NHRA Drag racing still trying to find spot

The sport still hasn't captured the imagination of the fans like NASCAR has.
In a motorsports world where NASCAR is king and open-wheel racing is experiencing a renaissance thanks to Danica Patrick, the National Hot Rod Association is trying to carve out its place in the racing pantheon.
The smell of burning rubber, the shockwave created by 7,000 horsepower engines and the sight of flames belching out of a dragster's exhaust make drag racing perhaps the most visceral of all motorsports.
Still, the NHRA POWERAde Drag Racing Series has yet to capture the imagination of fans the same way the Nextel Cup has for NASCAR.
"Our challenge is that we've got this beautiful diamond in the rough, and how do we tell more people about it," said NHRA vice president of marketing Gary Darcy.
Since Tom Compton was named president of the NHRA in 2000, he's executed a plan to increase the sport's profile that has included a lucrative television deal with the ESPN networks and a partnership with Coca-Cola's POWERAde brand -- a partnership that has recently been extended to 2011.
"We're very happy with where the NHRA is headed," Darcy said. "Five years ago as Tom Compton became president, we've embarked on a new strategic plan to revitalize the NHRA and to push it more toward the mainstream that's yielded positive results for the sport."
The NHRA has several marketable positives in its corner.
During a time when the IRL is promoting Patrick and NASCAR is touting its Drive for Diversity program, women and minorities have been competing and winning championships for decades under the NHRA banner.
"We've got a great, rich tradition of diversity that goes back to Shirley Muldowney in the '60s pioneering the world of women in motorsports," Darcy said. "It continues today with Hispanics, African-Americans and women competing at the premiere levels of the NHRA POWERAde Drag Racing series. It's also reflective of our fan base. It's something we're proud of and want to continue to nurture and see grow."
New generation of drivers
Also, the series is doing a solid job of bringing in a new generation of drivers, such as Brandon Bernstein, Larry Dixon and Robert Hight.
The growth of the sport hasn't been without a price.
"It used to be that the team owner drove the car and worked on the car. Now there seems to be an influx of people that wanted to drag race early in their career and didn't have the wherewithal to do it. Now they have the money to buy and build teams with specialists in all areas," said 30-plus-year NHRA Pro Stock veteran Warren Johnson.
"It's made the sport more visible, but the downside is that it's driving out all the people who can't afford to operate at a $4-5 million pace. Now we're going from 45-50 cars trying to qualify for 16 spots to 20."
"It's up to the sanctioning body to make sure there are enough competitors in the field to give the fans a good show."
Darcy said the NHRA is aware of the rising costs and is taking steps to keep them in check.
"The cost of racing is always an issue. It's something we're always concerned about with the owners and the teams to help control the cost of racing to the best of our ability," he said.
"All motor sports struggle with that a little bit."
The NHRA is always examining and refining its plan to bring in new sponsorship and continue the sport's growth.
"We're looking at new technologies to help fans engage in the sport," Darcy said. "We're open to new ideas to improve the racing experience."

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