Last week, I began on driver report cards and it was my intention to continue with Funny Car today. However, given the rather huge announcement about the new television deal for 2016, driver report cards will be pre-empted this week to allow a higher-rated program (a discussion on the new television package) to air instead. Driver report cards will be seen next week in its usual time slot.
Now, what just happened there was a large part of the reason for the change in television partners for 2016, a year before NHRA’s deal with ESPN was originally scheduled to end. For the news itself, in case you haven’t already seen it, check out the breaking news piece posted yesterday.
We’ve talked about television in this space before, most notably after the massive snafu that was coverage of the Kansas Nationals on Memorial Day weekend. It was a frustrating subject for fans, many of whom felt like no one was hearing their complaints. In hindsight, that was obviously not the case. Turns out the NHRA not only heard but also shared many of the same feelings about the poor scheduling from ESPN.
Instead of difficult to find and off the beaten path time slots, most NHRA events will now air on Sunday afternoons beginning next year. FOX Sports says the remaining eight races will still be seen during afternoon or prime-time hours on the weekend. If I had to guess, I’d say the non-live events will be early in the season, pushed back a bit while FOX is airing NASCAR coverage. NHRA might lay claim to the title of number two motorsports series in the country, but we all know who is still number one.
ESPN, during its tenure, also cut out Friday qualifying shows. That’s additional coverage which will return with the move to FOX Sports. So the bottom line is we get more hours of drag racing coverage overall and at times when fans are actually awake — check out the qualifying schedule in the fall on ESPN this year. Only night owls need apply.
The biggest plus to come out of this decision is the drastically increased number of live elimination rounds fans get next year; 16 are slated to run live as opposed to five this year. That’s two thirds of the schedule, folks. Aside from the obvious benefit to fans who will get to see live action, it’s a big opportunity for the NHRA to grow its product, the sponsor interest and revenue it generates. That’s good for everyone.
Air time is half the equation. The other half is production, something else that has come into question at times as drag racing is a difficult sport to really communicate well on television. NHRA will be taking that aspect in house so now that they’ve got eyeballs in good timeslots it will be up to them to win those viewers over. We’ll see how they do.
As an interesting side note, the departure of NHRA from ESPN means there will be no motorsports coverage on the network save for some Indy 500 qualifying. (The 500 itself and a couple of other IndyCar races are broadcast on ABC.) Most doubt ESPN will really miss it. Meanwhile, a healthy racing competition has developed between FOX and NBC, the two networks that share NASCAR. FOX has now gotten hold of NHRA while NBC counters with IndyCar and Formula 1.
* The Brainerd, Minnesota area was hit hard by storms Sunday afternoon, and Brainerd International Raceway, home of the upcoming Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals (Aug. 20-23) took a beating. One section of bleachers along the drag strip was knocked over and twisted while roofs were ripped off the press box and the main shop. Damaged signage and downed trees were also left behind. The storm that hit the racetrack had straight-line winds clocked at 70 mph.
Power was restored to the ticket office as of Wednesday morning and the track says all future events, including the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals, will go on as planned.
* Elite Motorsports owner Richard Freeman announced Sunday that five-time Pro Stock champion Jeg Coughlin, Jr. will return to the track driving a second car for his team at upcoming races at Sonoma, Seattle, and Indianapolis. Coughlin will run as a teammate to regular driver Erica Enders.
“Jeg and I have been friends for years, and this is something we’ve talked about from time to time,” Freeman said. “The situation presented itself where he could jump in Erica’s backup car and have some fun with us on the Western Swing and at Indy, so I called him up to see if he’d be interested. He was, and we’re planning on winning some races together.”
Coughlin also drove for Freeman in a Competition Eliminator entry at the U.S. Nationals in 2006.
“Richard and I have been buddies forever and it was fun to drive his car back in ’06,” Coughlin said. “Ever since then we always joked around about racing together again, and when this deal came along I guess all the pieces just fell into place for us to go ahead and do it again. It’s going to be a unique situation for me where I’m sort of just a hired driver with no stake in the operation other than my passion and will to win.”
Driver Profile: Alexis DeJoria
Category: Funny Car
Hometown: Venice, California
Date of birth: Sept. 24, 1977
2015 car: Patron XO Café Incendio Toyota Camry
Crew chief: Tommy DeLago
Team Owner: Connie Kalitta
Career wins/runner-up finishes: 3/3
Best points finish: 7th in 2014
Career best ET: 3.994, Topeka, 2015
Career best speed: 319.07, Reading, 2012
2014 – Scored three wins, her first in a pro category; three times No. 1 qualifier; was first female Funny Car driver to post a three-second run.
2012 – Reached first career final round at Bristol.
2011 – Made professional debut and raced at four national events.
Some things most people don’t know about Alexis: While she’s only been in Funny Car a few years, Alexis DeJoria worked her way up through the ranks, competing in NHRA Super Gas in a 1963 Corvette roadster and in NHRA Super Comp in a dragster. She also drove an NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car for five seasons. Alexis won in all of those classes before moving up. Her father John Paul DeJoria, who is also one of her biggest fans, is a successful businessman who owns Paul Mitchell Hair Care Products, Patron Tequila, and John Paul Pet Products. Many people are also familiar with her husband, Jesse James, who is a TV personality and the owner of West Coast Choppers.
That’s Just Crazy!
Most of the fan stories told by drivers are pretty funny, especially when it comes to autographs. It’s amazing what people come up with for their favorites to sign. We’ve heard about body parts, babies, pigs… you name it. In all seriousness, though sometimes the whole fan encounter thing can take on a scary dimension. Alexis DeJoria ran into one rather overzealous fan and tells us about it in this week’s Crazy Things video. Good on Alexis, managing to keep her composure in a really weird situation.
Number of the Week: 7
This is the number of drivers who have swept the NHRA’s Western Swing. And to back up a step, the Western Swing would be the next three events on the schedule in Denver, Sonoma, and Seattle. The drivers pulling off the sweep are Joe Amato (1991), John Force (1994), Cory McClenathan (1997), Larry Dixon (2003), Greg Anderson (2004), Tony Schumacher (2008) and Antron Brown (2009). Note that no one has done it twice.
Where to Watch
The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series takes a weekend off before embarking on the Western Swing, beginning with the Mopar Mile-High NHRA Nationals from Bandimere Speedway near Denver, Colorado. Everyone is excited about the new TV deal, but for now, we have to finish out 2015 with ESPN and tape-delayed coverage for the remainder of the season.
Program Date/Time Channel DENSO Spark Plugs NHRA Nationals Qualifying Friday, March 31, 6:30 PM ET FS1 Qualifying Saturday, April 1, 7:00 PM ET FS1 Eliminations Sunday, April 2, 6:00 PM ET FS1 (LIVE)