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Renovations, TV taking the credit for bigger, diverse crowds

THE BALTIMORE SUN

DALLAS -- Drag racing, its proponents say, is no longer back alley. The sport has gone Main Street. And mainstream. Figures supplied by the National Hot Rod Association show attendance is up, especially among women, and no longer is it the sole province of latent teen-agers, either.

What NHRA officials lack, however, is a proper impetus for the new image. They have narrowed it to two possibilities. But it still comes down to a question of which came first:

Toilets or TV?

Billy Meyer has no doubts. Meyer, whose Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, was host to the recent Chief Auto Parts Nationals, knows exactly how many restroom stalls he has 165. He says new facilities, with his Motorplex as the model, and renovations of dilapidated tracks have been the sport's biggest boosts.

Meyer downplays the reports of industry marketing experts who say increased television exposure has made the sport appealing to uninitiated fans. The TV faction contends it is no accident that increased air time over the last five years coincides with increasing attendance figures.

"You can't be a fan of drag racing unless you know it exists," said John Mullin, vice president and general manager of Diamond P Sports, which produces the televised network spots.

On Meyer's side, track operators say TV wouldn't be interested if no fans showed. And, as Meyer notes, the primary reason women once gave for not returning to the track was a lack of restroom facilities.

"We like to feel we have helped," ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle said, straddling the fence, "but, at the same time, we like to choose a sport that's popular with viewers."

Despite the quibbling over the reasons, no one inside the NHRA or the networks questions the increased popularity. Figures from independent surveys show that, in 1985, 14 events drew a total of 747,600 fans. By the close of the 1989 season, 19 events had drawn 1.45 million, a per-event increase of 43 percent.

The target audience also has widened, said Jim Teller, marketing director for the NHRA. According to 1986 surveys, the average spectator at a drag-racing event fit the stereotype. The age ranged from 18 to 34. Ninety-two percent were male.

"Drag racing has always been known as a young man's sport," Teller said, "but our sport is attracting a huge family following."

He bases the belief on the 1989 surveys, which indicate that spectators now range in age from 25 to 49. The biggest increase, however, has been in the number of women. In four years, the female bloc went from 8 percent to 40 percent.

Track owners say more women are showing up because of the increased amenities. Meyer cited a survey at one race in which half the women said they would not return because of inadequate restroom facilities. That problem, he says, is now being remedied.

In the last five years, new tracks have sprung up in Ennis, Houston, Topeka, Kan., and Memphis, Tenn. Complete makeovers were performed at Denver ($4.2 million), Atlanta ($3 million) and Englishtown, N.J. Major renovations are under way or have just been completed at Gainesville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Sears Point, Calif.

The sport had little choice but to make a change, said Dallas Gardner, president of the NHRA. Many tracks on the NHRA circuit were little more than sets of bleachers surrounding a concrete or asphalt strip. Portable toilet facilities were the rule. Dirt infields clouded the pit areas. There were few media accommodations and, consequently, even fewer media.

So Gardner, using Meyer's new $8 million Motorplex as the basis for his charge, went to the track owners with an ultimatum in 1986: Clean up or get out.

"The sport had an opportunity to have a control over its own destiny," Gardner said.

Denver's Bandimere Speedway was one of the first victims of the sport's new thrust. The track was dropped from the 1989 tour while owner John Bandimere Jr. poured $4.2 million into a makeover.

Until then, Bandimere said his track was typical of most on the NHRA tour. His father bought the acreage in 1958, just as the sport was beginning to gain popularity. The Bandimeres had a strip and an old trailer for concessions.

Little changed over the years. Then, in 1979, Bandimere Speedway got a break when it was added to the national tour. He said it did well at first. But he said the facilities were built with the racer in mind, not the public or media. As times became faster, drivers demanded more money. Bandimere said the only way to pay more was to increase ticket prices. But no one wanted to pay more to sit on splintered benches and stand in long porta-potty lines.

Eventually, Bandimere started over. He put in enough bleacher seating to accommodate 23,000. He paved the pit areas, put in new lighting, a public address system and generally brought everything up to date.

The result was phenomenal. Bandimere estimates that, in 1988, the track's 60 annual events attracted a total of 60,000 people.

This year, he said the draw was 360,000.

"Definitely, the facility improvements have helped," Bandimere said. "Almost always, on a scale of one to 10, the facilities were rated by the fans anywhere from a one to a three. We'd get the men to come out here. But it was pretty difficult for dad to get the family to go to the races with him."

Bandimere is quick to concede, however, that television has helped, too.

"It has exposed our sport to households where they never knew it," he said. "They had to find out that it wasn't just a black-jacket sport, even though that's not so bad. But people don't want to take their families where they think there might be beer cans flying and a lot of fights."

Television quelled those fears, he said. Drag racing had been on television for years. But not until 1985 did it become a concentrated effort, said Rick Lalor, communications director for the NHRA. Of the sport's 19 annual events, 10 are televised on ESPN, four on NBC and five on TNN. Also, TNN televises a 60-minute weekly package called "NHRA Today."

Television had unique problems in trying to broadcast drag racing, though. A day of racing lasts up to eight hours, not two or three.

The problem is that there is as much as 90 minutes between races, Teller said. And, if the track needs to be cleaned because of an accident or oil spill, an additional down time of 20 to 30 minutes may be required.

Clean-up crews do not make for good live TV. So, instead, Diamond P Sports culls the best action of the day for a highlight film, which the networks will broadcast a week or two later.

No one in the business seems to mind the tape delays. The role of television in auto sports is nothing like the money-making venture it is in the NCAA or professional baseball, football or basketball, Mullin said.

Unlike most sports, drag racing does not reap huge revenue from television. On the contrary, the sport LOSES money, NHRA and programming officials say. Until this year, the NHRA had to sell advertising time on ESPN and NBC for its broadcasts. ESPN dropped the requirement this year.

"It's not a money-making proposition for us," Teller said. "We're doing it to expose the sport and support our sponsors."

The job of Diamond P Sports, then, is to find the best stories each week. For "NHRA Today," the company usually takes a feature approach, Mullin said.

The exposure such television gives drag racing is the "driving force" behind its growth, Mullin said. He credits facility improvements for the return of fans each week. But he says they likely wouldn't go in the first place if not for television.

"I've often said we don't produce our shows for drag racing fans," he said. "We're doing it for the ones who don't know anything about the sport."

Gardner agrees. Even though he made the track owners clean up their sport, he says nothing compares to putting it in people's living rooms.

That may be so, Meyer says. But, if it is, then the NHRA must be concerned about what America is watching.

The clean-up-or-get-out mandate hasn't changed. This year, the NHRA dropped the State Capital Dragway in Baton Rouge, La., site of the Cajun Nationals for 15 years, from the tour. Gardner said the track was no longer capable of supporting a national event.

Meyer, who lent associate Steve Earwood to Atlanta track officials for two years while they remodeled their facilities, said it would have cost at least $500,000 to bring the Baton Rouge track to form. The price was too high, the owners said.

Meyer, once considered a renegade in his sport because of a willingness to spend big bucks, says his approach is mandatory. He says he has a capital improvement budget of $250,000 this year, most of it to be spent on things "the public won't even notice."

"If you don't spend a lot of money every year," Meyer said, "you get behind. You're on the bubble."

He learned that lesson a long time ago, as a driver at a 1981 race in Englishtown, N.J. His new sponsor's board chairman, a gentleman in his 60s who walked with a cane, attended along with his wife for the first time.

Meyer said the conditions for fans on race day were, typically, miserable. There were few places to find relief from the 104-degree heat. Worse yet, there were no permanent restrooms.

"They never came back," he said of his high-level backers, "and I lost their sponsorship after that season."

Billy Meyer has been counting toilets ever since.

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