‘6-Pack and Bag of Pretzels’: NHRA Slashes Winners’ Prize Money by 70%

No one said NHRA drag racing is a democracy, and vice president of Racing Operations Josh Peterson’s memo to pro teams Tuesday proved it.

He informed them that “after extensive discussions between NHRA and professional teams and their representatives, considering the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the modified prize money structure has been set for the balance of the 2020 season.”

Glossed-over in Peterson’s message was the fact that two or three weeks before last weekend’s U.S. Nationals, according to at least three team owners, the NHRA proposed this second payout reduction of the summer—and racers rejected it. At least those who were asked rejected it. Three smaller Top Fuel teams—those of Doug Foley, Lex Joon, and T.J. Zizzo—were among those not invited to share their opinions.

Regardless, for the past decade or so (no cost-of-living allowances), the event purse had given $50,000 to the winner (comparable to what Jack Nicklaus made for winning a major PGA tournament – in 1974) and $22,000 to the runner-up. That’s below a reasonably estimated market value, but racers tolerated it. The breakdown was $18,000 to the semifinalists, $14,000 to second-place finishers, and $10,000 to first-round losers.

Then this year, when racing resumed in July, the teams competed for significantly slashed purses: Winner – $35,000, runner-up – $17,000, semifinal – $12,500, Round 2 – $10,000, Round 1 – $7,500.

This latest round of cuts means winners at each of the final five races will receive $15,000 and runners-up $11,500. So the value of a victory has dropped from $50,000 in February to $15,000.

“To put our purse into perspective,” independent Top Fuel racer T.J. Zizzo said, “NHRA will pay us $15,000 to win an event. Those six rounds (including qualifying) will cost us $5,000 in nitro, and nitro is a small percentage of our budget. The big cuts were at the top of the purse, but that also diminishes the value of winning: 70% cut to win, 30% cut to qualify.”

Granted, even the well-heeled Indianapolis Motor Speedway, IndyCar Series, and their owner Roger Penske trimmed its budget by half for the recent Indianapolis 500. Because its financial loss of at least $20 million without fans in the grandstands, Indy the 500 purse dropped from $15 million to $7.5 million, according to Racer Magazine.

So the NHRA wasn’t alone in its need to tighten finances. Although the respective marquee races for their sanctioning bodies played out at venues separated by just seven miles, the organizations are light years apart. One talks in millions, the other low-thousands.

Just for perspective, Colton Herta finished 33rd in the 2019 Indianapolis 500 and pocketed more than $350,000. That’s almost what a Top Fuel or Funny Car champion earns after a 10-month, 24-race grind. It’s more than the entire Pro Stock top-10 receives altogether at the end-of-the-year awards ceremony and nearly three-times more than the whole Pro Stock Motorcycle top-10 contenders get. And that’s just one IndyCar race.

First-place prize money at even a World Surf League tour event is $100,000. And as early as four years ago, a Street League Skateboard competition winner was bagging $150,000. In the esports market space, a 16-year-old claimed $3 million last year for winning a Fortnight league tournament – without breaking a sweat or putting his life in danger in a race car.

Veteran Top Fuel racer Pat Dakin said he’s envisioning this year’s championship payout, bound to be less than its customary $500,000 for Top Fuel and Funny Car titlists, will be “a six-pack and a bag of pretzels.”

One can assert that it’s about choices. It is, and today many drag racers are questioning their own choices and the choices of the NHRA.

“There are a lot of unanswered questions,” Zizzo said. “I wonder if PRO (Professional Racers Organization) and NHRA had a meeting. What was discussed? Why was there no communication with our team? We can’t be divided. We all need to work together.”

Zizzo, owner-driver of the Rust-Oleum Rocket Dragster, has been understanding, saying, “In the beginning, our pay cut was justified because the first two “COVID races” at Indy were supposed to have no spectators. As a team we understood the situation and just wanted some normalcy in 2020. Then we heard spectators were allowed to attend. We questioned our decision, so I called NHRA. They stated there was only going to be a limited number of spectators and in the future if more spectators attended, they would revisit our pay cut. At that point, we questioned if we made the correct decision. Keep in mind the money paid out does very little to motivate us to compete. Without corporate backing, I am better off working at Menards, scanning Rust-Oleum products at the checkout.

“There were more spectators at the US Nationals and I still don’t know what we were paid at the biggest race of the year,” he said. “Some people reading this article might wonder how can we leave the shop and not know what we are getting paid. That is the irony of the state of racing Top Fuel. We spend so much money that a couple thousand dollars difference for first-round loser money doesn’t make a significant difference.

“There were rumors that our purse was going to be cut again, so when I read the email I was not surprised,” Zizzo said. “None of what we do at the track is justified with purse money, but it always helped our team members justify their time away from family and friends. Their pay comes from 100% of the winnings. First thing I thought about was them.”

Dakin said something many have said through the years: The deeper into a race a team goes, the more money it loses. Rookie dragster driver Joe Morrison has strategized it from various angles.

“What’s interesting about these current cost-cutting measures,” Morrison said, “is that in some ways, they can hurt the smaller teams like us and in others it’s not much of a change. Again, not in every way – let me explain. Cutting the No. 17 qualifier money by $1,250 and eliminating No. 18 qualifier money will likely hurt small teams like us. While keeping Round 1 money basically the same (only a $500 reduction) is good news. The fact that going to Round 2 only nets an additional $1,500 will hurt a smaller team that relies on round money to offset costs.

“Let’s face it, even a low-budget team cannot make a pass for $1,500, he said. “If we are confident that we can qualify, then it’s only a $500 difference. If there are 19 cars that show up and they’re all stout, then we would have to really decide what we would do in that situation.”

“To be clear,” Morrison said, “I understand that NHRA is doing the best they can. I am certain that they would not be doing this unless they absolutely had to. With everything that has happened to reduce fans in the stands and reduce the number of events, the NHRA has to act in order to survive and I want them to remain viable.

“I understand that NHRA is doing the best they can.”

“The fact that Round 1 money is basically the same means that as long as we can qualify within the two opportunities we have during a race event, then we’ll be OK.”

Top Fuel owner-driver Terry McMillen said he expects to hear more of his peers say they have no interest in incurring much higher costs to travel outside the Indianapolis bubble to Gainesville (Fla.), St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, and Las Vegas.

“As long as (multicar team owner) Don Schumacher is racing, his sponsors are going to be happy. He makes enough money from every sponsor to break even in a worst-case scenario, whereas teams like us depend on that first-round money to keep us going to the next race. Nitro prices are exorbitant. Nothing’s been done to fix that,” McMillen said.

That’s a bit of a sore subject with Foley. He said, “I pay $1,680 for 40 gallons (of nitromethane), when I can go down the street and I could buy 55 gallons from Don Schumacher for $1,000. Now why is that? We all know why. Because they (NHRA) went to Sunoco, and they promised they were going to sell x-amount of drums. So now (the NHRA has) to take race teams that (it owns) no part of and technically rip (racers) off for lack of a better term. You have to rip them off to make your quota so you can get your check.

“There’s no doubt that should have been a tough conversation with Sunoco. One bad conversation with Sunoco would have been a hell of a lot easier than one really bad conversation with 32 teams that are now waiting for rebates back. I don’t get it,” Foley said. “If we had an open dialogue, if we had that, NHRA could walk into that room and say,’OK, so let us tell you about out our problems,’ even if it’s a bad commitment they made. (If we) knew what the problems were, we would try to help them figure out a way – first an attempt to find a happy medium and then ‘Guys, don’t sign those deals again without talking to us. You’re getting checks based on our commitment (to the NHRA).’ So it’s our checkbook that is filling that commitment. It’s not their checkbook. They’re giving a promise on somebody else’s paycheck. A big portion of it is opening a dialogue, talking: How do we fix this? How do we get more to come out and support us smaller teams?”

Meanwhile, the NHRA has been letting staff members go, leaving only the titled personnel to hold down the fort at Glendora, Calif., headquarters. Several waves of dismissal, including one just before the U.S. Nationals, has troubled racers.

“They’re letting good people go, and it’s hard to find those good people. Those good people are the backbone, the ones who have helped the NHRA get where it’s at,” McMillen said. “I can tell you the (executives) are all getting their salaries. Maybe they’ve taken a salary cut – I don’t know. Instead of getting rid of so many good employees, why don’t they say, ‘We’ll take a 20% cut in salary so we can pay you this much to stay with us until this (situation) works out?’ or something like that? We all have a bigger problem: Who’s going to around next year? Which sponsors are going to be around who didn’t terminate contracts? It’s going to come down to the teams that are well-financed.”

Zizzo said, “I assume NHRA is bleeding money, and my only hope is their staffs salaries are also suffering. If they aren’t, we have a problem. I sure hope my friends at NHRA also took a pay cut. If they did, then they are also doing what is correct for the sanctioning body and sport. If they didn’t, then shame on them and all they care about is themselves. If the racers which bring in spectators take a purse cut, then they better take money out of their salaries, as well. I can only hope we are all in this together. If not, NHRA is in trouble and we better look for other options.

“What worries me most,” he said, “is what is our purse going to be in the future? Once again, my only hope are racers, track owners and NHRA are in this together. If not it is time to start over with a new sanctioning body that cares about a very entertaining motorsport. I know first hand that it is entertaining, because I sat in the stands for three rounds of competition at the U.S. Nationals, and I was riveted to my seat with the thrill of ground-pounding action.”

“What worries me most is what is our purse going to be in the future?”

Despite the flaws in the system, Morrison said his Gary Leverich-operated team plan to attend two more races this fall and “are working on funding for next season and are confident that at some point we will all get back to some sort of ‘normal’ racing.”

Perhaps at the opposite end of the confidence-in-the-NHRA spectrum is long time Funny Car racer and two-time champion Cruz Pedregon.

“I believe the NHRA is doing all they can to salvage the year under these unprecedented and challenging times. This pandemic is causing businesses and organizations to do things they normally would not do, everyone in every company is on survival mode,” Pedregon said. “NHRA provides the platform for drag racing at the highest level, along with a tremendous TV package. To me that is being loyal [to the racers].”

He said he isn’t worried about a mass exodus or boycott or the collapse of the NHRA because of this round of purse reductions: “Not that I’m aware of. I am not privy to NHRA‘s financial situation, nor is any racer that I know of.”

Many wonder how a racer can make a living at this rate, and Pedregon said it’s no secret: “Corporate sponsorships, low overhead, don’t spend what you don’t have, pay everyone else before paying yourself, be smart.” He refused to sound an alarm: “My sponsors – Snap-On Tools, Dodge, Petroff Towing, Powers Solar, Baja Carports, Fatheadz Eyewear, KICKER & Origin USA are all on board for years to come. So yes, we will survive.”

No matter who else might travel to Gainesville later this month for the Gatornationals, Pedregon will be there. “Race, it is what we do. I am very much looking forward to Gainesville and the rest of the races on the NHRA schedule,” he said.

Morrison said, “We are living through some extraordinary times. There are people who are losing their businesses, their jobs. And there are some who have lost their lives. We are fortunate to be racing cars and providing some entertainment to help people take their minds off their troubles for a weekend. My focus is to put on a great show for those fans and go out there and race to win within our budget and capabilities. I love this sport, and you can bet I’ll be doing everything I can to help it get through this time and thrive on the other side.”

Passion and perseverance are noble anytime, but not everyone has that like Morrison. Some are simply pragmatic.

One, Funny Car privateer Bob Bode, simply has shaken his head regarding 2020 and said he’s looking to next year for a sense of normalcy. “Everybody is screwed this year. I think we all are hanging on and hoping for a better year next year. My goal this year is to get [college-freshman son] Bobby licensed and see what happens next year.”

John Force’s revenue stream was dammed up by the NHRA’s 18-week halt in racing and his own decision (fueled by factors he has decided are not for public sharing) to extend his team’s inactive status. He and the other three drivers under his umbrella have been idle since February.

Dakin spoke for a handful of racers and an army of fans when he said, “I think John was the smart one. We’re all idiots.”

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