Foreword by Alfie Bilk, April 5, 2015:
Don Prudomme, who in 1962 and ’63 at the beginning of his illustrious career confounded the drag racing world by establishing the best win record in NHRA history—winning over 250 Top Fuel rounds losing fewer than 30. He went on to conquer four NHRA Funny Car national championships and as a race team manager, laid claim to a further two Top Fuel national titles in a long distinguished career.
These days Prudomme hangs out with Chip Ganassi and other racing elites; he also writes a column for Hemming’s Muscle Machines magazine. A top monthly publication under the capable editorship of Terry McGean, the former NHRA champion is awarded plenty of latitude in his selection of topics.
In previous issues Prudhomme has discussed the joys of nitromethane, tire development, the characters he’s met over his decades in the sport of drag racing. But in this month’s issue his thoughts are focused on more prickly realities: the state of our sport, particularly the hurdles professional racers and racing teams encounter in finding sponsorship as well as the youth’s diminishing interest in car racing.
Mr. Prudomme is careful not to attribute blame to the sanctioning bodies, leaving one to speculate where it should be placed. Clearly, title sponsors are becoming increasingly rare because team budgets are now so large few single sponsors can cover the expense of a season’s racing. Tellingly, parts of our sport are over-priced and reading this article compels one to consider if both the NHRA and NASCAR are out of step with economic realities.
Here by kind permission of Hemming’s Muscle Machines magazine are several extracts from Don Prudomme’s insight.
Motor sport has changed in recent years, not just drag racing. To have been there when the sponsors came into the sport and to have been there when they left was quite a ride. When I say “left,” I think of sponsors like Ford, Castrol, Budweiser, Miller, Winston, Pepsi, Jolly Rancher and jillions of other ones we’ve probably forgotten by now. Sure, there are sponsor’s names on the cars, but a lot of them are companies and teams most people might not even recognize.
Being there in 1970 when we introduced Mattel and Hot Wheels and then watching everything take off was incredible. It was a time when savvy sponsors realized the sheer magnitude of exposure available. I’m not blaming any one person or group or the NHRA for the way things are now but it’s just not the same.
Things and times have changed in all forms of motor sports and companies look at it a lot differently now than they used to. It used to be these prominent companies were flush with dough and you could just walk into Pepsi or someplace similar and get a very nice sponsorship. “Oh, you want us to sponsor you? Sure!” It was practically that easy. In today’s world, it’s a whole new animal—I’m fortunate to have participated in the sport when things were really good.
Look at NASCAR. You’ll see a lot of teams, including big teams indicating they’ve got “full sponsorship.” Okay, fine. The problem is the primary deal that covers the whole car may be for only 15 races, or fewer. So the team owner or the marketing director has to go out and scrape up more money so they can run the rest of the schedule. And it’s not like this just started last week, either. It’s been going on for years. And it’s not just NASCAR. The same thing has been going on in the NHRA of late, too.
When I was racing, it was a lot less expensive for Budweiser or Miller to sponsor a car, even a nitro car, for the full season compared with other forms of American competition like Indy cars or NASCAR. I had Skoal and Pepsi and the U.S. Army, because from their perspective, an NHRA deal was a reasonable buy. But as costs continued to increase, drag racing didn’t look so reasonable anymore. You had these guys coming up asking three, four, five million dollars a year to run their car and inevitably companies began scrutinizing those numbers a lot more closely.
If it gets to the point where the viewing audience isn’t there, or isn’t there as it once was, the sponsor’s return on investment evaporates. Even John Force has to take deals like that now, piece-meal, to complete a season. I really don’t think you’re going to find any big company that will ante-up enough money to run the full NHRA schedule at the pro level. Those deals we notched up, maybe even took for granted, aren’t out there anymore. And look at what John Force has accomplished. I’m sure he’ll pull together enough cash to get through the season but he’s feeling the pressure and he’s the biggest name, the biggest star we’ve got.
I maintain that auto racing isn’t as charming as it used to be, either for the sponsors or for the fans, especially the younger ones. Nowadays, kids play electronic games and the youth demographic just isn’t coming through the gates at most race tracks, no matter what kind of cars are competing. They seem to have lost guys like me and the rest of the gang that they had when we were kids.
Can we return to the golden age?
Times have changed and as a sport, we’ve got to address that. They can change again but somebody better come up with a damn good idea about what to do. I’m not blaming NASCAR or the NHRA, but when you look at the youth demographic, it’s headed off to things like motocross that are sponsored by big energy drinks and what have you. Sponsors want the same young people in the stands with the money that we want.
We’ve got to work to make some changes.