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Force Hood’s absence, lawsuit hurt NHRA

The professional drag racing season is three weeks away, and the sport has lost traction even before the start of today’s first major testing session in Palm Beach, Fla.

The first blow came two weeks ago when vastly popular Funny Car driver Ashley Force Hood announced she would not race this year because she’s expecting a baby in August.

The 28-year-old driver finished third in NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series points the past two years and should be commended for putting motherhood ahead of racing.

Her immediate sacrifice for the long-term betterment of her family is admirable.

That concept of sacrificing for a greater good is one the NHRA’s top brass and board should consider. A serious threat to the organization looms as the sport’s premier sanctioning body celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

The Caplin and Drysdale law firm, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City, has taken actions on behalf of a longtime amateur NHRA racer from the East Coast to challenge the sanctity of the NHRA’s not-for-profit tax-exempt status.

The complaint delivered to the Internal Revenue Service on Jan. 12 claims the NHRA has been operating more like a commercial business instead of furthering the sport and serving the estimated 80,000 members it purportedly represents as a nonprofit group.

“(The NHRA) appears to be operated for the benefit of those who run the show, much the way a business is operated for the people who own the business,” Marcus S. Owens, senior member of the law firm, told The Associated Press.

This could hit drag racing’s premier sanctioning body like a speeding locomotive.

The complaint contends the majority of the NHRA’s revenue — roughly $122 million in 2008 — is derived from nontraditional sources for a trade association.

It also maintains compensation for the organization’s management is out of line with heads of similar tax-exempt associations: President Tom Compton was paid $771,632 in 2008 and board chairman and former NHRA president Dallas Gardner made $319,073 for one hour of work per week, which the complaint says is well beyond industry standards.

The complaint contends the NHRA is run by a select group of individuals rather than its members, who don’t have voting rights.

The NHRA denies it operates as a for-profit business and has been compliant under section 501(c)(6) of the Internal Revenue code for years.

“At this point, the end result would be the client simply wants an independent third party to make sure it deserves to be tax exempt,” said Owens, a former head of the IRS exempt organizations division.

I spoke with the man behind the complaint, who requests anonymity. He makes good points.

Though I don’t like some ways the NHRA operates, it does a good job in some areas as the sport’s caretaker.

This is the wrong time to give any appearance of not paying a fair share of taxes. Not with our country’s mounting deficit and programs such as Social Security in jeopardy.

If Compton and his board of directors — especially Gardner — truly care about the NHRA, they would resign.

But before that day — which is not likely to come — they should return the power of the NHRA to its membership and avert any look of impropriety.

To do that, however, would require them to care more about the sport than personal bank accounts.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247. Visit lvrj.com/motorsports for more news and commentary.

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