COMMERCE, Ga. - The heartbeat of the National Hot Rod Association now sounds more like a sonic boom of a Top Fuel dragster.
Once hidden down the television dial and even deeper in the sports pages, drag racing has found a way to push forward, if not flourish, with five-second bursts of pure adrenaline.
There are no pit stops, no caution periods and no pace cars. They don't even turn left. But thanks to a new five-year television package with ESPN, drag racing has transformed its cult-like fan base into a broader spectrum of supporters and sponsors.
If this weekend's Advance Auto Parts Southern Nationals at the Atlanta Dragway follows the trend, there will be record crowds and record speeds, each feeding off each other. If television numbers are any indication, drag racing trails only the NASCAR stock cars in ratings.
Qualifying for the Southern Nationals are Friday and Saturday. The Round of 16 eliminations are Sunday.
"Our ratings are way ahead of (Indy Racing League) and ahead of (Championship Auto Racing Teams)," said Funny Car driver Whit Bazemore. "It eventually will entice Corporate America to take a closer look at us. That, in turn, means more money, and more money means better cars and faster speeds. We've already seen the same thing happen in Winston Cup."
When NASCAR ditched ESPN for a $2.8 billion deal with Fox, TNT and NBC, the cable sports network decided the NHRA could fill the void. A five-year commitment from ESPN will assure the drag racing circuit the same kind of exposure that 20 years ago propelled the Winston Cup Series from its dusty backwoods roots into America's living room.
"We've already seen positive effects from ESPN," Bazemore said. "The crowds have been much bigger this year. I think it's going to be very interesting to see where we'll be five years from now."
It's also scary where the speeds will be five years from now.
Kenny Bernstein was the first driver to crack the 300 mph barrier at the Gatornationals in 1992. Now every driver in the 16-car finals qualifies at 300 mph or faster. In fact, Mike Dunn set the speed record of 331.16 mph at Houston on March 23.
A Top Fuel and Funny Car generates the same amount of horsepower - about 750 - in one cylinder that a Winston Cup engine generates. A dragster can go from 0 to 100 mph in less than one second.
In between runs, fans are allowed in the garage area to watch teams rebuild engines and get autographs. The one-to-one interaction between the public and the stars has been a long-standing tradition on the NHRA.
The way Bazemore sees it, the NHRA now has it all: a television package, fast cars, a growing fan base, and, just for the fun of it, the kind of on-track rivalries that once provided the Winston Cup Series with its personality.
Bazemore drives Funny Cars. So does John Force. The two have battled side by side and word for word for several years.
"I think it's important for a racing series to have personality," Bazemore said. "Fans can't really relate to cars, so they need to be able to relate to people. We've got a lot of different personalities in our sport. First, there's me. I'm not afraid to say what I think. Then there's Force, the clown. You got guys like Tommy Johnson and Ron Capps, who are clean-cut guys who wouldn't know how to say a four-letter word. Put it all together, and it's an interesting bunch."
Force leads the Funny Car standings heading into this weekend's race. Bazemore is in fourth place, 144 points behind.
The early part of the season, however, has been traumatic for Bazemore. He's on his third crew chief after just six races, and he's just now confident enough to believe his Matco Tools Pontiac Firebird can win at Atlanta's traditionally slick quarter-mile raceway.
"This is our best opportunity to win," Bazemore said. "We have everything we need to get the job done. It hasn't been a smooth start to the season. There have been some issues with me and the car, but that's always going to be there."
Now that Bazemore is fast enough to race Force, he's talking fast, too.
"My mother is very outspoken," he said. "I guess I got it from her. It's not something I'm necessarily proud of, but I do tell the truth. It's not always what people want to hear. Believe me, a lot of times I want to say more but I don't because I want to be politically correct."
He calls himself the "anti-Force," and he's suggested out loud that NHRA officials have a different standard of rules for Force and the rest of the Funny Car teams. Some of those criticisms, Bazemore said, stopped at the insistence of his sponsor.
"Force has so many fans that thinks he does no wrong," he said. "If you oppose him for any reason, you're automatically the bad guy. I really feel I'm just telling it like it is. I am the anti-Force. The fans he doesn't have, come to me. The racing public is not stupid."
Drag racing fans love that kind of stuff because disputes and controversies are settled man to man on a quarter-mile strip. The first one across the finish line wins. No questions asked.
And the whole argument takes less than five seconds. Just like a sonic boom.
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