Even 73-year-old NHRA Funny Car legend John Force sees an issue: 'We need new blood. We need new names.'
- Funny Car 16-time champion John Force wants to see more young faces at drag racing’s top level.
- ‘If they want to move up, they’ll find a way to move up,’ 24-year-old Pro Stock rookie Camrie Caruso (pictured above) contends.
- 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’s keeping an eye on the growth of the NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series, as well.
And he can’t help but wonder on the eve of the sport’s marquee event why its everyman appeal isn’t translating into fresh, young sensations like motorsports fans are seeing with IndyCar and NASCAR.
Those two sanctioning bodies are brimming with talented young drivers who are winning races and championships, thanks in part to a structured feeder system. The Camping World Drag Racing Series—the elite level of the sport—has that in the Lucas Oil Series but isn’t graduating the millennials to the pro ranks. And Force said he’s rather baffled about why.
“Only a few come over, 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 Norwegian Top Alcohol Dragster title contender, summed it up in one word: “Money.” It’s the maddeningly necessary element to racing success. But no prime-time exposure is another key factor, she said: “I want to go pro, but sportsman classes don’t get talked about. They get pushed back. Either you’re racing early in the morning or late at night.”
Her solution would be “just highlight some of the drivers that are up and coming. A driver who wants to [become a pro] should get exposure early on.” The Catch 22, she said, comes when “you don’t get the exposure until you’re there, but you need exposure before you get there. Something should change there, not for just me but for everyone.”
Her friend, rookie Pro Stock owner-driver Camrie Caruso, 24, said, “If they want to move up, they’ll find a way to move up. I’m not saying it’s easy, by any means. It’s not. It takes work. It takes dedication. It takes time that you’re taking away from every other aspect of your life. But if you want it bad enough, you’ll make it happen.
Rookie Camrie Caruso is eighth in the NHRA Pro Stock standings.
“The overall sport of drag racing is doing great,” Caruso said. “I don’t think it’s struggling, per se. It’s just different. Maybe one particular class or sanctioning body is down. But overall, I think it’s great.”
When a driver ages out of the Jr. Dragster program (for ages 5-18), he or she is at a pivotal point, deciding to continue participating. And if so, the choices aren’t limited to the NHRA. Bracket racing offers large purses but also has large car counts, driving down the odds of winning. The Southeast-centric PDRA (Professional Drag Racers Association) and NMCA (National Muscle Car Association) are popular routes.
Two-time national Top Alcohol Dragster champion Megan Meyer Lingner, 29, is a racer Force said he has thought about recruiting. Her media and social-media-marketing savvy would make her the toast of the top-tier level – but, unlike her teammate Nataas, she isn’t interested in turning pro.
“She said that’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’ve always wanted to do, because that’s what my dad did and I always just wanted to do what he did. So now I’m doing it, and I’m happy with it. We’re very competitive, and we always do great every race we go to. So I don’t see a reason to leave.”
Ditto for her Top Alcohol Dragster champion older sister, Rachel, who like Lingner was celebrated as one of Drag Illustrated magazine’s “30 Under 30” rising stars in the sport.
NHRA drag racing clearly has the enviable edge on all other forms of auto racing when it comes to diversity. But Force knows it has another powerful appeal.
“Drag racing, there was a time when it was all over the world—and it still is—but it was huge. IndyCar was the biggest. NASCAR was down here,” he said, lowering his flat hand toward the floor. “Then NASCAR took over everything. Great marketing plan behind it. And they went out to TV and corporate America, and they made it happen. Then we were down the ladder. We’re the only one left of a big nature.
“The one thing we do 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 seat belt, and you’re a drag racer tomorrow. And that’s where the new blood is coming,” he said.
Following his three grandchildren (Autumn Hight and Jacob and Noah Hood) in their Jr. Dragster pursuits, Force has discovered a new crowd.
“There’s a billion drag racers. They’re out there.”
“There’s a billion drag racers. They’re out there. I go down to a little racetrack down toward San Diego—Barona—and they’re just packed. I don’t mean the crowd. You go in there, there’s motorcoaches, more money than God. They’re lined up with their kids and their families. Who are these people? It looks like a semi-national event. They want to be with their families and 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 out for activities such as “football, baseball, all-star cheerleading, or dance lessons, all that costs the same amount of money. It’s a matter of what you’re interested in.”
John Force would like to see more youth in the NHRA pro ranks.
So the question is one of how to make and keep NHRA drag racing enticing and exciting. And Force has been studying that – just as Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas has with his sponsorship of a dozen of more Jr. Dragster drivers, his motorcycle program with daughter Jianna Evaristo and Top Alcohol Dragster-driving daughter Jasmine Salinas, and his suggestions to the sport’s officials about promoting Lucas Oil Series racers.
Force said, “If you look through the ranks, I just wish there was a better way NHRA could evolve drivers, like I did with my daughters: from Super Comp to A/Fuel to Funny Car and Top Fuel. And we don’t have that. Not many leave Alcohol Funny Car. They just stay there.”
One who entered the sport in a big way and already is seeing success is motorsports-industry superstar Tony Stewart, who fields wife Leah Pruett’s dragster and Matt Hagan’s Funny Car.
“I’m really happy that Tony Stewart’s coming in. We need new blood. We need new names. And he’s a big name that can help our sport. And it helps me sell in the boardroom. I go in there to pitch a sponsor, I’m talking about Tony Stewart: ‘Why do you think he came over? He saw something.’”
Force sees something, too: “Change is good. We’ve got to change.”
How and how soon are the questions.