Why the NHRA fails to entice young sensations into the professional ranks

  • John Force, 16-time Funny Car champion, wants to see more young faces at the top level of drag racing.
  • “If they want to move up, they’ll find a way to move up,” claims 24-year-old Pro Stock rookie Camrie Caruso (pictured above).
  • Force tells what the NHRA has to offer that no other motorsport can claim.

      As drag racing kingpin John Force plans for the future of his organization, he also keeps an eye on the growth of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series.

      And he can’t help but wonder on the eve of the sport’s flagship event why its appeal to everyone isn’t translating into the fresh, youthful thrills like motorsport fans see with IndyCar and NASCAR.

      Both of these sanctioning bodies are full of talented young drivers who are winning races and championships, in part thanks to a structured recruiting system. The Camping World Drag Racing Series—the elite level of the sport—has that in the Lucas Oil Series, but doesn’t advance millennials to the pro ranks. And Force said he was rather puzzled as to why.

      “Only a few are coming, where you think there should be a huge transition,” he said as the five-day Dodge Power Brokers U.S. Nationals kicked off at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.

      A trio of young women can explain why.

      Julie Nataas, the 25-year-old Top Alcohol Dragster contestant from Norway, summed it up in one word: “Money.” It is the absolutely necessary element for success in racing. But the lack of prime-time exposure is another key factor, she said: “I want to turn professional, but the sports lessons aren’t the talk of the town. They are pushed back. Either you run early in the morning or late at night.

      His solution would be to “just highlight some of the pilots that are up and coming. A driver who wants [become a pro] should be exposed early. Catch 22, she says, occurs when “you don’t get exposure until you’re there, but you need exposure before you get there. Something should change there, not just for me but for everyone.

      Her friend, Camrie Caruso, 24, Pro Stock owner and rookie rider, said: “If they want to progress, they will find a way to progress. I’m not saying it’s easy, by any means. It’s not. It takes work. It takes dedication. It takes time that you take away from all other aspects of your life. But if you really want it, you will get there.

      Rookie Camrie Caruso is eighth in the NHRA Pro Stock standings.

      NHRA/National Dragster

      “The overall sport of drag racing is doing well,” Caruso said. “I don’t think it’s difficult per se. It’s just different. Maybe a particular class or sanctioning body is down. But overall I think it’s great.”

      When a driver leaves the Jr. Dragster program (for ages 5-18), he or she is at a crossroads and decides to continue participating. And if so, the choices aren’t limited to the NHRA. Bracket races offer big prize money but also have a large number of cars, which reduces the chances of winning. The Southeast-centric PDRA (Professional Drag Racers Association) and NMCA (National Muscle Car Association) are popular routes.

      Megan Meyer Lingner, 29, a two-time Top Alcohol Dragster National Champion, is a racer. Force said he thought about recruiting. Her media and social media marketing acumen would make her the toast of the highest tier – but, unlike teammate Nataas, she isn’t interested in turning professional.

      “She said it’s ‘because it’s more about racing with your own team/family and being a bigger part of the picture than being in the spotlight. Doing A/Fuel is what I always wanted to do, because that’s what my dad did and I always wanted to do what he did. So now I do, and I’m happy about it. We are very competitive, and we always do good things in every race we participate in. So I don’t see a reason to leave.

      Ditto for her older sister, Top Alcohol Dragster champion, Rachel, who, like Lingner, was celebrated as one of Drag Illustrated’s “30 Under 30” rising stars in sports.

      NHRA drag racing clearly has the enviable advantage over all other forms of auto racing when it comes to diversity. But Force knows he has another powerful appeal.

      “Drag racing, it used to be all over the world – and it still is – but it was huge. IndyCar was the biggest. NASCAR was here,” he said, lowering his flat hand to the ground. “Then NASCAR took it all back. Excellent marketing plan behind. And they went on television and in corporate America, and they did. Then we were down the ladder. We are the only one left of a great nature.

      “The one thing we have . . Not everyone can be an IndyCar driver. Not everyone can be a NASCAR driver. Anyone can be a drag racer. You can get a helmet, buckle up a safety, and you’re a drag racer tomorrow. And that’s where the new blood comes in,” he said.

      After her three grandchildren (Autumn Hight and Jacob and Noah Hood) in their Jr. Dragster pursuits, Force discovered a new crowd.

      “There are a billion dragsters. They’re over there.”

      “There are a billion dragsters. They’re over there. I get off at a little racetrack around San Diego—Barona—and they’re packed. I’m not talking about the crowd. You go in there, there are coaches, more money than God. They are aligned with their children and their families. Who are these people? It looks like a semi-national event. They want to be with their families and their race. And they love what they do. They could be a family, like Little League baseball.

      Caruso pointed out that when Jr. Dragster drivers opt for activities such as “football, baseball, all-star cheerleading, or dance lessons, it all costs the same amount of money.” It’s a matter of what interests you.

      nhra john force
      John Force would like to see more young people in the professional ranks of the NHRA.

      NHRA/National Dragster

      So the question is how to make and keep NHRA drag racing engaging and exciting. And Force studied that – just like Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas did with his sponsorship of a dozen additional Jr. Dragster riders, his motorcycle program with his daughter Jianna Evaristo and daughter Jasmine Salinas, driving Top Alcohol Dragster, and their suggestions to sports officials regarding the promotion of Lucas Oil Series racers.

      Force said: “If you look down the ranks, I just wish there was a better way for the NHRA to evolve riders, like I did with my daughters: from Super Comp to A/Fuel passing by Funny Car and Top Fuel. And we don’t have that. Few people leave Alcohol Funny Car. They just stay there.

      Motorsports industry superstar Tony Stewart, who fielded his wife Leah Pruett’s dragster and Matt Hagan’s Funny Car, is the one who got into the sport in a big way and is already enjoying success.

      “I’m really happy that Tony Stewart is coming. We need new blood. We need new names. And he’s a big name that can help our sport. And that helps me sell in the boardroom. I’m going there to pitch a sponsor, I’m talking about Tony Stewart: ‘Why do you think he came? He saw something.

      Force also sees something in this: “Change is good. We must change.

      How and in how long are the questions.

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