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IHRA makes major changes for 2010 drag racing season
Drag Review Magazine, the official magazine of the International Hot Rod Association, recently sat down with IHRA President Aaron Polburn to discuss the changes for the 2010 season and beyond. Below are the highlights from that conversation.

DRM: What are the changes that are planned for the IHRA in 2010?

POLBURN: The first major changes that you will see are the number of days that we race at a Nitro Jam event. A majority of them will be going from three days to two days because there is not much we can’t do in two days that we can do in three days. There is an economic factor to look at for the racer, there is an economic factor to look at for us and it just makes financial sense to do that. By far the biggest change will be in the format. Let me start off by saying that there will be no changes in the sportsman format other than the amount of time they have to spend at the race track. Everything will apply, the Tournament of Champions, qualifying rounds – basically everything that you see and have seen will remain. We will always have an unwavering commitment to sportsman racing within the IHRA.

Second, you will see a change in the professional format and the presentation. Probably the biggest change will be the fact that there will not be any qualifying. Once you see the race start, whatever category it might be, they will be racing right from the get-go. The main reason for that is twofold. One, to see a professional drag race from start to finish right now you have to invest approximately six or seven hours at the race track. There is not a piece of entertainment in the world that tells you that you have to be there for six or seven hours to see the end result. We have to cut that down to a manageable level, which is probably three hours max. We need to show the fans everything in that short time period, but we need to bring each day to a conclusion. Right now what do we do on a Friday? We qualify. What do we do on a Saturday? We qualify. We don’t even tell the story until Sunday. Well I want the story to be told every day and how you do that is what a lot of people would call Chicago style. Bottom line is that the fans will see every professional class two times each day and they will be in a competitive format with winners each night.

For example, let’s say there is an eight-car format in a class. They will come out in round one and they will race against each other and the winners get paid X number of dollars and the runners-up get X number of dollars just like they normally would under a points structure. Points are awarded and then in the next round you will see all eight cars again, the difference being that the final two cars down the race track will be the two winning low E.T.s from the first round. That will be the championship round. You will have a distinct winner and a distinct runner-up every night. And they will be paid more for being in that position. And the drivers that aren’t in the final will still be racing for points and a purse.

DRM: Is this going to be a booked-in show?

POLBURN: It is not a booked-in show per say, although we are trying to fill the fields in advance so we know exactly who is going to be there. We are going to select the racers. There will not be a traditional open field in any pro class, but they will still run for a purse and points in a competitive format. That way the fan can go home each night and say they saw a winner. You might ask what good is that for the racer. Well, think what that means in Top Fuel, or in any class for that matter. We are saying you don’t have to make all these runs down the track just to make the show. In Top Fuel that can be thousands and thousands of dollars. We are saying that we are going to cut your race days down by one. There are race expenses, hotel expenses, food, travel, and getting back to work expenses to consider as well. From our end and from the racer end, what can give us the best show possible and help combat the economic reality that this is out of hand?

DRM: Will every event look the same?

POLBURN: You have to look at each market as an individual. We are going to create what we call designer events. In the end the Edmonton event may not look like the New England event and neither may look like the Rockingham event. The reason is that we, meaning the drag racing industry no matter what letter is in front, have always said ‘if you want to have this event, here are the expenses and here are the classes you have to run.’ Many times we would have an event that would have far more expenses than the historical income that the event would generate. Then you would say you hope to sell more tickets, you hope to sell more sponsorship, you hope the back gate is bigger. Well that is foolishness because it doesn’t happen that way.

We need to design events that fit the historical financial history of each of the market places we go to. Hence some classes that run at one event may not run at another. It may be a different mix, but I guarantee you it will be an exciting mix and that the fans will be able to see a great race and I think they are going to be able to see more variety. That is the other key. We put out surveys this year and the ones we got back said give us more stuff.  We like a particular class, but we don’t need to see 16 of them or we don’t need to see 20 of them. Show us more variety. In the future I think you are going to see more variety at an IHRA Nitro Jam.

DRM: What will be the structure of Nitro Jam events in 2010?

POLBURN: Theoretically what will happen is that you will see the sportsman cars start off in the morning and probably end at around 5 p.m. on each day of the event. Once we close down the race track we are going to create what we are going to call Fan Fest, which will be a designated activity session that goes on in the pit area for our professional teams. We will have autographs sessions and other activities for the fans to take part in. We want to try and make that fan- to-driver connection as much as we possibly can. One of the ideas that we have floating around is the Nitro Jam Earthquake. All of these cars have to warm up, who says they can’t warm up at the same time. That may take some coordination, but how cool would it be to stand in the pit area and have all of these nitro cars fire up at the same time and you are standing in the middle of it.

Once Fan Fest is over with, people take their seats and the show begins. They will then see professional rounds and once again see Top Sportsman and Top Dragster as a part of the show and then come right back with a second round of competition in these various classes and decide the winners in each of the pro categories. Again I want to emphasize that the sportsman schedule will remain the norm. They will not be running each day to an end; they will be running over the two day period in the same fashion as before. The benefit to the sportsman is that they will no longer have pro sessions to deal with and they will have their own time. Now they won’t have to work around the pros.

DRM: What is the reason behind these changes?

POLBURN: More than anything else we have had a history of looking at what is successful and what is not successful. We know that after looking at the other forms of entertainment it is critical that we package a program into that three hour window and reduce our current ticket price because more people will attend. We know it is critical that we get the right average ticket price. If we continued to do the same thing that we were doing we were going to continue to get the same results and those aren’t results that I am happy with.

By creating a new format at a reduced price I think we can expand our audience, put on a better show in a shorter period of time and work inside a workable budget for each of these market places.

DRM: Where does Feld Entertainment stand with the IHRA?

POLBURN: They are behind us 100 percent. I met with Mr. Feld not too long ago and he said he has a hard time understanding this business and he is right. Think about the fan that currently comes to our races and sits in the stands, how confusing that might be. Why did this car win with a slower elapsed time? What are they doing? Are they qualifying or racing? What we are trying to do is really simplify things quite a bit. Put it in a more compact, user friendly format at the right price that I think is going to be highly entertaining.

DRM: What professional classes will be at Nitro Jam events in 2010?

POLBURN: That depends on what we and the tracks come up with together. Again this is a partnership where we sit down with the tracks and decide what works best for both parties. I can tell you that right now it looks like most of the facilities want more of a nitro-themed event. That can include anything from Top Fuel to nitro bikes, but right now it looks like three of the classes that are being heavily favored are Top Fuel, a class we are calling Pro Fuel which will consist of injected A/Fuel cars, and Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars. That will be our base of business right there. We want to put the emphasis back on the nitro in Nitro Jam and having three nitro classes should provide plenty of excitement for the fans. We are also excited to have Funny Cars back in the mix as they are the one thing fans missed the most. We are also going to require some of the classes to have themed cars, making them more fan friendly and exciting. Nothing is set in stone except for the format and the theory of shortening up the professional presentation to the fan. We could have four or eight car fields, maybe even more, but let’s look at Top Fuel for example. Top Fuel is just so expensive for them and for us. So can we highlight the best four Top Fuel cars that we have and supplement it with other types of nitro cars and nitro bikes? The answer is absolutely yes, we can.

Top Fuel will be at every event, I can tell you that. Again how this works is that the race tracks are our partners. We go to the tracks and say let’s sit down and create a show that fits everyone’s budget. We then give them a menu. The menu might have 20 items on it and the track works with us to decide what fits them best both financially and market-wise. For example, some of the tracks have multiple Pro Modified events, some have multiple Pro Stock events, and some have bike events and other nitro events so it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for us to come back in after they have run one of those events and for us to have the same thing. Another problem that we face is that some of the facilities we are taking Nitro Jam to have an event on their schedule that gives away the Pro Stock and Pro Mod product for free. It is ludicrous to think that we are going to go back in there and charge a $25 ticket for people to watch the same thing. It just doesn’t make sense. And those are the issues we have to address track by track.

DRM: Will these be invitation-only events for the professionals.

POLBURN: Yes. For the professionals that is correct. We would hope to have the same group follow us from event to event. We know that may not be the case because of travel, but essentially it will be invitation only. Again there will be no qualifying. We will set the field in advance and that will help us better control the show and be able to advertise and promote the event with confidence.

DRM: Why make it more of a show?

POLBURN: Because it is fun. If we are having fun thinking about it and putting it together it is going to be fun for the spectator. The hardcore fan, I still think they are going to come, but it may take some getting used to. There is no reason to say that the thing can’t be more theatrical. It is still competition. It is still wins and losses. Wins and losses still mean something, but we are just going to have more to see and do. From more pyro, fireworks, and jets, it is going to be exciting to watch.

If you go to a concert do you want to watch a concert that is four guys up there just playing music or do you want to go to a show and see music with lasers, lights, and fire. It is still great music, but they surround it with stuff that is cool and there is no reason we can’t do the same thing. From the stage to the finish line, we are going to put on an incredible show. I think over the next couple years you are going to continue to see a whole new look as to how this thing is presented.

DRM: Will other racing series still be a part of the events as they were in 2009?

POLBURN: That is a great question. We have already talked with Grand Bend and PMRA is going to be a part of that event because it fits that particular racetrack, that region and everything that we are trying to do. There are a lot of advantages to have certain series and classes in each market. But that is a perfect example of how this thing can work by fitting what classes and cars work for a particular area to make that event better.

DRM: What about the other classes?

POLBURN: If we are going to have Alcohol Funny Cars, Pro Mod, Pro Stock, etc. they are going to have to fit into the same format. It would be a no qualifying program where they race right away, they get paid a particular purse and there is a winner each night. The plan is to still have them be a part of the show, just not in the traditional open format we have used in the past and on a more limited basis.

Also, I know several tracks right now that have them before we do or give the product away for free. If I take the tracks that give it away for free and throw out Edmonton that now leaves six possible events. The other problem that we have discussed with them is the format. Pro Modified, for example, has NHRA, IHRA, ADRL, Texas Outlaws, Northeast Outlaw Pro Mods, PMRA – you have got every sanctioning body that has them and every track that runs them. You can go to any track, any national event, and see Pro Mod. It just doesn’t have the uniqueness that it used to. I love the class and I respect the history of IHRA inventing the class, but if someone has seen them time and time again in another venue chances are they are not going to want to watch them again. It is a very cool class that everyone has copied, which is the problem. But again in some markets classes like that may be extremely popular and will be part of the event. We just have to keep our options open.

\You have to change. What I describe to you are problems that exist in drag racing. We can either stick our head in the sand and say it will get better, the economy will get better, or we can do something about it. Look, we are the people who started Top Sportsman and Top Dragster as well and now they are everywhere. The fact that other people want what we have is great, but terrible from a business standpoint. We have to go back and grab our uniqueness.

DRM: Are the three classes currently on the schedule the only classes that will have a points program?

POLBURN: That is the case unless there are a number of tracks that want another eliminator that makes sense to them. Maybe we are going to end up with seven or eight tracks that want Pro Stock or Alcohol Funny Car and if that is the case we will certainly consider that. All of the classes will be in a competitive situation, but only those that we can have enough of over a series of time will there be a points program. For example, in NHRA Pro Stock Bike only comes to certain events and that is how I see it here. As long as we have enough to create a series then yes, points will be awarded and there will be champions in those categories.

DRM: How early will the line-ups be set for each Nitro Jam event in 2010?

POLBURN: We are going to know in the next four or five weeks what the tracks want. Our menus will be set in stone months in advance.

DRM: If I am a sportsman racer, where do I fit into the series?

POLBURN: Obviously everything will stay exactly the same for the sportsman drivers. From the Summit Pro-Am and Summit SuperSeries, nothing will change. And essentially nothing will change at the Nitro Jam events except for having one less day. You are going to get your qualifying and your eliminations, just in one less day and without being interrupted by the traditional afternoon session.

The biggest issue we wanted to fix is the perception that sportsman are fillers. We are making a schedule to address that. We are not cutting sportsman classes or raising their fees. We are the friendliest sportsman racing organization and will continue to focus on those competitors.

DRM: I hear there are going to be a couple of neat extras thrown into the show next year?

POLBURN: We are going to have a ton of stuff to see and do. One of those things that I am most excited about is having side-by-side jet trucks race at every event. We have already talked with Les Shockley and both of his trucks are going to be racing side-by-side at every event and race. That has only been done one other time and it was one of the coolest things I have seen in my life. Now fans are going to get to see that at every event. We know it is spectacular, we know it is something that is going to be unique to us and most importantly it is going to be fun. I can’t wait.

DRM: What else is on the menu?

POLBURN: We are looking at everything nitro. From Nitro Harleys to Nitro Suzuki, Fuel Altereds, and everything in between. We obviously want to have more in the way of Nitro at our Nitro Jam events. But we are also going to have stuff like jet bikes, jet quads, jet cars, wheelstanders and anything that creates excitement and fun in-between the class racing.

DRM: Are the event names going to change?

POLBURN: The term nationals will pretty much disappear. Everything will pretty much be Nitro Jam.

DRM: Just to clarify, none of the racing will be pre-planned?

POLBURN: Absolutely not. Every class that we race on a professional level will have a purse and points. In other words if you screw up you are not going to make as much money as winning. At no point do we decide if this guy wins and this guy losses. Just as they did before, they are going to have to race for it. All of our programs emphasize racing and this will be no different.

DRM: How exciting is it to have classes that aren’t prominent in other series?

POLBURN: Our brand is Nitro Jam and I hope to see as many nitro cars as possible within our budget. There is no question that we have been experimenting with our A/Fuel cars and we have seen them do some neat things. We have also watched these Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars and a majority of them are incredibly professional and fun to watch. It just fits into what we are trying to accomplish.

DRM: From a track operator standpoint, what are the advantages?

POLBURN: If I am a track operator and this is the kind of event that I want to take a look at it makes perfect sense because we are dealing with financial realities, not guessing what the event might do. It is still drag racing. All the things that drag racing had are still there; I just think it is a much better presentation than it has been in the past. Our format will not be based on series sponsorship or outside support to work. On top of that it is more fan friendly, racer friendly and quite honestly more track friendly. Our brand is going to be drag racing entertainment.

DRM: What is the target audience: the race fan, the thrill seeker, or the family?

POLBURN: I think it will be all three although you can’t be everything to everybody. I still think it will be a little younger than we currently are mainly because the ticket prices will be a little more tolerable than they have been in the past. My goal is to be more family friendly. Drag racing says that it is a family show and that is just not true. No family is going to bring their kids to a race track for six or eight hours, but they are certainly going to bring them for three hours because that is tolerable. When our kid counts start going up that is when I know that we are starting to be successful at what we are doing. If a kid wants to come to a Nitro Jam event and the parents see that the price is right and they don’t have to spend all day at the track then they are going to be more likely to attend. Add in the fact that the kids will also get to participate in all of these fan activities and see a nice, concise show and we are going to win and we are going to win big.

DRM: What is your vision of the future?

POLBURN: Once this concept is refined we will be able to take it anywhere. I really see us being able to take this format international and I could see other very nice facilities jumping on the IHRA bandwagon because it makes financial sense to do so. There is always a great demand for good, unique entertainment. What we have to do is refine the wow factor. If we refine the wow factor we win. Anyone will pay to be wowed.

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