“What’s more true to drag racing than a small-block class with a clutch? A high-winding small-block – that’s just drag racing, to me. Watching the current cars is about as much fun as watching paint dry.”
That’s a direct quote from a well-known, well-respected engine builder that came up in a conversation just a few days ago, and it got me to thinking about the state of today’s drag racing climate, especially as it relates to the NHRA and the Pro Stock class.
If you’ve spent any length of time perusing some of the internet’s favorite drag racing websites, you’ve no doubt read arguments from many of the sport’s finest writers both for and against the current state of affairs in Pro Stock. It’s time for me to give an opinion from my perspective both as the editor-in-chief of this fine magazine, and my perspective from a drag racing fan’s standpoint from observing and reporting on the sport over the last fourteen years.
So here goes. In my opinion, the NHRA has stuck with the idea of a 500 cubic-inch, carbureted big-block engine for their Pro Stock class for far too long. While I love the gear-banging that goes on, the current engines are not based on any manufacturer’s current engine technology – or any technology of the last twenty years.
And isn’t that the whole point of Pro Stock? Of course, using an actual stock engine would be a ridiculous and cost-prohibitive idea in terms of breakage and on-track carnage. The oildowns and cleanups would also be a non-starter, since we need more of those to slow down the program like we need a hole in the head.
The NHRA’s TV audience is already miniscule, especially when compared to a TV show like Street Outlaws. Although there’s been no death rattle for Pro Stock, it has to be coming soon. When the current Pro Stock class champion – Erica Enders-Stevens – can’t even come up with enough funding to run an entire season, that has to scare the pants off the higher-ups at NHRA.
Something must be done, and soon, to change the NHRA’s perception among the viewing public, because without television ratings, what sponsor in their right mind would dump money into a black hole?
Most importantly, today’s Pro Stock class is not achievable for the middle-budget drag racer. One needs to need to be a millionaire many times over, or find some sort of corporate backing that is unattainable in today’s economic climate, just to have a chance to find a seat behind the wheel of a Pro Stocker.
And there are no real rivalries between the drivers – just a bunch of talking heads that work to get every single sponsor into every single interview, but never, ever call out the guy in the other lane. Boooooo-ring. What ever happened to passion for kicking your opponent’s butt?
There is current technology floating around in Detroit with the crop of engines produced for today’s Super Stock efforts, from the Mustang Cobra Jet’s supercharged four-valve engine to the COPO Camaro’s choice of naturally-aspirated or supercharged small-blocks, to the Hemi engines we see in the Drag Pak Challenger machines, that can solve this problem.
This current-day engine technology would make a fine replacement for a class that is dead in the water at this time. These engines are already scienced out, and there are many engine builders throughout the land that can service them and make them competitive while offering the sponsor an opportunity to be involved with vehicles and parts that the average Joe might actually be interested in.
Granted, the engines do not offer the mid-six-second elapsed times of Pro Stock, but it also doesn’t take a king’s ransom to get involved in the class with a relatively competitive effort. And they do offer seven-second potential – with wheelstands – in cars that the fan will actually recognize as belonging to a particular manufacturer.
Not only are the vehicles recognizable, but the technology packed into these machines is outstanding. From the electronic fuel injection systems to the superchargers and other supporting gear, these are the parts and pieces that the performance aftermarket relies on to stay alive.
The Big Three are producing limited runs of the factory hot rods every single year, and even better, older versions of the cars can be procured for a realistic price and brought up to current specs for a fraction of the price of what it takes to even secure a traditional Pro Stock engine program for one season.
When’s the last time a Ford was competitive in Pro Stock? A long, long time. But guys like Chris Holbrook dominate in the Super Stock ranks in their Cobra Jet machines. Holbrook’s a second-generation engine builder who relies on the performance he squeaks out of his supercharged Ford to take him to the winner’s circle and record books.
Chris Holbrook on the left, his incredibly powerful - and factory-based - Cobra Jet engine on the right.
Or a guy like David Barton, another second-generation engine builder that’s out to prove the performance of the current Chrysler Hemi engine on the track. And JC Beattie of ATI Performance Products, another racer who simply can’t get enough of his Super Stock Camaro and is forever working to improve its performance.
These guys are personalities – and drivers – who aren’t afraid to bang gears with the best of ’em, and take their chances hauling across the country to Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday. Isn’t that the essence of drag racing at its core?
Is this a definite fix for what ails the NHRA? I don’t have that answer, but I can guarantee that today’s youth will be infinitely more interested in watching racing with cars like those in the driveway right out front of their house, instead of cars that are engineered in a wind-tunnel to all appear virtually the same – except for the stickers denoting brand.
Driving the need for change home even further, my Facebook newsfeed exploded just a few days ago with reports of a street-racing accident that took place in Los Angeles and claimed the lives of two bystanders. The NHRA will never completely stop street racing until there are 24-hour racetracks available in every major city with no technical inspection, but they sure can take some steps to work towards its eradication.
There exists a definite need to promote racing at the racetrack, not on the street. What better way for the NHRA to uphold their stated charter than to exploit the opportunities that lie right in front of them?
It’s time for a reset.