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Romanticizing History

peter-biondo

When we look back retrospectively, the sportsman racer whose name will be forever attached to a season for his or her dominance is often obvious. This is a subject that Jared Pennington and I would tackle at the end of each season on the Sportsman Drag Racing Podcast. In 2023, the decision was the source of debate between us because there were two obvious candidates that stood out from the rest of the field – one from the big dollar bracket racing realm, and one from the NHRA Lucas Oil Series ranks. Shane Carr had a banner season: he was the runner-up in the Million Dollar Drag Race to Donnie Hagar. It was Shane’s third “Million” final round, which is a legendary accomplishment in its own right. In addition, Shane won a $50,000 event (where he was in the final for three consecutive days!), and amassed a series of other notable victories at events all across the country. 

Meanwhile, Kyle Rizzoli put together a dream season of his own that culminated in his first NHRA Stock Eliminator World Championship. Kyle flirted with adding a second championship to his ledger as well, ultimately finishing the year ranked third in Super Stock. In 2023, he drove to an otherworldly 11 final rounds, in just 14 NHRA events!

As deserving as both drivers were of this (ultimately meaningless) title, it is impossible to compare their achievements because their paths rarely cross – both in terms of geography and style of competition. While Shane is a former IHRA World Champion and a multi-time NHRA event winner, I don’t believe he’s staged for a single round of Lucas Oil Series competition in a decade – his focus has been solely on the big dollar bracket scene. For his part, Rizzoli has been known to compete on the bracket side of things with success over the years, but between his pursuit of an NHRA title and the growth of his family (Kyle and his wife Julia welcomed their son Emmet into the world last summer), I’m not sure that Kyle attended a single big dollar bracket race in 2023.

It’s not uncommon in this day and age for two racers, both dominant in their respective element, to be so divergent from one another. The big dollar bracket scene and the NHRA Lucas Oil Series tend to operate not just as separate entities, but as independent worlds of sportsman racing. But it hasn’t always been that way.

In the ‘80’s and ‘90’s, we’d see a lot of the same names in the late rounds of a national event as we would at the famed Moroso 5-Day bracket championships, which was the pinnacle bracket event of the time. Back then, there wasn’t nearly the variety of big buck events that we see today: the bracket racing world revolved around Moroso, the World Super Pro Challenge in Michigan, and a handful of others events spread around the country. 1996 brought the first Million Dollar Race; the B&M Series found its stride around the same time; and in the years since that format of competition has grown to take on a life of its own.

In that era the NHRA tour was the biggest show in town (in many cases, it was the only show in town) – not just for the pros and the fans, but for sportsman racers as well. Everyone wanted a seat at the table, and by and large, most serious racers found themselves competing for the elusive Wally. The field at the handful of marquee bracket races consisted mostly of that same crowd, along with a smaller group of racers that focused on the bracket scene more exclusively. 

The scoreboard told the tale. Racers like Scotty Richardson, Edmond Richardson, Peter Biondo, Dan Fletcher, Steve Cohen, David Rampy, and Anthony Bertozzi captured world championships and Moroso 5-Day titles – sometimes in the same season. Even in the early days of the Million, multi-time NHRA world champs Sherman Adcock and Ed Richardson “crossed over” and hit paydirt at the richest event of the season. 

Nowadays, everything seems more specialized. With few exceptions, the NHRA sportsman stars tend to focus on NHRA events. And the bracket racers, by and large, focus on the bracket races. Sure there are a handful of throwbacks: the last two NHRA Super Comp world champions – John Labbous, Jr. and Jim Glenn are regular fixtures on the big buck bracket scene, and both have had tremendous success in either venue. Sportsman racing stars like Brad Plourd, Kris Whitfield, and Jeff Strickland can also be found competing at a national event one week, and a big dollar bracket race the next.  But for every one of those racers, there are 10 Super Comp racers who don’t hit a full tree more than a couple times a year. And for those 10, there are 20 bracket racers who don’t have any idea how to operate a throttle stop (and don’t care to).

My first instinct was that it’s just a generational thing: today’s culture simply breeds specialization. But I can think of a number of up and coming racers who constantly “crossover” between these two seemingly independent forms of competition: names like Cooper Chun, Hunter Patton, Jesse Fritts, Darian Bosch, and Tyler Bohannon come to mind. 

Those racers feel like the exception more than the rule. By and large, racers today identify their primary form of competition, and they stick to it. The reason for so much specialization? I’m speculating, but my assumption is that it has a lot to do with progress and technology. Thirty years ago, the typical Super Comp or Super Gas machine was a great bracket car, or vice versa. The average Stock Eliminator car made a mean Footbrake machine. Today, the technology has come so far in all arenas that the “ultimate” machine is more nuanced: specifically calculated and developed to perform in its intended venue. And the level of competition has risen to the point that such specialization seems necessitated. At the same time, there are more opportunities to bracket race at a high level than ever before. So the NHRA racer who attends a handful of big bracket races each season feels a bit more behind the times: he or she doesn’t have the seat time, reps, or muscle memory of the bracket racer consistently logging 30+ passes a week – and that can be a disadvantage (either real or perceived). 

So we see more and more racers homing in on a certain form of competition. Less diversity. Less crossover. Racers like Fletcher, Biondo, Rampy and the Richardsons rightfully earned a reputation for being able to drive anything with wheels – all of them have won in multiple NHRA categories and cars, eighth mile events, quarter mile events, top bulb events, bottom bulb events, you name it. That’s just what that generation did.

I think that there are similarly talented racers today, but we rarely get to see that level of versatility on display. Jeff Serra and Johnny Ezell would be monsters in the 8.90 category in my opinion – but I doubt we ever see it. I’d love to see Nick Hastings in a Stock Eliminator car; but why would he venture into that world when he can race for $50,000 seemingly every weekend? Similarly, drivers like Jody Lang, Trevor Larson, or Justin Lamb are certainly capable of winning the Million, but we rarely get to see them take a swing at it.

Call me a traditionalist, but my point is simply that I’m here for the clash of the titans. I want to see Wyatt Wagner vs. Andy Schmall. I want to see Austin Williams vs. Jeff Serra. I want to see Donovan Williams vs. Christopher Dodd. I want to see Kyle Rizzolli vs. Shane Carr. 

Not because any of these matchups are going to settle some argument, or provide clarity on some arbitrary title. Rizzolli and Carr each had incredible seasons that are worthy of being celebrated independent of one another – I don’t really care whose season was “better.” I just think it’s in the best interest of us all as fans of the sport, racers, and the sport as a whole to stack up the very best racers against one another. I’m not sure how to create that opportunity. I just know that I’d love to see it, and if we could figure it out I think our sport would be better for it.

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