The Reality of Racing Math
In the beginning, there was drag racing. Then, one day, a racer won money.
While it's easy to get lost in cost of living comparisons to a time when gas $.87 per gallon, it's fair to say that the early days of drag racing were typically low entry fee, low payout affairs. How long did it take for promoters to offer higher stakes, or the racers to demand them?
In the northeast, the rapid escalation of entry fees and payouts came in the early-mid '90s. The Footbrake category of the time, "Heavy Eliminator", was a no-electronics, 12.00 and slower class. For a $25 entry fee, racers vied for a top prize of $300, and second round winners earned round money equal to their entry fee.
Soon enough though, the phrase was uttered, "I can't run my car for only $300 dollars!"
The owner/operator of Beaver Springs Dragway, "Beaver Bob" McCardle, put it in the racer's hands at a driver's meeting.
We were provided a sheet with different payout structures, and given the opportunity to vote on them. Everyone wanted to race for the most money possible, but the big money came with some combination of higher entry fees, less round money, or the introduction of buybacks.
Just like building a race car, each component works with another. A change in one variable affects another. We voted for a small entry fee increase for a small payout increase, and happily returned to racing. E.T. breaks were lowered, racers spent more money on their cars, and the once healthy sum of money didn't seem quite as healthy as it once did.
Like many racers, I knew there had to be a better way. Once again, Beaver Bob challenged the racers to design the perfect race. "Not a problem. Show me how to do it. Put a pencil to it," he said. "The only stipulation is I need $10 per car. Other than that, set it up any way you want."
Eager to show off those basic math skills and show how easy it would be to pay out all the money we dreamed about, I sat down with pencil and paper: a lot of paper. I started scribbling, and laid out my race. Well, that way doesn't work... maybe if I... no. It was like encountering a Rubik's Cube for the first time, but this one had too many colored squares.
For two days, I crunched numbers.
Finally, I called Beaver Bob back, exasperated, and stammered, "It can't be done!"
Crunching numbers wasn't the last lesson Beaver Bob taught me. I still dreamed big, and he backed me when I brought special event ideas to him that actually worked on paper. $5,000 No-Box Nationals? Fail. $1,000 Stock/Super Stock Shootout? Fail. While crunching the numbers right is critical, as it turns out, there's a lot more to promoting a successful event than just a set of numbers of a pretty flyer -- but that's a whole 'nuther story.
Almost two decades later I still hear racers say, "They should just..." That telltale "just" is usually followed by "raise the purse", "guarantee the purse", "change the rules", and any number of creative "solutions" that too often ignore the realities of running a race track.
That's not to say that their hearts aren't in the right place! Mine always has been as well, but experience now tempers big dreams, and has forced me to look at the much broader picture. I've learned a great deal from working at or with many tracks, sanctioning bodies, promoters, and having become a promoter myself in recent years.