When the Power Rangers first appeared on Saturday morning TV, kids were mesmerized by the idea of seemingly normal adolescents who could do extraordinary things. With the cry, "It's morphing time!" they would call upon hidden powers to battle for justice and thus become super heroes.
Street-legal drag racing once had much of the same appeal. Fans at an event would watch in awe as "normal-looking" street machines did things that one wouldn't expect. Hard, tail-dragging launches with front bumpers that reached for the sky were followed by mad dashes for the finish line with cars that seemed barely in control. Astonished faces usually followed every run, not only because the cars made it to the shutdown area without crashing, but also because of the incredible times and speeds posted in the process. These street cars had morphed, indeed, and it was a phenomenal thing to witness.
Since those magical times in the early-to-mid-'90s, street-legal racing has continued to morph and has taken us far from those early beginnings. Much of the same can be said for the National Muscle Car Association (NMCA), which has changed hands several times over in its own right. Street-legal racing will begin the '02 season, however, with a dramatically new look and feel as some new hands take over the NMCA helm.
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A Long, Strange Trip
When street-legal racing first appeared on the national radar screens of the musclecar press, it was mostly widely known as Pro Street. In the '80s, this rather nebulous term was associated more with cars that had more show than go as commonly found on Saturday night cruises or drive-ins. The name was later embraced by others whose seriously modified machines would take the chance at illegal street races, but could still pass a cursory police inspection for proper street equipment. The ability to out-muscle anything on the street without showing your hand was the big name of the game and the advent of nitrous oxide enabled many to play that game well.
As the legend of these cars grew, track promoters, manufacturers, and even more racers wanted to play. The Russ Smeltniks-led NMCA provided such an opportunity by organizing and promoting these events at national-event caliber tracks east of the Mississippi. The idea of having a race to determine the Ten Fastest Street Cars in America was launched with great fanfare by the press and was eventually contested at the season ending event at Memphis every year. By the end of the '95 season, this one event had grown to the point that it began to rival many IHRA and NHRA national events among insiders.
Aided by the high-flying economy of the late '90s, street-legal racing quickly grew, which prompted corporate America to see NMCA as a plum ready to be picked. In late 1997, it was announced that NMCA would be bought out by Petersen Publishing (then-producers of Hot Rod, Car Craft, and Chevy High Performance). Exit Popular Hot Rodding's involvement with NMCA! Petersen, in turn, was itself bought by British publishing giant EMAP just a year later. What once was a small sanctioning body that was close to the racer became part of an international media group that was expected to produce immediate profits.
This led to some controversial decisions, which prompted a group of former NMCA principals and racers to form the rival National Street Car Association (NSCA). In the midst of all this, the Fun Ford Weekend and National Mustang Racing Association (NMRA) series were riding high with the popularity of the 5.0L Mustang. The result was an over supply of events and not enough racers or corporate sponsors. With the situation exacerbated by a rapidly weakening national economy, rumors began circulating in 2000 that both NMCA and NSCA were in a crisis with the future of street-legal racing being uncertain.
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Car shows at NMCA Super Series events draw a wide range of entries ranging from classic ca
Re-Inventing The Wheel
While a number of factors combined to lead street-legal racing to a weakened state, there appeared to be little hope on the horizon without a strong sanctioning body to lead the way. By the end of 2001, corporate consolidations put NMCA on the auction block. Among the interested parties was industry insider Dale Van Houten, who saw an opportunity at hand.
"When I became aware that the National Muscle Car Association may be put up for sale, I called my partner Jim Vance and told him that we ought to take a look at this," Dale said. "I had been involved in bringing sponsors to NMCA and wasn't very happy with the way things were being handled. Yet, if we were going to be critical of it, then we should also be able to figure out a way to put it back on the map all together. After that, I talked with Tony DePillo from the National Street Car Association (NSCA) and he suggested that we talk about bringing the two organizations back together. From that point on, it all really began to make a whole lot of sense."
"Russ Smeltniks and Ron Coleman made the original NMCA successful," Dale continued, "by focusing on what they were doing, but through a lot of fighting, arguing and a mis-match of classes between the two organizations, we saw the risk of this form of racing just going away. Our most important function is to make street-legal drag racing successful."
Part of that task was to determine how to staff the new NMCA. Although some had thought that the splinter NSCA group would never be able to compete against the corporate-backed NMCA, they survived for four years despite being beset early on with ownership problems. Even so, the under-capitalized organization developed a loyal following, thanks in no small part to the efforts of Tony DePillo, Patrick Budd, and Missy Fletcher, who retained their positions within the new NMCA organization.
"It was kind of like watching your daughter getting married and leaving home," said Tony DePillo in retrospect, "There were some really poor choices made by the old NMCA and that's part of the reason why NSCA spun off in the first place. Racers weren't given any regard, classes were thrown away, and no attempt was made to come up with an equitable solution. Yet, when we sat back and thought about coming back together again, it was probably the best situation for everyone concerned."
When asked what they would have to be successful in 2002, Tony paused for a moment and answered saying, "Success can be measured in several different ways. Financially, it's going to be important, but I don't think anyone has any unrealistic expectations. Dale Van Houten, Jim Vance, and I have a commitment here, but we're not about to throw our arms up if it's not in the black during the first year. We have an advantage in that we're not a totally new organization and we do have an established track record. We're looking to please the racers, satisfy the sponsors and putting a good product out there. If we can accomplish this, then the monetary rewards will come."
Ready For The Road
Just after the Performance Racing Industry Show, held in Indianapolis in December 2001, the new NMCA announced a tentative, 10-race schedule dubbed as the "Super Series," which was slated to begin in February 2002 in West Palm Beach, Florida. While putting together a comprehensive schedule with sponsorship and a full contingency program on short notice was an accomplishment in its own right, finding a way to combine the 8 different eliminators from the old NMCA series with the 13 different NSCA classes looked to be an even more daunting task.
After a careful review of both programs, the decision was made to start the '02 season with a full plate of 15 different classes, in addition to a bracket program. Broken down, the Super Series will have classes for both professional and sportsman-level competitors. This will range from a Pro Street class for nitrous, outlaw, and nostalgia cars to four different classes for 10.5-inch-tire cars along with several different street and musclecar classes. Nostalgia Super Stock, Pro Nostalgia, and an E.T. Bracket program will also be contested at each event. Having such a broad offering will not only give fans the most for their money but also allow the racers to determine which classes they want based on the number of entries each eliminator receives.
"Having a Pro Street and Super Street show will put fans into the seats, which will allow us to pay more money for some of the other classes, but our emphasis will be the mid-level on down street-legal classes," Van Houten said. "When we combined the organizations, our goals were to not eliminate anyone from having the opportunity to race and to allow racers to adapt their cars to the new common rules for as little money as possible. We probably have too many classes right now and we'll probably pare these down to about 9 or 10 in the coming years. We know, however, that when we start thinking that we're going to dictate the rules and then they're going to have to live with it, then we'll be gone. It's the racer's series and, with these rules, people at various levels of experience can race and have an opportunity to move up."
Even more important than the schedule and rulebook, however, will be getting for the NMCA to get the media attention the racers and sponsors deserve. In recognition of that, the NMCA/NSCA Super Series announced a full slate of TV coverage which will be shared between SpeedVision and TNN. In addition, broad coverage from the motorsport industry's best known publications in 2002 will provide the best media coverage that street-legal racing has ever seen.
"You can't be successful with this kind of venture without a significant amount of editorial exposure and Primedia has committed to do that for all of the racers and manufacturers," Van Houten said. "Statistics show that 60 percent of all drag racers aren't members of either the IHRA or NHRA, so there never has been a true championship point's series that really brought this all together. There's really no other place where people can drag race and get the kind of national media attention that they will get with us."
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Super Street: Jim Huber's hard charging nitrous Chevy S-10 set both end of the Super Modif
Shaking It All Out
Even with a well thought out marketing and media plan, street-legal racing's Super Series may not be able to go back completely to the good old days since the sport has morphed and changed greatly since its beginning.
For example, many of the early Pro Street cars from 10 years ago were all steel, back-halved cars with stock front suspensions and functioning lights, turn signals and horns. Some even included fully upholstered interiors, factory glass, stock dashboards and power windows. The earliest rules even required each car to have factory VIN numbers along with current state license plates and registrations. Many of these things were pitched by the wayside, however, as times and speeds increased to the 6.70-second, 210-plus-mph numbers seen in Pro Street today. Full tube and then SFI 25.1C-certified chassis were required not only in Pro Street, but also the quickest 10.5-inch-tire classes as well.
While no one advocates a step backwards in the construction of these cars for obvious safety reasons, the word was prior to the '02 season that the Super Series would look to reinstate the requirement that some of the cars in these categories would be required to successfully complete a 25-mile cruise at more than one event to demonstrate their streetability prior to qualifying. In the past, this was usually only done at the season-ending Top Ten Fastest Street Car competition.
Another challenge facing the Super Series is the need to attract later model street cars to keep it from becoming nothing but a retrospective musclecar series. Classes such as EFI and Real Street offer a real opportunity for owners of late model modular Mustangs, C4 and C5 Corvettes, Dodge Vipers and LS1 Camaros and Firebirds to break into national event caliber drag racing.
Non-traditional musclecars and front-wheel-drive sport compacts, such as six-cylinder Mustangs/Camaros, the Ford SVT Lightning, the 345hp Cadillac Escalade, Ford SVT Focus or even the Honda Civic Si have had a history of success within various street-legal classes in NMCA. The new Super Series will encourage new blood from these areas while looking at adapting rules where necessary to help make street machines like these competitive.
Changes like these, along with the new NMCA Super Series and the absence of established stars such as Tony Christian and Bob Rieger, will no doubt change the look of street-legal racing as we have come to know it. Yet, the appeal of having a car or truck that can run quicker and faster than anybody thinks it should still has a universal appeal. That bodes well for performance enthusiasts everywhere, and NMCA has morphed to fit the model.