‘Hard Pill to Swallow’: Revised NHRA Schedule Leaves Some Track Operators Upset

After the NHRA released its revised 2020 schedule March 25, Jessica Hatcher, NHRA’s senior director of public relations and communications, said—and correctly so—that “there is no easy or elegant solution in this case.”

With calendar conflicts in each market, weather, travel logistics and property agreements among myriad factors in the scheduling equation, fashioning a 24-race Mello Yello Drag Racing Series lineup is messy even in normal times. And second-guessing usually is futile.

However, at least one racetrack operator has a legitimate gripe with the new calendar that has wiped off five races yet given two others a second and third shot at completion in the event of more government-mandated delays.

Joe Lombardo, promoter at New England Dragway at Epping, New Hampshire, saw his Aug. 21-23 New England Nationals cut from the revised schedule. And he isn’t all right with that decision. (His race already was bumped back from its previous June and July dates, and the 2020 edition was geographically peculiar. Teams were being asked to travel from Brainerd, Minnesota, to New Hampshire to Indianapolis. Many teams cocked an eyebrow about the sense of that, especially with cost efficiency a key topic.)

The day after the revised schedule became public, Lombardo released his own statement:

“We recognize NHRA’s decision to cancel the 2020 New England Nationals is a huge disappointment to our loyal fans. It’s a significant disappointment for New England Dragway, as well. We were initially approached by NHRA to consider the possibility of postponing the event. During a special meeting of the Board of Directors, representatives of the NHRA outlined their concerns and expressed that the issue was a time-sensitive matter.

“The decision to cancel the event … was against the wishes of New England Dragway.”

“With the event being five months away, the Board intended to gather more information, allow the situation to develop and make an informed decision closer to the time of the event. The Board felt a decision to postpone was premature and notified NHRA that it wished to hold off on making a decision for 30 days. Obviously, that did not happen. We want to stress the decision to cancel the event was made entirely by NHRA and against the wishes of New England Dragway.”

Also axed are the spring races at Las Vegas and Charlotte, North Carolina. But both are tracks that have fall events still scheduled. Moreover, both are Speedway Motorsports LLC-owned facilities, which also still has races at Bristol, Tennessee, and Sonoma, California, this summer. Canceled, too, was the tradition-rich Southern Nationals at NHRA-owned Atlanta Dragway.

Hatcher said the fact the Epping, Atlanta and Richmond races were unsponsored was not a reason those races were dropped: “Atlanta and Richmond title sponsorships were not a factor. We often bring on new title sponsors as the season progresses.”

But the management at Virginia Motorsports Park, or VMP, who suspected their event might be canceled, figured having no sponsor did play a part in the decision.

“Given the COVID-19 pandemic, a number of the events were looked at to not make the final cut of events—beginning at the Gatornationals, when the pandemic began, to an estimated end right past our scheduled date of May 29-31,” VMP vice president Tyler Crossnoe told Autoweek.

“Being one of the events in the estimated time span of the restrictions, we automatically were afraid of the cancellation. Given the fact that we did not have a title sponsor on the event yet, that definitely makes things more difficult in rescheduling, especially when others being affected had funding already allocated towards the event, i.e., AMALIE Motor Oil Gatornationals (Gainesville, Florida) and Mopar Express Lane SpringNationals, presented by: Pennzoil (Houston).”

Racing tentatively will restart June 5-7 with the Gatornationals, and that event has a Sept. 25-27 makeup date, if necessary. The Houston race, originally set for April 17-19, is postponed until June 12-14, with an Oct. 9-11 makeup date penciled in.

Being left out of the 2020 mix was tremendously disappointing for Tommy and Judy Franklin. They bought Virginia Motorsports Park at Dinwiddie, Virginia, in October 2017, but readily stepped up to rescue the NHRA when Old Bridge Township Raceway Park owners abruptly announced the following January they were ending their New Jersey track’s rich drag-racing history of more than 50 years.

The Franklins spent a tremendous amount of money improving the venue near Richmond (including a new racing surface) and had an announced sellout crowd in its first weekend back on the tour since 2009. What’s more, the Dinwiddie County Public Schools closed that Friday because of anticipated heavy opening-day traffic near VMP. But the Franklins’ commitment and the popularity of the Virginia Nationals weren’t enough to save the late-May event this year.

“At times, it is a hard pill to swallow, just knowing how much has gone into the Virginia facility since Tommy and Judy Franklin purchased the facility,” Crossnoe said. “From the all-concrete racing surface and LED track lighting system to the little things that nobody sees—the backup timing system equipment, track preparation equipment, new vehicles, more grandstands at the Dirtplex (which returned from the dead, as well), tools in the toolbox, a complete remodel of the two public restroom buildings under the grandstands and plenty more.

“I have the ultimate pleasure to be at the helm of a racing facility that is rapidly moving to the forefront of drag racing due to some of the best ownership in the industry, and it was disheartening to lose the national event in 2020, especially after 2019 was the very first experience I had with a national event.

“We were a part of a number of discussions with NHRA,” he said, “but there was not a lot of options as far as our event being on the revised schedule for the season.”

He confirmed that VMP was “not given any compensation for losing our event.”

Unfortunately, a solution to save those events and save teams money with the travel budgets was available—not just for the Epping race but also for the one in Virginia.

The new docket calls for the following sequence of races:

June 5-7 – Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals – Gainesville, Fla.

June 12-14 – Mopar Express Lane NHRA SpringNationals – Houston

June 19-21 – NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals – Bristol, Tenn.

June 26-28 – Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals – Norwalk, Ohio

July 9-12 – Route 66 NHRA Nationals – Chicago

July 17-19 – Dodge Mile-High NHRA Nationals – Denver

July 24-26 – NHRA Sonoma Nationals – Sonoma, Calif.

July 31-Aug. 2 – NHRA Northwest Nationals – Seattle

Aug. 13-16 – Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals – Brainerd, Minn.

Aug. 21-23 – Menards NHRA Heartland Nationals – Topeka

Sept. 3-7 – U.S. Nationals – Indianapolis

Sept. 11-13 – Mopar Express Lane NHRA Nationals – Reading, Pa.

Sept. 18-20 – NGK Spark Plugs NHRA Four-Wide Nationals – Charlotte, N.C.

Sept. 25-27 – Makeup Date, If Needed, Gainesville, Fla.

Oct. 2-4 – AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals – St. Louis

Oct. 9-11 – Makeup Date, If Needed, Houston

Oct. 15-18 – AAA Texas NHRA FallNationals – Dallas

Oct. 29-Nov. 1 – Dodge NHRA Nationals – Las Vegas

Nov. 12-15 – Auto Club NHRA Finals – Pomona, Calif.

Without access to all details regarding the various markets, it appears the sanctioning body could have accommodated the Epping and Richmond communities.

It could have slid the Epping race into the Sept. 18-20 Charlotte slot and moved the Charlotte race one week back into what’s now the Gainesville makeup weekend. That wouldn’t conflict with any NASCAR dates at Charlotte Motor Speedway. (NASCAR’s Bank Of America Roval 400 is unaffected so far for the Oct. 11 weekend.)

The NHRA also could have moved the St. Louis race a week back into the Oct. 9-11 Houston make-up slot. That would have opened up the Oct. 2-4 weekend for Richmond. That way, the teams would make a logical (and money-saving) swing through (in order) Reading, Epping, Charlotte, Richmond, St. Louis and Dallas.

But the schedule-makers in Glendora, Calif., chose not to do that.

Hatcher told Autoweek, “Regarding all of the scenarios discussed, they tirelessly examined every possible option to find the best possible solution. This meant numerous calls with community officials, sponsors, teams, tracks, etc. Ultimately, this was the most robust schedule they could offer.”

Evidently Lombardo didn’t think so. The Franklins and Crossnoe saw it coming and are pragmatic about it.

The fall Charlotte event has become a four-wide event. At Las Vegas, the schedule called for a four-wide format at the spring race, but the fall Las Vegas race will remain a traditionally formatted event.

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