Month: October 2012

NHRA is different than NASCAR


This weekend I headed out to the The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the NHRA Full Throttle Vegas Nationals.

I am not sure I understand enough about the sport to properly “report” on the race results.  Plus, with the TV delay of the on-track action, I was hesitant to live-tweet the race results.  Because there isn’t any “beating and banging” there isn’t as much on-track drama in NHRA….. everyone seems to get along.

So with the lack of drama and dirty jokes on my part – I wanted to focus on how NHRA is different from NHRA:  how do these two “experiences” differ for the fans in attendance.

The pit areas could not be any different from what you would see at a NASCAR Race.  Obviously, there is no infield at a drag strip and there are no permanent garage structures for the teams to work in.

The hauler for each team is the garage.   The sides of the trailer open and a large awning provides shade and cover.  Interestingly, these haulers are not simply for traveling to the races.  Most of the teams work out of large empty warehouse type structures.  They pull the haulers into the empty space and set everything up inside the shop exactly as they would at the track.   At John Force Racing they stage the three teams haulers side-by-side so that their “pit” is the same – whether at the track or back at the home shop.

In NASCAR the car is built and worked on by teams of specialist in shops – most of them based in NC. Early in the week a hauler is loaded with 2 cars and sent towards the track.  On Thursday night – the crew for each NASCAR team flies into the track.  For the most part, in NHRA, the teams travel with the hauler – day in and day out – on the road driving from drag strip to drag strip.

John Force actually hauls two full trailers to the race that are attached together forming a double-wide Technology Center.  It is a full machine shop.  I repeat – a full machine shop. Why bring spare parts to the track when you can literally make ANYTHING with the tools and machines that Force carries to every track.

Q4Gs-NHRA-30OCT2010-006NProbably the biggest difference in a NASCAR pit and the NHRA pits is the type of access than fans have.  At a NASCAR race your ticket gets you a seat in the stands and that’s about it.  NASCAR fans can access the garages and pits if they buy additional passes.  For NHRA events  every ticket is a pit pass – fans can get up close and personal with their favorite driver and team.

A fan might go to a NASCAR race and try all weekend to get one autograph from their favorite driver.  With the open access provided by the NHRA, it would be almost impossible for a fan not to be able to get autographs from several drivers.

But – before we go tagging NASCAR with not being fan friendly- you have to look at the entire situation.  It is not an apples to apples comparison.  NASCAR does have safety concerns to think about.  They have a “hot pass” and “cold pass system.”  Most fans are only allowed to walk around the pits and garages when they are “cold.”  Basically this means that no race cars would be driving around.   During any race, practice or qualifying session NASCAR officials make the garage and pits “hot.”  It would not be safe to have fans walking around the garage as cars were speeding back to their stall.

At an NHRA event there are no hot or cold passes.  Once the cars have run to the top end of the drag strip they are towed back at a slow speed to their pit.  It makes it safer for the fans to walk around.

I hear NASCAR fans complain about not being allowed into the pits without forking over a lot of extra cash. While NASCAR is right to keep fans out of the garages when they are “hot,” I think the sport would be well served to make cold passes more affordable for the average fan.

One also has to look at the crowd size.  The stands this weekend at the NHRA event were packed – with about 22,000 people in attendance.  Compare that to the crowd size of a NASCAR race:  depending on the track, it could be 60,000 to 120,000 fans.  There is no way, logistically, that every fan could be given all-access at a race.  NASCAR needs to be able to set reasonable limits on the number of people in the garage area.

There is one thing fans in NHRA and NASCAR have in common.  They all bitch about the new cars looking the same. NHRA fans say they like the Nostalgia Cars Division because you can tell what brand it is without having to put decals on it……. Sound familiar???

The differences don’t stop in the pits.  Let’s talk about Qualifying.

NHRA does it right.  In short:  bring your stuff to the track and run it; if you are faster than the other guy, you’re in the show.  There are no Provisional slots for Previous Champions and no one is locked into the show because of owner points.  14-Time Champion John Force has to qualify just like all the rookies.  This is the way racing was meant to be: Go fast or go home!

Did I mention the noise?  I now know why they invented the ear plug.  I have tried to explain what 43 NASCAR Cup Cars sound like – what they smell like and have never been able to find words.  I thought I knew what loud was.  I did not.

Nothing can prepare you for the wave of sound that hits you as a Top Fuel Dragster accelerates to over 300 mph in about 4 seconds.  The sound waves literally rattle you insides!  You can stand there and watch the lights on the tree count down…. Anticipating the noise with your fingers stuck in your already plugged ears….the car takes off and the sound still makes you jump (and you knew it was coming.)

The smell of the Nitro burns your eyes and throat – but it’s a good kinda burn!!! Nothing can prepare you for the feeling when those fumes hit your lungs.

The most impressive thing I saw over the weekend was in the pits between rounds.  They run each engine only one time.  After each round they bring the car back to the pits where they proceed to break down and rebuild the entire engine.  Not just the top end of the block – they take apart the entire engine and rebuild it – all in about 45 minutes.

I have never seen a team work so quickly in such a choreographed way.  Ever person had a mental list of tasks and went about them in almost robotic fashion.  This is why it is so important that they set up their mobile pit the same way at every race.  These guys have to able to reach for a tool and know it will always be in the same spot.  If you like gears and tools then you must make it a life goal to attend a NHRA race and watch a tear down/re-build in the pits.

All in all, a weekend with the NHRA is very different than a typical NASCAR weekend…. But don’t let that stop you.  It is something every race fan needs to see, feel and hear.