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Can Bruton Smith do in drag racing what he’s done in NASCAR?

By admin | June 2, 2008

By Steve Monday

Now that Bruton Smith’s Speedway Motorsports, Inc. group has taken over New Hampshire Motor Speedway and will be closing on the Kentucky Speedway during the fourth quarter of this year, will SMI set its sights on the National Hot Rod Association?

The National Hot Rod Association, which was established in 1951 by Wally Parks, is the world’s largest motor sports sanctioning body. Over 35,000 licensed drag racing competitors file an entry at one of the 140 member NHRA sanctioned race venues annually.

NHRA drag racers compete at many levels, from grass roots bracket race type vehicles to the highest level, Fuel Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster. While drag racing has made giant strides in both marketing and professionalism and has had moderate growth through the years, it still has lagged way behind NASCAR and open wheel racing in terms of popularity and media acceptance.

Ask any typical race fan who won the 2007 Daytona 500 (Kevin Harvick) or the 2007 Indianapolis 500 (Dario Franchitti) and most will have the correct answer. Ask a typical race fan to name the winner of Top Fuel at 2007 NHRA Winternationals (J.R. Todd) and most will have no clue. The same can be said for most media outlets as well regarding the same question.

NHRA Drag Racing has a television deal with ESPN, live radio coverage on and mainstream sponsors such as Budweiser, Castrol GTX, NAPA Auto Parts, Ford, Charter Communications, Advance Auto Parts, Mopar and Fram just to name a few. What it doesn’t seem to have is a visionary type leader at the helm that can and is willing to take risks to achieve further growth and gain more fan acceptance.

Enter Bruton Smith.

Speedway Motorsports, Inc. tracks currently hold NHRA National Events at Bristol, Las Vegas, Sonoma, California and has a drag racing facility under construction across from Lowe’s Motor Speedway in the Charlotte area.

Additional speculation has SMI linked to a possible takeover of Dover Motorsports, Inc. In addition to the Monster Mile, DMI owns speedways in St. Louis, Memphis and Nashville. St. Louis also has an NHRA National Event.

It is very conceivable SMI could have 6 of the 24 annual NHRA National Events held at their race tracks (two held at Las Vegas, one at each of the other tracks) by 2009. With SMI’s current vested interest in NHRA and possible expansion in the very near future, perhaps it’s time for Bruton to pull out the checkbook.

SMI already has a very successful operation template in place. From leadership, marketing know how, and the 3 T’s (tickets, toilets, and traffic) SMI’s plan works well in all their current speedway markets.

One would have to believe these proven business practices would carry over to NHRA Drag Racing as well. This could lead to more exposure for the racers and their teams, increased sponsor and marketing opportunities, increased fan attendance and increased racer pay outs as well. Certainly, SMI knows how to promote and sell motor sports. Meeting the promotional challenges of NHRA Drag Racing should be a relatively easy task for SMI to complete.

However, concerns regarding NHRA future growth do exist. Joyce Julius viewership numbers from 2002 - 2007 indicate a downward trend. In 2002, 47 million fans watched NHRA broadcasts, but by 2007, the number had decreased to 40 million viewers. Race attendance has had a slight increase of 1% - 1.5% over the same period.

Are these trends a cause for concern? Sure. Are they enough to dissuade Bruton? Probably not.

Time will tell.

Steve Monday is a guest blogger for

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