Champion Driver, Team President Robert Hight on the Business Side of Drag Racing

Robert Hight

With 2 races left in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series Countdown to the Championship (their playoff system), Robert Hight is atop the leader board (11-points ahead of J.R. Todd). Aside from being a 2x champion driver, Hight serves as the President of John Force Racing (the team he races for). Robert was recently in New York and JohnWallStreet had the chance to sit with him to discuss how drag racing became a billion-dollar business, why NHRA has one of the youngest fan bases in sports and the importance of car sponsorships.

JWS: Drag racing has become a billion-dollar industry. Where is the money coming from?

Robert: It’s really driven through sponsorships and attendance. Fans have to come to the races and then we need them to tune in on TV. It (the sport’s economics) really changed when Fox Sports took over (the television contract in 2015) and our viewership grew by more than 70%, because you need eyeballs on your sport (to generate the big sponsorship dollars).

JWS: NHRA has one of the youngest fan bases among all sports properties. Why is that?

Robert: It fits the new generation. They (the fans) don’t have to sit in the stands and watch cars go round and round for 3-4 hours. There’s some racing, you go back in the pits – there’s some entertainment back there – watch some more racing; it just fits the attention span of today’s youth.

JWS: Is the NHRA business model so reliant on sponsorship that if a team were to lose a major sponsor, they would be forced to fold-up shop?

Robert: It costs $4 million to run a single NHRA Funny Car for a full season. We could not compete if we lost a sponsor, the hope would be to find a new one. Our organization signs long-term deals (to avoid that fate). We don’t sign year-to-year deals, it’s a 3-year minimum.

JWS: Nearly all NASCAR tracks are publicly owned. Is that the same with NHRA drag strips?

Robert: No, most of them are private – a lot of family owned tracks, but Bruton Smith owns quite a few of our events and honestly, they are the best events we go to. Beautiful tracks, beautiful facilities, very well run.

Fan Marino: Bruton Smith is the founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, a publicly traded company (TRK) that owns 9 racing venues (that hold NASCAR, IndyCar and NHRA events); Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway. Back in early August, the company reported Q2 total revenues had declined -2.4% (to $4.2 million) as the company “experienced poor weather during almost all of the events it held during the quarter.” TRK shares will open at $16.64 on Thursday (10.11.18), just north of their 52-week low.

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Courtney Force Explains How Diversity Makes NHRA “The New Disney”

Courtney Force

Courtney Force is the #1 driver (and the only female) in the NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car Drag Racing Series standings, as the Countdown to the Championship (their playoff system) begins this weekend with the Dodge NHRA Nationals at Maple Grove (PA) Raceway. Force is the daughter of legendary drag car racer, John Force, the winningest NHRA Champion and the founder and CEO of John Force Racing (the team Courtney races for). Courtney was in New York earlier this week and sat down with JohnWallStreet to discuss NHRA’s appeal, her appeal to sponsors and to find out what makes NHRA “the new Disney”.

JWS: For those not familiar with NHRA racing, can you explain what draws fans to drag races?  

Courtney: These cars are going down the strip at over 330 miles an hour, in under four seconds; so, it’s exciting. It’s more like a sprint than the marathon that you see at most other auto races. It grabs everyone’s attention and hits all the senses. The smell of the nitro. The feeling of the cars as they vibrate the stands as they go down the race track.

JWS: Parade recently wrote an article asking if NHRA “the new Disney?”, citing the sport’s family-friendly atmosphere. Does having women compete at the highest level, against the men, contribute to sport’s family appeal?

Courtney: Definitely. We all get to compete equally, we’re not separated by a men’s league and a women’s league and that’s pretty rare. Drivers of all different ages compete in our series. I compete against men in their thirties, all the way into their sixties. There’s so much diversity in the sport and I think that’s why it really appeals to so many different types of audiences.

JWS: Are sponsors drawn to you because you’re a great driver or because you’re a great driver and you’re a female?

Courtney: Well, I hope it’s because I’m a great driver. Then on top of it, I guess a bonus is that I happen to be female. I think a lot of companies like the uniqueness of that. Advance Auto Parts (primary sponsor) is a company you would think would be male dominated, but there are females running that company; there’s females that are getting involved in racing and working on their own cars in their garage. It’s that audience we’re trying to reach.

JWS: Racing down the strip at 300 MPH requires a strong core and muscular legs, but unlike Big 4 sports race teams don’t have fitness coaches, nutritionists etc. Do you have a personal trainer? Is that a team expense or a personal expense?

Courtney: I paid for a trainer out of pocket. I did it for a little while. Now I just kind of take what I learned a few years back and do it on my own. It makes it cheaper.

JWS: NHRA racers compete for their share of a $3 million prize pool. If you include all potential off-road income streams, is it feasible for a driver to earn 7 figures?

Courtney: I think you can, over time. It depends on the different types of sponsorship deals you put together, whether you have personal services deals; I think that’s where you can kind of make your bonus bucks. Social media is starting to grow into something that’s profitable. So, I think it depends on the success the driver has had and if they’re appealing to sponsors.

Howie Long-Short: Courtney’s primary sponsor is Advance Auto Parts (AAP). Back in August, the company reported Q2 earnings. Sales (see: brakes, batteries & Spring related categories) rose +2.8% YoY (to $2.33 billion), with comparable stores growing sales +2.8% (nearly twice the +1.5% max projected for FY18), as EPS climbed +24.6% YoY (to $1.97). AAP also announced its board had approved a $600 million share repurchase program, to replace the $500 million program ($415 million remained) approved back in ’12. AAP shares are +6.7% since earnings were reported a month ago and are +57% YTD. They’ll open at $166.73 later this morning (9.14.18).

Fan Marino: Drag racing is the Force family business. While Courtney currently leads John in the Funny Car series standings, her sister Brittany became the 1st woman to win a Top Fuel championship in 35 years in 2017. Older sisters Ashley Force Hood and Adria Hight are also involved in the family business; Ashley is a retired drag racer, while Adria currently serves as the CFO of John Force Racing. It doesn’t stop there. Courtney is married to IndyCar driver Graham Rahal, while Adria is married to Courtney’s teammate Robert “Top Gun” Hight.

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