59°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

NHRA’s success fueled by blend of racial groups, ethnicities

NASCAR, the headliner brand of the motor sports universe, struggles with attracting diverse racers and fans. No surprise there. It’s been an issue for years.

But for the major-league drag racers who have descended on Las Vegas for this weekend’s National Hot Rod Association Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event, there’s no clamor for a “diversity program.” The diverse backgrounds of the NHRA competitors serve as an organic feature of the drag racing’s premier circuit to be deployed for marketing, ticket sales and media exposure.

A black man, Antron Brown, is NHRA’s defending world champion in the top fuel category, which features those narrow racing cars that appeal to casual fans. Brown set a record by traveling a 1,000-foot-long track in 3.7 seconds — or 328 mph.

“NHRA never had a problem with diversity. What makes the sport so rich is its diversity,” said Brown, 37, a 16-year drag-racing pro who grew up outside Trenton, N.J., and is known for his friendly personality and fast-talking style.

“It was easier to do drag racing. They took the racing from the streets and put (it) on drag strips. It was very affordable with simple rules,” he said. “You can race your mom’s station wagon. You can race a moped, or a motorcycle or a Yugo.”

There are two Mexican-American brothers from Southern California — Cruz and Tony Pedregon — who are strong performers in the drag racing league’s funny car category. Their father, Flamin’ Frank Pedregon, was a legendary West Coast drag racer dating back to the mid-1960s. NHRA’s 24-race circuit makes pit stops in seven of the eight most populated Hispanic markets in the United States.

Tony Pedregon, 48, said diversity in professional drag racing traces back to the sport’s roots in Southern California, which is populated by a blend of racial groups and ethnicities. Pedregon compared that to NASCAR’s roots, which he said dates back to rural North Carolina’s hills where there was mostly a white population.

“Drag racing evolved in Southern California, where you have one of the most diverse demographics in the country,” Pedregon said.

During Thursday’s luncheon for this weekend’s 14th annual Summitracing.com NHRA Nationals event, Pedregon was a late addition to the racer panel. He elicited laughter when he told the luncheon group, “They needed a Mexican at the press conference.”

NHRA also has no fewer than nine women on the circuit — five in cars and four on motorcycles. The NHRA’s reigning rookie of the year, Courtney Force, is a top competitor in the funny car category, finishing fifth in that group. Another woman, Erica Enders-Stevens, in 2012 became the first female to win an NHRA pro stock race. She started in the sport as an 8-year-old.

Enders-Stevens said the sport’s egalitarian culture of allowing amateurs to race with the seasoned pros offers venues and platforms for both male and female drivers to compete.

“The diversity is based on the available opportunity” to compete, she said.

Drag racers said two factors — affordability to compete and access to tracks — drive their sport’s diversity.

The most expensive racing teams on the NHRA spend $3 million to $5 million a year — a fraction of the costs for a NASCAR team, said Jerry Archambeault, vice president of public relations and communications for Glendora, Calif.-based NHRA, which was born in 1951.

“NHRA provides an affordable ‘cost of entry’ unlike any other form of motor sports,” Archambeault said.

He noted the league has three “feeder” series that many racers — of all ethnicities and genders — compete in: NHRA Summit Racing Junior Drag Racing League for kids 8 to 17; the NHRA Summit Racing Series; and the NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series.

Enders-Stevens started in the Junior Drag Racing program, as did J.R .Todd, a black motorcycle racer, Archambeault said.

“It’s a very participatory type of sport. It’s not uncommon, depending where the local track is, that people will take their street car to the track and race it,” Archambeault said. “It’s a very inclusive sport. If you’re a good racer, you can race.”

Cruz Pedregon, 49, said entry-level racers can compete on a shoestring budget.

“You can get a souped-up car, buy some accessories and go to a Wednesday night race. Just change the exhaust system or take your dad’s Corvette,” he said. “It’s minimal costs. It’s probably less than 50 bucks to get into those entry races.”

NHRA’s current crop of diverse racers are a generation removed from minority and female drivers breaking the barrier.

Brown recalled his father and uncle on the drag racing circuit in the early 1970s. While growing up in New Jersey, he recalled visiting five different racetracks within a 90-minute drive.

Brown said NASCAR recruited him around 2000, when former National Football League star Reggie White contacted him. White, who had worked with former Washington Redskins coach and racing team owner Joe Gibbs on trying to draw more minority drivers to NASCAR, died in 2004. And Brown said he never heard back from NASCAR.

The women’s barrier was broken more than a quarter-century ago when Shirley Muldowney was a household name in the sport in the 1970s and ’80s. Current female drivers such as Enders-Stevens said they looked up to female racing pioneers such as Muldowney and Shelley Anderson-Payne.

“I remember when I was little and seeking those autographs,” Enders-Stevens said.

Racer John Force, who competes in the funny car category, has two daughters competing on the circuit — Courtney and Brittany Force. Another daughter, Ashley Force Hood, raced for nine seasons but is having children now, so she’s doing drag racing video production.

And Hispanic racers date back 50 years ago when Flamin’ Frank Pedregon was a drag racing legend in Southern California. Frank was 41 when he died in a plane crash in 1981. He has a third son, also named Frank, who raced, too.

“We tout our diversity to potential sponsors looking to reach a diverse audience,” Archambeault said. “We tailor our advertising around events based on the population makeup in a given market.

“For example,” he added, “when we are in cities with a large Hispanic base, we will advertise with Hispanic media, conduct publicity campaigns with Hispanic media utilizing our drivers.”

NHRA also draws more diverse fans than NASCAR. Its races are held in major metropolitan areas across the country from south of New York City in the East to Atlanta; Charlotte, N.C.; Houston; and Dallas in the South to St. Louis; Chicago; and Kansas City, Mo.; in the Midwest to Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Seattle in the West.

So, NHRA is tapping into the diverse demographics of urban regions across the country. The racing organization tries to grow its sport through its diversity while giving unprecedented access to fans so that they can get face time with all drivers during race events.

“Our pits are also open,” Archambeault said. “Racers interact with fans all day.”

Brown noted, “What makes drag racing so diverse is that it’s more accessible. It’s close to the cities. Drag racing is all across the country.”

Contact reporter Alan Snel at asnel@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-5273.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
How much do Las Vegas casino CEOs make?
Las Vegas gaming CEOs made anywhere between $1 million and $24 million last year, according to company filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. ((Las Vegas Review-Journal)
30-year-old Rio needs a little TLC
Nearly 30 years after the Rio opened, the red and blue jewel that helped catapult Las Vegas to a new level with its buffet and nightclub has lost its status along with its shine.
The latest on the Drew Las Vegas - VIDEO
Eli Segall recounts his tour of the Drew Las Vegas, formerly the Fontainebleau, on the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Pinball Hall of Fame to move near south Strip
Operators of the Pinball Hall of Fame have been approved to build a new, larger arcade near the south edge of the Strip on Las Vegas Boulevard near Russel Road. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
National Hardware Show underway Las Vegas
The National Hardware Show kicked off Tuesday at the Las Vegas Convention Center (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Caesars for sale?
Caesars Entertainment Corp. has been swept up in takeover speculation since the company’s share price tumbled last year amid disappointing earnings and concerns over a recession. Amid the decline, hedge funds scooped up shares. Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn began buying shares of Caesars as early as January. Icahn acquired nearly 18 percent by mid-March. In February Icahn called on the Caesars board to study a sale as a way to boost shareholder value.
Las Vegas home prices
Las Vegas home prices grew fastest among major markets in February for the ninth straight month. But amid affordability concerns, the growth rate has slowed down. Southern Nevada prices in February were up 9.7% from a year earlier, according to the latest S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller index. The last time Las Vegas' price growth fell below 10% was in September 2017, S&P Dow Jones Indices reported.
Free Parking Coming To Wynn
Free parking will come to the Wynn and Encore resorts on May 1, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Founding Venetian employees talk about 20 years at the Strip resort
The Venetian, which opened May 3, 1999, is celebrating 20 years on the Las Vegas Strip. Seven original employees talk about opening the luxury resort and working there for two decades. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Circa aiming for December 2020 opening
The 1.25-million-square-foot property will have 44-stories and 777-rooms. It will also have a separate nine-story, 1,201-space parking garage.
Boxabl official explains the building concept
Boxabl business development manager Galiano Tiramani shows off a room built by his company. (Blake Apgar/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
TI/Mirage Tram reopens
The tram that shuttles guests between TI and Mirage reopened this week after being closed for much of 2018.
Las Vegas Convention Center expansion taking shape
Renderings and actual footage show how the Las Vegas Convention Center is evolving.
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz at Las Vegas convention
Former Starbucks CEO and potential presidential candidate Howard Schultz spoke at the Epicor Insights user conference at Mandalay Bay Convention Center Wednesday, April 17, 2019. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Drew Las Vegas to open in the second quarter of 2022
The 67-story Drew Las Vegas is slated to open in the second quarter of 2022 at the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
NAB Day 1 (Time Lapse)
NAB kicked off at the Las Vegas Convention Center on Monday, April 8, 2019. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
National Association of Broadcasters Show shows 1mm thick 8K TV with 22.2 channel digital sound
Japan’s NHK Science & Technology Research Laboratories booth featured a 1mm thick 8K TV system used in conjunction with a 22.2 channel digital sound system at the National Association of Broadcasters Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Nevada shoppers react to Smith’s no longer accepting Visa credit cards
On March 1, Smith’s announced that it would no longer be accepting Visa credit cards at any of its 142 supermarkets, including the 45 in Nevada.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission asks how long Wynn executives knew about misconduct
Business reporter Rick Velotta gives an update on the adjudicatory hearing on the suitability of Wynn Resorts to retain its gaming license in Massachusetts.
Henderson app developer part of Startup in Residence
Henderson based developers of the app On Point Barricade are taking part in Startup in Residence, a North America program dedicated to pairing tech companies with governments. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Sam's Town employees and customers talk of their love for the iconic casino
Longtime Sam's Town employees and customers love each other and love their casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas apartments rents
Las Vegas’ apartment market has accelerated in recent years. Developers are packing the suburbs with projects, landlords are on a buying spree, and tenants have filled buildings.
William Boyd talks about the birth of Sam's Town
On the eve of the 40th anniversary of Sam's Town, William Boyd, executive chairman of Boyd Gaming and son of hotel namesake Sam Boyd, talks about how the casino became one of the first local properties in Las Vegas. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
High Roller observation wheel turns five
The world’s tallest observation wheel celebrates it’s fifth year on Sunday, March 31, 2019. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @Vegas88s
Escape Room Industry Growing In Las Vegas
Escapology employees discuss the growing escape room industry in the U.S. and Las Vegas. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Impact of parking fees on visiting the Las Vegas Strip
There are no data showing a relationship between Strip resort and parking fees and the number of out-of-state visitors to Las Vegas. But there are data showing a relationship between Strip parking fees and the number of local visitors to the the Strip. ‘’As a local, I find myself picking hotels I visit for dinner or entertainment, based on whether they charge for parking or not,”’ said David Perisset, the owner of Exotics Racing. ‘’It is not a matter of money, more of principle.’’ A 2018 survey by the Las Vegas Global Economic Alliance found 36.9 percent of Clark County residents reported avoiding parking at Strip casinos that charge for parking. 29.1 percent reported avoiding using any services from a Strip casino that charges for parking.
MGM's sports betting deals
MGM Resorts International signed a sports betting sponsorship agreement with the NBA in July It was the first professional sports league to have official ties with a legal sports betting house. The deal came just two months after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a law prohibiting sports betting in most states. In October, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the NHL. In November, MGM became the first gaming company to sign a sports betting partnership with the MLB. Financial terms of Tuesday’s deal and earlier partnerships have not been announced.
Faraday puts Las Vegas land on the market
Nearly two years after Faraday Future bailed on its North Las Vegas auto factory, the company has put its land up for sale. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
El Cortez owner Kenny Epstein on running the iconic property
Kenny Epstein, owner of the El Cortez Hotel in downtown Las Vegas, talks about Jackie Gaughan mentorship and answers rumors about bodies in the basement at the mob-era casino. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
LVCVA recommends construction of underground people mover
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority announced the recommendation for an underground people mover for the convention center. The system would have the potential to expand and connect Downtown and the resort corridor all the way to McCarran. (Michael Quine/ Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
 
Plenty of work remains on Drew Las Vegas

The former Fontainebleau — the blue-tinted tower that has blighted the Strip for a decade — is slated to open as the Drew in the second quarter of 2022.