NHRA says diverse driver group reflects fan base
The National Hot Rod Association has long been the most diverse racing series in the U.S., positioning itself well in a country that is rapidly changing along demographic lines.
At a time when other major motorsports properties in the U.S. are trying to add more women or people of color to their driver ranks, the NHRA premier Mello Yello Series has a long history of women, African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities competing and winning. While NASCAR and IndyCar have more overall mainstream buzz, the drag racing series’ diversity is an important calling card as it positions itself for growth.
“It’s a sense of inclusivity that goes way back many years,” said Glen Cromwell, president of the NHRA since late 2017. “[Former driver] Shirley Muldowney broke that barrier for us like Billie Jean King did with tennis, and it really goes with the openness of the NHRA. Our marketing campaign, Speed For All, speaks volumes of the inclusivity of how we think as a sports property.”
In the 1970s, Muldowney became a well-known name as the first woman to be licensed to drive professionally in the Top Fuel dragster division by the NHRA. She became the first woman champion in 1977, and repeated as champion in 1980 and 1982.
Well-known female drivers in the Mello Yello Series today include Brittany and Courtney Force (though the latter stepped away from racing this past offseason), Leah Pritchett and Erica Enders-Stevens. Antron Brown, who is African American, is a three-time champion of the series’ Top Fuel division. In terms of Hispanic drivers, two-time Funny Car champion Tony Pedregon is now the NHRA booth analyst for Fox Sports, while his brother Cruz, also a two-time Funny Car champ, still competes in the series.
Brown, who drives for Don Schumacher Racing, told Sports Business Journal that the motorsports league’s diverse roots come from the fact that drag strips across the country are often in urban locations. The NHRA says it has 120 member tracks and more than 65,000 members. Brown grew up in New Jersey, where three drag strips were less than an hour away from his home.
Moreover, Brown noted that drag racing is the form of motorsports that is most relatable to everyday Americans who feel the need for speed in their road car.
Backing up its claim as the most diverse series, the NHRA said that heading into this season, women had recorded 117 wins in its history, the most of any global racing property. It is also the only U.S.-based motorsports league with both African American and Hispanic season champions.
The series did not provide fan demographics, but Cromwell said the NHRA has a fan base that reflects the diversity on the track.
“Like any sport, your fans are coming there to cheer on their favorite drag racers or basketball players — and because of the diversity, I think our fan base resembles our driver base,” Cromwell said.
The series still has more work to do, including replacing the marketing star power of Courtney Force, daughter of drag racing star John Force, who left the sport to spend more time with family. She appeared in ESPN The Magazine’s Body issue, for example.
Still, the series’ head start in the diversity department has Brown feeling confident it can continue to grow and thrive.
“It’s the accessibility — there’s drag racing tracks all over the place, and the NHRA has been great with it in that you can race anything and everything; you don’t have to spend a lot of money to go drag racing,” Brown said. “It doesn’t make a difference who you are or where you came from; if you can drag race, that’s all it depends on.”