The ultimate ‘Wow!’ factor: a few suggestions . . .



By Susan Wade

Racetrack mogul Bruton Smith has churned up quite a stir with his four-wide racing format at the recent National Hot Rod Association event at Concord, N.C.

Some people love it, love the outrageousness of it all — so American, so over-the-top, so extreme. Others would use “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell’s label for corny performances: “indulgent nonsense.” Either way, folks are talking.

Scott Woodruff, director of marketing and public relations for JEGS, a sponsor in various forms of motorsports, said that zMAX Dragway event gained attention “by numerous media outlets that normally put limited effort at best on following our sport. This time they watched, they talked about, they reported about it, and that means new and additional eyeballs enjoying our sport. I can tell you without a doubt that four-wide racing created new sales for JEGS and put our brand in front of people that might not have thought of JEGS before. We need new people looking at our great sport if we expect to grow.”

So drag racing, as Woodruff and others will attest, got a huge bounce from this novelty.

Credit the International Hot Rod Association, too. Especially now that new principal owner Feld Entertainment (of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus fame) has changed its format from traditional heads-up racing, the IHRA will take a risk to enhance the show. It meshes perfectly with President Aaron Polburn’s mantra: “Customer-service ‘em to death.”

One year at Joliet, Ill., during one of his annual NHRA scouting trips, Polburn said that even at his own races, “I try to become a spectator as much as possible. That’s how we make ourselves better.

“I’m looking more for the emotion,” he said. “Why did they buy this ticket? I look at what the spectator reacts to. What did they buy? How much did they pay for it? What’s the experience like? If you can create a better experience, you can create a better ‘Wow!’ factor, and you can sell more tickets. And the front gate is key in this business.”

The marketing folks at Macdonald Tobacco (the Canadian company that R.J. Reynolds absorbed) changed the paradigms. Take, for example, the 1974 publicity stunts they hatched and two-time IHRA Top Fuel winner Gary Beck pulled off in the Macdonald’s Export A brand-sponsored dragster — despite some desperate conditions and tall odds.
The first came at Mosport International Raceway. DRM Editor Brian Wood got the skinny from Beck about five years ago:

“Some marketing genius decided it would be great if we made a lap around the track before the race. Our main concern was getting enough fuel in the car. I did a huge burnout and just kept going . . . along the front straightaway. Let me tell you, you can really move down through there with a dragster, and I was really liking it,” Beck said.

“Of course, I had to slow down some to get around the corners, but I eased it through and was having a great time until I got to the hairpin turn. For that one,” he said, “I had to stop and work myself around, but I made it. Coming out of the hairpin, I loaded the engine up, dropped the clutch, and carried the front wheels two feet off the track all the way down the backstretch. Now it’s making a hard move as I fly up and down some hills and around some more corners.

“Finally, about three-quarters of the way around, I pull the ‘chutes and just drag them around to put on a show, crossing the finish line just as the fuel ran out,” Beck said. “Later I found out that we had run just a few seconds under the track record! If I had known how close we were, I’d have hustled a little more through that hairpin. Just think — we nearly set the track record with a Top Fuel dragster!”

Later that year, at a stock-car race at Delaware Speedway, a paved, banked oval short track near London, Ontario, Macdonald called upon Beck again to entertain with his dragster.

Beck performed as asked, displaying fiery header flames and carrying the wheels as he dove into the first turn. Some knucklehead in the press box decided it would be much more dramatic in the dark and doused the lights. Beck, suddenly blinded, managed to navigate the tight turn and stand on the throttle to keep those header flames lit for the fans. Exiting Turn 2, the lights reappeared and Beck brought up the wheels all the way down the backstretch.

So what can we expect next?

Maybe the NHRA or IHRA will stage at least an exhibition in which the cars must race uphill, perhaps in the Pikes Peak Hill Climb.

Maybe they’ll put the driver’s kids in the car with him and see how many times down the quarter-mile they’ll yell, “Are we there yet?” and “Can we stop and get a hamburger?”

Maybe drivers can race the CD player. You know — the trick is to get to the finish line before some rapper mentions a heinous crime in his song. OR maybe the deal would be for the driver to get through the lights before the fans, watching the new Nitro Vision screens, can tell if Miley Cyrus, Janet Jackson, and Britney Spears are lip-synching or really singing. “Interactive” seems to be the hot new buzzword.

Oh-oh-oh — better yet — maybe a straight-line obstacle course would be great. At about 300 feet, they’d have to stop at a makeshift Starbuck’s drive-through window and order a double-tall loco latte, then at about 800 feet, they’d stop at a toll booth and have to hit the basket with a silver dollar (proceeds go to their personal IRAs — their own I Ruined the Asphalt oildown funds).

Who knows? Keep watching. Bruton Smith or the IHRA will come up with something clever, for sure.


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