Pro Street to Street Outlaws. How the hell did we get here?

Over the last 20 years drag racing has taken a much different path than most other motorsports. I sit here and ask myself how we actually got here. How did we get to the point where the most important thing in drag racing, to some, is a television show?

I have been involved in drag racing whether as a fan, a racer, or on the media side of it since the early 90’s when I first saw Tony Christian’s 1957 Chevy at Union Grove. Yes, it’s a fact that a Chevy hooked me on drag racing. The 90’s were a hell of a time as a drag racing fan or as a drag racer. You didn’t need $50,000 to be competitive in most classes. There wasn’t an internet to post everything that you did. You went to the track, and you raced. You didn’t sit at home on your couch and watch it on your phone or computer and you certainly didn’t have the ability to look at a limitless amount of weather maps to determine which way one rain drop might fall. While some of you are saying to yourselves that I am living in the past, that’s not what this is all about so calm down.

In the late 90’s World Ford Challenge kicked off and for Ford racers and fans this was huge. It was the once a year race that none of us wanted to miss. Really was like the Superbowl for us. You also had IHRA, NHRA, NSCA, NMCA, FFW, and other organizations. No matter what you had, there was a place for you to race. Most of us settled for Saturday test and tune or something like that if we had a slower street car. There were such a variety of classes too. Classes like Pro Street, Pro 5.0, and others, put people in the stands every weekend. Then the 2000’s came around.

The early 2000’s seemed to pick up where the 90’s left off. Now though, FFW had some competition. NMRA came to fruition to compete against FFW and provide another outlet for Ford racers. We still had WFC going strong as well. Forums were all the rage by the early 2000’s. You could post a question about your 3.73 vs. 4.10 gears for your 8.8 and get 50 different replies from around the country or even the globe. You didn’t have Facebook yet, so forums were where you went for news, photos, tech, and just about everything else. This is where you made friends with people you may have never otherwise met, simply over the love of a car.

By 2002 NMCA and NSCA combined though due to financial stresses. While it was needed to keep them alive, I personally think that this was the start of a time period that was on the downhill slope for a while. In 2002 WFC was held at Gateway International Raceway to huge fanfare. The was WFC 5 and we got to see the Gliddens square off against each other. Little did we know that in only 5 more years WFC would be gone. Along with other series like Fun Ford Weekend.

Mid 2000’s was a solid time for drag racing. Technological advancements meant that the cars kept getting faster and faster, while pushing the cost up and up and pushing the smaller guy farther and farther away. While this did have a negative effect on some, you couldn’t argue about how great the racing was. Events like Shakedown at Etown by Dave Hance, along with World Street Nationals in Orlando were two of the standard-bearers in the sport. Though, again what we didn’t know is eventually both would go by the wayside.

Along comes the second decade of the 2000’s and with it, the radial tire explosion. Don’t get me wrong, we have had radial tire in some shape or form since the very beginning of drag racing itself. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s we had people like Dwayne Gutridge tearing up the tracks in his black turbocharged Mustang on BFG’s. Once we hit the next decade of the 2000’s though it was Donald Long’s turn to show us what radials could do. He put those classes front and center. Whether it was RvW, ODR, X275, Ultra, or anything else on a drag radial, his race was the place to be. Gone were the days of WFC, and so many other things.

This was also the time that forums seemed to fall by the wayside and the ever popular Facebook reared its ugly head into the picture. Now, instead of going to the forums, people were creating pages about everything. Gone were most of the car clubs, the cruise in’s, and a lot of the car culture that I grew up with. Here were the Facebook keyboard warriors, the ones that sat on their couch in their mom’s basement and talked smack all day without ever actually going to an event. We lost Shakedown at Etown. We lost World Street Nationals for a year. In my mind we were losing our identity as a racing community.

Pro Street for the most part was gone, Outlaw 10.5 was fading from the national scene, people were paying $30,000 for engines to be able to run 11 second ¼ mile times. I sat here and was asking myself, “is this the end, or it is just a new beginning?”. All of this seemed like madness. We just went through the roughest economic times that I had ever experienced, gas prices were through the roof, and those that were racing seemed to have money hand over fist, while the rest just parked their cars and watched.

During the second decade, the technology has really grown leaps and bounds. So have the amount of shops, tuners, and a wide variety of other parts within the industry. There was and still continues to be issues. Take a look for a second at the amount of times we as a community have put all our eggs in one basket. We did it with Al Anabi, we did it with WFC, we did it with Shakedown, with Donald’s races, and so many other times. As a community we hang our hats on fads and trends. Look at the engine builders and chassis builders that are still around today. It’s not a coincidence that the ones around today are the ones that have been around for decades. I have seen a lot come and go in that field, whether it be fly by night tuning, parts, shops, or whatever it may be to satisfy the latest trend, but in the end it’s the core ones that are always there.

Discovery Channel launched a show in 2013 called Street Outlaws. I watched the very first episode and thought to myself this won’t make it a season. Real racers and fans won’t watch this stuff. I am still eating crow on that assumption. Most everyone in the drag racing community has street raced at one point or another in their life. I just never thought for a second that putting on TV was going to work, nor did I think that it should because of what it promoted. The show has caused controversy over the last few years and drawn a divided crowd on whether it should even be mentioned in the same sentence with drag racing. While I still have a mixed bag of feelings in regards to whether or not I think it’s good for the motorsports industry, the numbers are hard to argue with. When these men and women make appearances at other tracks and races, the fans come in droves. Is that a good thing though? Are we yet again as an industry putting all the eggs in one basket?

Last week our founder Ellen broke the story that Justin Shearer was in fact, going to be entering the NHRA U.S. Nationals with his Crowmod Pro Mod car. I have never before in this industry seen such a visceral response to something. You’d think it was announced that he was running for President of some country. The polar opposites from the motorsports community were off the charts. Being called a sellout, being hated on because he is doing what he loves. Then there are those that supported the decision. Me personally, I support the decision from a racer aspect and a business aspect. As a racer, it is a dream for most to be able and compete on that stage at that level. It is something that very few will ever get to do and I commend him on following his dreams and not worrying about the haters. As a business move, I think it’s wonderful for the NHRA. Listen, Promod is by far and away the best class on the planet in my opinion. NHRA needs to bring in another audience, an audience that will carry on the traditions set forth decades ago. NHRA wasn’t the one that made the decision about Justin going and racing the U.S. Nationals, Justin made that decision and the NHRA gets to reap the rewards from it. So do the fans though. NHRA puts on an amazing product that so many are missing out on. Hopefully this will bring more into the fold.

So in the last twenty years, we have seen a huge shift in not only the way that we absorb drag racing content, but the content that we are absorbing. We went from old school Pro Street to new school Pro Mods. With the exception of NHRA and NMCA, 1/8th mile seems to be king. We have media outlets that try to bring you the best coverage, along with the best stories in drag racing. Outlets like us at E3xtreme, along with amazing content from Wes Buck and his team at Drag Illustrated and Bobby Bennett from Competition Plus. Gone are the days where you have to wait to get word of mouth or a magazine to bring you results. There is always a caveat though.

With instant access comes a feeling of entitlement at times, and we are living through that right now. This was addressed on social media of all places this weekend during the PDRA event in Memphis. The stands looked pretty good to me on Friday night, but the rest of the weekend looked light. While some will argue that livefeeds of a race are hurting the events, I will disagree with you till the day I die. The livefeed, if used properly in a marketing standpoint is an amazing tool to get people into your race. Though I digress for the time being. The fact of the matter is that when DI, Comp Plus, E3xtreme, or anyone else has information, some of the public thinks that it should go on social media immediately. They feel like they are entitled to know everything about every racer out there immediately.

So, let’s look back at where we were 20-25yrs ago and where we are now. Let’s take a look at the way that we consume our information. Let’s take a look at the trends. We also need to take a look at how history repeats itself, especially when you put all the eggs in the same basket. What are you going to do if PDRA were to decide to close? What if Radial vs. The World died off? What if you didn’t have live feed anymore? What if Street Outlaws was cancelled? That’s a lot of what if’s. So what is the plan moving forward? I know that Wes Buck has this whole #makedragracinggreatagain thing going. I think that is great. The issue isn’t that drag racing wasn’t great, it’s that we fall into the same cycle all the time. This time though, it’s much bigger. If you want to make drag racing great again, it has to be all the way down to the core level of the guy with a 13 second car going to test and tune on a Wednesday night or a Saturday afternoon with his/her buddies for fun. You don’t start from the top and work down, you start from the beginning and work up. Drag racing is great, so get off your couch, get in your car and get your butt to your local track. Support the tracks and the racers. And track owners, here’s some advice, learn how to treat your customers like family. Huge admission fees and even more insane food costs, along with subpar facilities are going to kill you. If you want butts in the seats, put on a good product that’s affordable. Make them want to come to the races again. The only way this thing that we love works, is if we all do it together.