Veteran Racer Mike Salinas Sounds an Alarm about the Future of the NHRA
Back in 2001, I was the Executive Director of the National Import Racing Association. Modeled after the NHRA, this was a professional championship drag race series catering to sport compact cars. At the time, our fastest competitors were running in the mid 6’s with turbocharged 2.2 liter Honda engines.
Within 4 years, our series was putting on 11 events around the country, had full TV coverage on ESPN2 and Fox Sports. We paid out a $100,000 championship fund each year and paid out $52,000 in payouts at every event. We even had a contingency program for our racers.
In 2002, NHRA jumped in with its own sport compact series and leaned on its sponsors to support this new series. NHRA knew then that its traditional audience was aging and that it needed to start drawing younger crowds. The NHRA Sport Compact series ran for a few years and then died.
Last week, veteran racer Mike Salinas once again sounded the alarm, noting that the winds are shifting and NHRA better take notice and do something…and quick.
Salinas, now 60, has a few ideas as to how the sport can save itself. He’s a survivor, and he knows the sanctioning body can be, too—if it can craft the right path and be disciplined enough to follow it, like he did with his own life.
“There’s not enough people looking at” some obvious facts that signal some changes—a fresh mindset, some marketing initiatives—are imperative now.
• Don Schumacher’s once-mighty presence on-track has dwindled to one car.
• John Force Racing is back at full strength, but the Funny Car and business icon has had to pump in millions of his own personal savings in the past two years to keep his operation going – and still works at a frenetic pace to restore stability.”
Another commenter noted that the NHRA needs to prepare itself for an NHRA without John Force Racing because now that John is using his own money, that can’t continue forever.
• Schumacher, Force, and Connie Kalitta—the sport’s “Big Three” team owners for the past 20 years—have an average age of 78.
“So the sport is in trouble,” Salinas said, not so much as a complaint but more like an alarm. For the deeper thinkers in the drag-racing community, he said, “It’s trying to figure out what’s going to happen in this sport, where we’re going to go.
“Just look around. There’s a big disconnect. Look at the age group. There are no young kids here; there’s very few.” This problem goes back 20 years.
Salinas went on to say, “To sustain a culture, any culture, what does it take? That will tell you how many more years and this will be gone.”
“If I had the job of running this . . . I would do it a different way.”
Before anyone in the NHRA hierarchy becomes defensive, it’s vital to know that Salinas loves the sport and plans to extend his involvement. He’s not planning on going anywhere. He understands that the NHRA faces challenges it didn’t cause.
For example, he said, “Think about this: One-third of our population did not have a driver’s license at 35 because of Uber.”
In an effort to save, or at least grow, the NHRA, addressing a cultural shift is an appropriate place to start.
Junior Dragster used to be the answer or was presented as such, but with social media replacing Television coverage, most conventional racing teams have yet to master the art of self-promotion on social media channels. This is where the youth audience lives – not in TV audiences, only on social media channels.
Further, for many people under 30 years of age, cars are appliances – mere devices of transportation – much like their toaster. NHRA needs to figure out a way to attract these people or those who show any interest in automobiles.
According to the NHRA, young adults (men and women) continue to work on and be fascinated with street cars and race cars. But, Salinas said, “They’re doing it in a different way. It’s good. You got to respect them. They’re still doing the same thing. When I was a kid, I had hopped-up cars. Well, theirs is a Honda instead of a Chevy. It’s still a car.
“But these powers that be (in the NHRA) don’t see it that way. They’re not replenishing young people in this sport. You got to reinvent it all the time. I would have those import guys here, racing with the little noisy cars, because those are the Top Fuel drivers of tomorrow.”
Then, of course, there’s the proverbial 600-pound elephant in the room – dragstrips across the country are closing at an alarming rate. Further, those young people who ARE into cars, choose to participate in non-sanctioned events such as illegal street racing or intersection takeovers.
As a former street racer myself, going back to the 1980s, I can say with great certainty that for some people, even if there were a dragstrip two blocks from their house, these people would prefer to do intersection takeovers.
Another consideration is that an 18-year-old kid in a Honda does NOT want to pit next to a septuagenarian in a Chevy 210 post.
This is a sad turn of events. If you’ve ever been to an NHRA event, you’d know that the smells and the sounds of Top Fuel cars are experiences that everyone should have and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
It’s Time To Move to Ensure the Future of the NHRA
Whether or not the NHRA can make inroads with younger audiences might require a change at the highest levels with the organization. Given that the NHRA executives are getting on in years themselves, you have to imagine that this would be easier today than it was 20 years ago. The only question is, can they move quickly enough to save the series.