

For many fans of all sports – stick-and-ball certainly included – over-analysis, shilling and shouting by “media partners” has become much less desirable than dead air.

Drag racing is a great sport. Every run – even in qualifying – is important. It’s a sport that features not just one or two exciting denouements per event, but dozens and dozens over the course of a three-day weekend.

The sight and lung-sucking sound of megacars and bikes launching side-by-side down thin strips of pavement spewing eye-burning nitro and lung-clogging tire smoke never gets old at the track.

At the strip, the weekend builds in tension and excitement by the hour.

But at home, the lack of connecting tissue and constant white noise of the human voice can make going out to mow the lawn seem like a compelling alternative.

The 2018 season gets rolling on Sunday with the finals at the Winternationals. The elimination rounds will be shown live on a three-hour broadcast. Thank goodness for DVR.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, February 11 2018
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