NORWALK, Ohio (July 12, 2010) – So far this year the 2010 season has been one of rebirth and new direction for the International Hot Rod Association and its completely revamped Nitro Jam series.
New classes, new rules and an anything goes, entertainment first attitude has had a huge payoff with capacity crowds and exciting shows that is slowly but surely winning over the hearts and minds of casual and diehard drag racing fans alike.
From the beautiful beaches at West Palm Beach and Baton Rouge, to the traditional IHRA stomping grounds in Rockingham, all the way to the western half of the country at Salt Lake City and Edmonton, the new Nitro Jam tour has left its mark in each market as the all-new series brings in a thrilling program of nitro entertainment and additional acts all packaged around a solid sportsman foundation.
Rocky Mountain Raceways in Salt Lake City last month
“At this point I am cautiously optimistic, but am convinced that this is the correct business plan for growth. I think we have just scratched the surface,” said Aaron Polburn, IHRA President. “We have regained the ‘fun factor.’ In the past we were so concerned with putting on a race that we really overlooked what the general motorsports audience wanted. And that was to create a combination of having a good time at a value.”
And so far that combination has done wonders for the company well into its 40th year of operation. Now the series will try to continue that momentum entering into the second half of the season which starts in Grand Bend, Ontario this weekend.
Through the first six months of the 2010 season the Nitro Jam series has enjoyed a resurgence in the drag racing community with huge shows aimed at providing the best value possible for fans and racers. For sportsman racers, IHRA’s most valuable asset, racing has only gotten better with uninterrupted competition throughout the day creating opportunities not found anywhere else in the sport. Fans have also benefited from the restructuring as the new “entertainment window” has meant less time at the track and more opportunities to get the entire family involved.
And of course the incredible show featuring multiple nitro classes, wheelstanders, dueling jet semis, fireworks and more has certainly helped, being met with overwhelming approval from fans.
Prostalgia Nitro Funny Car driver Jeff Diehl at Palm Beach International Raceway in January
“We need to continue to listen to the customer and make every effort to connect the drivers and fans,” Polburn said. “We need to make sure every facet of the show is important. If we do those three things consistently well, the magic of Nitro Jam will continue.”
And fans aren’t the only ones taking notice.
Journalists of every background have weighed in on the new format and what it means in the drag racing landscape. From USA Today and the Sports Business Journal, to National Speed Sport News and drag racing specific publications, skeptics and fans alike have given the new format a try and each has walked away with a new understanding of the term “motorsports entertainment.”
Drag Racing Online reporter Brian Losness labeled it the “new age of drag racing” and that certainly may be where the series is heading. In addition to many major publications, some highly respected motorsports journalists have also weighed in on the new format.
Pro Fuel driver Cherissa Smallwood at Rockingham Dragway in April
Thomas Pope, sports editor at the Fayetteville Observer and a longtime drag racing journalist, took in the new show at the Spring Nitro Jam earlier this year. Pope, who admits he has only missed an occasional IHRA or NHRA event in the state of North Carolina since the 70s, found plenty of positives and offered his insight earlier this year.
“From a journalist standpoint, there were numerous plusses, not the least of which was the speed at which the program progressed. I liked the idea of the sportsman racers having their own show, so to speak, and the fans liked it too judging by the size of the Saturday afternoon crowd (in Rockingham) who watched the doorslammers for hours before the pro show started,” said Pope, the 1994 National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year. “I liked the smaller fields (of the pro show) and I definitely liked that they were racing from the get-go instead of having to sit through hours of qualifying and the usual down time. It was entertaining.”
In addition to outside buzz, the drivers themselves, caught up in the huge crowds and incredible energy generated at each Nitro Jam event, have raved about the changes.
Top Fuel driver Bobby Lagana Jr. at State Capitol Raceway in March
“It is totally different than anything fans and racers are used to seeing, but in a good way. I don’t know how many fans have been out at each of these events, but I have never seen this many fans at a race before,” said Spencer Massey, the ’08 IHRA Top Fuel champion and ’09 NHRA Rookie of the Year. “It is unbelievable the fan turnout, so hopefully that means this thing is working. Feld Motorsports seems to have hit on something with this one.”
“IHRA took a big chance in doing this and I am glad that they did. Kenneth Feld is an awesome man and I really appreciate the respect that he showed to the IHRA, to the racers and to the fans,” added Top Fuel point leader Bobby Lagana Jr. in an interview earlier this year. “I know that he wanted to see something that works for everyone and that is awesome. To see the stands packed like they have been, I can’t explain that what means to a driver. It is incredible.”
But it hasn’t been an easy path to success. The last few seasons have been marred with struggles for the organization leading to a need for change. And that change, announced late last year, has come in the form of shorter, more entertainment based shows, more nitro classes, additional entertainment pieces, new winners crowned each day and more fan interaction, including the addition of Fan Fest.
Top Fuel driver Spencer Massey at Castrol Raceway last month
Perhaps the biggest addition to the new Nitro Jam has been Fan Fest. Designed to give fans a chance to interact with the stars of the series moments before the start of the show, the new fan experience has helped get fans involved more in the sport. At each Fan Fest fans have an opportunity to sign a Top Fuel Dragster, compete with friends on an actual drag racing tree, design their own dragster wrap, help decide the pairings for the first round of professional competition and more.
Fan Fest is capped with “Thunder in the Pits” as every nitro machine on the property warms up at the same time creating a unique experience as fans see and feel the power of drag racing up close and in person.
“Fan Fest has been a huge hit with the fans. Fans have always had the opportunity to tour our pits at their leisure and meet with the drivers, but never have we presented fans with a designated time to actually be a part of the show,” Polburn said. “Fans can actually have a say in the way the show plays out in addition to signing a dragster and then seeing their signature travel at speeds over 300 miles-per-hour. It is a unique experience and a great piece of the new entertainment puzzle.”
Pro Fuel at Palm Beach International Raceway in January
New classes, including Pro Fuel and Prostalgia Nitro Funny Car, have also been a hit with fans, in addition to the inclusion of Nitro Jam’s quickest and fastest sportsman classes to the professional show. A huge fireworks display and additional acts such as jets, wheelstanders and other drag racing classes have added to the show which continues to have Top Fuel as its main attraction.
“The whole idea behind this new format centered on the idea of variety. Fans said they wanted more and we are certainly giving them more of what they want,” Polburn said. “Top Fuel is the cornerstone of Nitro Jam and we simply built around that. Each of the new classes brings something unique and exciting to the series and all the ‘extras’ we have added at different events have certainly made each event stand out. We have had a lot of fun designing the new format and even more fun watching it unfold.”
As Nitro Jam prepares for the second half of the 2010 season it is clear that the potential is there, but the series will need to continue to build on the foundation it has laid through the first six months in order to grow. If that happens the potential for growth will take the organization to new heights as the series tries to redefine what drag racing is all about – motorsports entertainment at its finest.
Battle of the Jet Trucks at Rockingham Dragway in April