- NHRA broadcast vice president Steve Reintjes sees triple opportunity at Gatornationals.
- Winner’s $80,000 payout is nearly double the prize for winning one Camping World Drag Racing Series event (which, surprisingly, tops out at $45,000, depending on circumstances).
- Drivers insisted callout isn’t personal, but rivalries expected to surface with strategies.
For all the kidding and tongue-in-cheek threats – and even the compliments – NHRA’s elite-eight Top Fuel qualifiers for the NHRA’s Pep Boys All-Star Callout specialty race are focused on only one thing.
Each of the eight drivers wants to claim the $80,000 winner’s share of the $130,000 purse from the bonus race that will take place this Saturday during qualifying for the Amalie Oil Gatornationals at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway.
No. 5 seed Antron Brown, still in the inaugural months of Top Fuel team ownership and seeking his first victory since last May at Atlanta, said in Zoom call with Toyota drivers Tuesday, “I don’t know how many zeroes are in this check, but I got some bills to pay. I don’t know about these other cats, these other jokers, but I look at it as they’re taking my lunch money from me. So I don’t care who it is—I want to smack ’em down. We’re starvin’ like Marvin. We’re hungry.”
However, in a larger sense, the NHRA is treating this first nitro-class bonus race since the final Traxxas Shootout in 2017 as a marketing tool to gain more (and, in particular, younger) fans and to promote the stars of the sport.
The three-round event will be folded into FOX’s qualifying presentation Saturday. And Steve Reintjes, NHRA vice president of broadcasting, recognized substantial that more is at stake and more is the potential for profit with this race at this time of the season and in the evolution in the 71-year history of the sport. He said he sees a three-pronged value to rumping up this rather early bonus event (at race No. 3) on the national telecast. Drivers, sponsors, and fans stand to benefit.
“There’s a genuine excitement on my end,” Reintjes said, “because this platform, in an hour-and-a-half television show, really shows off eight stars. When you think about what we try to cover in a normal event . . . You have 60 runs if you have four categories and an infinite [number] of drivers, and you want to be fair and balanced to all of them. But I think in this case, we have an opportunity, from a TV perspective, to really star-build and to really introduce each of these eight to a bigger television audience.
“I think there’s benefits to a sponsor perspective from it, when you’re showing each run from a burnout through a conclusion. The natural drama is going to come. A lot of people, the first thing they think is ‘TV is all about creating drama.’ I think in this scenario, there’s going to be opportunities that we play off of, as we would in every show,” he said.
“But the reality is we need to build this sport. We need to build our stars. And I think we have a really good opportunity to show these eight individuals to everyone,” Reintjes said. And that’s what we’re certainly hopeful to do.”
No one said as much, but it’s no coincidence that the format of the Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Shootout mimics the call-out aspect of the insanely popular Discovery Channel headliner Street Outlaws: No Prep Kings.
That’s all right by top-seeded Steve Torrence, the current and four-time Top Fuel champion.
Torrence said, “I’m a traditionalist. I like the way the points have been in the past. But I think that NHRA’s doing everything they possibly can to bring as many eyes to the sport, to generate interest, to generate fans. I’m an advocate for our sport. I want NHRA drag racing to be at the top of the list when you go to a motorsport event. The more people we can get, the more people we can get interested to watch, and just a younger demographic we can bring in to help our sport grow, I’m all for it in any way.
“So I think the guys at NHRA are really putting their heads together and trying anything and everything that they possibly can get more eyes, to get more people. And with the call-out format, maybe that’ll get some interest of some people (who might ask), ‘What is that about?’ and ‘What’s going on?’ and watch it and ultimately come to a race, come out and support what we do and see what 330-mile-an-hour cars look like.”
Doug Kalitta, who like Shawn Langdon made the final cut not quite two weeks ago at the Arizona Nationals at Phoenix, said he applauded the NHRA for “trying to mix things up to see more people come into the sport.”
Just implementing a specialty race with a call-out format in itself might not move the needle. But will the call-out tactics be, as No. 4 Justin Ashley said, “not personal . . . strictly business” come Friday’s night’s moment of truth? If, as No. 8 seed Shawn Langdon suggested, a little drama and the birth of a rivalry or two might result, so much the better.
“It’s a good thing for the fans, gives them something different,” Langdon said. “We all like to see a little bit of drama. We all like to see where we can kind of push the lines. Doing the call-out might create a new rivalry. Everybody likes coming to the races and seeing rivalries and have your favorite drivers or even somebody you might not like. Maybe this can create something new, or maybe this can continue on to something in the future of having a different perspective from the arcing side of things. I see it as all good.
“And it’s fun. We can talk a little smack,” he said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Hey, we need you to talk more smack.’ But then you talk smack and they’re like, ‘You shouldn’t have said that.’ So now we’ve got a little bit of free rein.”
Torrence was mum about his choice of first opponent in the All-Star Callout, but he said he will be careful with how he presents his call-out: “You’ve definitely got to be careful of how it’s perceived. None of this is personal, at least not for me. It’s all about strategy. It’s all about winning. You’re going to call out the guy or the girl you think you can beat, and that’s the way we’re going to go at it. People will spin it how they want to spin it. We can have a good time with it and make it a really great deal. But it’s all about who you think you can beat. And whether they take that personal [is up to them].”
Also in the mix are No. 2 seed Brittany Force (John Force Racing), No. 3 Mike Salinas (Scrappers Racing), and No. 3 6 Leah Pruett.
“Shawn’s in the best position of all of us,” Torrence said. He’s No. 8, and he’s probably not going to get a choice. He’s going to sit back and wait on whoever calls him out, to prove him wrong. We’re going to go out and do the best we can and pick the guy or girl we think we can beat right out of the box, and having our best chance of collecting that check. And there are seven other people saying, ‘We don’t want you gettin’ it.’
Meanwhile, the NHRA is wanting everybody who sees the sport in action to “get it.”
WHAT: Pep Boys Top Fuel All-Star Call-Out specialty race
WHO: NHRA Top Fuel drivers (in seeded order) Steve Torrence, Brittany Force, Mike Salinas, Justin Ashley, Antron Brown, Leah Pruett, Doug Kalitta, Shawn Langdon
WHERE: Gainesville Raceway; Gainesville, Fla.
WHEN: Saturday, March 12
PURSE: $130,000 total, $80,000 to winner
TV: FOX, beginning at 2 pm (ET)
FORMAT: Steve Torrence will get first selection for the opening round, followed by the next-highest seeded driver until matchups are set. The first two rounds will serve as a regularly scheduled qualifying attempt; the final round will not.
Friday, March 11:
2:00 pm – Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout group photo in the staging lanes
5:00 p.m. – Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout first-round selections. Steve Torrence gets first selection, followed by the next highest seeded driver until all matchups are set.
Saturday, March 12:
10:00 am – Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout autograph session at the Pep Boys midway display
11:30 a.m. – Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout opening ceremony
11:45 am – First round for Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout
12:00 p.m. – Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout for round two. This will be conducted at the top end. The winning driver who makes the quickest run in the first round earns the right to select their semifinal opponent.
3:15 pm – Pep Boys NHRA Top Fuel All-Star Callout final round
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