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Published: Saturday, 7/19/2008

Minor mishap mars a national sport

BY DENNIS BOVA
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Recently I was among 20,000 or so people at a major national sporting event held locally that was rained out without a drop falling on us - making "major" an overstatement.

And the attendance figure is just a guess. More on that later.

The second annual Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals at Summit Motorsports Park in Norwalk was June 26-29. It's a big deal in the world of drag racing. All the star drivers in the professional classes of the National Hot Rod Association were there, just as they were for last year's inaugural event. Last year the races ran as smoothly as a finely tuned dragster; I was there for a qualifying session and race day.

But this year, well .

Before the final races late afternoon on June 29 an announcer was quick to thank all those who helped get the race track in shape, and to say what a wonderful facility it is.

Now this may sound odd given that we're talking about a sport where from a standing start cars reach speeds of 320 mph at the finish line a quarter mile away, but I have this to say to those who run the motor-sports park and the NHRA: Not so fast.

Friday, June 27, was a disaster, speaking as a fan. And I'm not alone. I felt for the fans I met from Columbus and from Wampum, Pa., who came in for the day in hopes of seeing the top race cars billow smoke, belch fire, and sound a roar that can shiver the aluminum bleachers.

The sportsmen classes raced down the track to post times in hopes of qualifying for the final field that would race on June 29. No problems there.

Then came the professionals. The motorcyclists raced for their times, as did a few pro stockers - the class where the cars most resemble street machines.

But then the runs were stopped because it was found that water was seeping up through the asphalt just beyond the finish line. A dry track is important for a race, but equally important after that race is over because those cars have to quickly decelerate. Safety is an issue that is always addressed, especially because at the NHRA's race the week before, a driver died.

The announcer said it would be about 10 minutes until the water was cleared. This was about 4 p.m.

It was the longest 10 minutes of our lives. At about 9:30 p.m. - yes, roughly five and a half hours later with nary a high-performance engine ever being started - an announcer addressed the crowd. There would be no racing this night because try as they might, crews could not keep the track dry. Norwalk was deluged with 13 inches of rain over the previous several days, the announcer said. We here in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are aware of that because we had lived it.

As I heard a disappointed fan say, "This never would have happened in NASCAR."

Which brings me to two points:

1. Knowing the stretch of rain we've had here, and that this was one of NHRA's showcase events featuring its stars, why didn't the raceway park principals tend to the drainage issue earlier? Yes, the announcer told the fans that their tickets would be honored at face value for the June 28 or June 29 runnings. But that should have been a foregone conclusion. Even though no rain fell all day, we got rained out. Professional baseball for years has made good on their rained-out games through rain checks.

2. The parallel with baseball and the comment about NASCAR reminds me that the NHRA wants to be considered a major sport. But canceling a qualifying day because of a track condition - after what might be perceived as giving the fans hope that the day or night's event somehow would be run - somehow undercuts that notion.

The NHRA didn't help matters. On its June 28 highlights show on ESPN, at the track the next day, and in the recent issue of National Dragster, the NHRA lauded the work of those who finally got the track in shape, and how great a facility Summit Motorsports Park is. The track is a wonderful place to watch a race, but the NHRA's pronouncements to me smack of sugar-coating a bitter disappointment.

Oh, and about that crowd estimate. I emailed a track spokesman asking how many people attended each day. "Unfortunately," the spokesman wrote back, "NHRA as a matter of policy does not release attendance figures for national events."

Huh? What major sport sanctioning body refuses something so simple?

On a positive note, June 28's qualifying and June 29's final races went well, and were exciting. There were two rain delays on the 29th, but the track was dried and races resumed.

I'm a card-carrying NHRA member, former drag racer, and a fan. I hope to attend the third annual event next year - the NHRA last week posted the 2009 schedule; the event returns to Norwalk June 25-28. Now if only those who run Summit Motorsports Park are prepared, and the track springs no more surprises.

Contact Dennis Bova at

bova@theblade.com

or 419-724-6164.



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