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Second Place
Thomas Pope, Fayetteville Observer

A wild idea

            ROCKINGHAM – Steve Earwood has heard the pitch so many times that he can keep a poker face while doubling over with laughter on the inside.
            “I get a call every week from somebody who wants to rent the racetrack and put on an event,” said Earwood, the owner of Rockingham Dragway. “I’ll ask their history, and they’ve never done anything ‘but they’ve gone to races.’
            “Well, that’s like eating in a restaurant. Just because you eat in a nice restaurant doesn’t mean you can run one. Everybody thinks they can be a promoter.”
            So when Kenny Nowling promised to fill the grandstands to overflowing — without selling tickets — Earwood had to stifle a yawn.
            But Nowling and his fledgling American Drag Racing League proved to be the real deal, drawing the biggest crowds in track history.
            Dragstock has become Rockingham’s marquee event, and they have made a believer out of Earwood, a veteran of more than 30 years in racetrack ownership and promotion.
            At Dragstock III in 2006 — the first one held here — Earwood planned for 2,500 spectators, with a skeleton crew of 13 people to staff the show. More than 27,000 showed up, forcing Earwood to implore State Highway Patrol troopers directing traffic on U.S. 1 to turn cars away.
            That race was the 180-degree turnaround from the point at which Nowling had hit rock bottom.
            In the ADRL’s sophomore season of 2005, only 112 people paid to see its race at Memphis, Tenn. As Nowling pondered how he could have failed so miserably, Jessica Alcoke, his director of merchandising, informed him she had sold 30 souvenir T-shirts.
            “I’m like, ‘Are you trying to rub it in? This is the worst day of my professional life,’ ” said Nowling, who is now engaged to Alcoke. “She goes, ‘No, that’s 30 percent of the people who came today. What if we had 30 or 40 thousand people? What if we gave the tickets away, and maybe charged them to park instead?’ ”
            It was, he said, a Post-It Note epiphany; an idea so simple, yet the spark for a business revolution. “Some guy got a little glue on the back of a piece of yellow paper, stuck it on something and thought, ‘Hmmm,’ ” Nowling said.    “Years later, who knows how many millions he’s made?”

Standing room only

            Rockingham, with a four-decade history of hosting events with the long-established NHRA and IHRA, was to be the test vehicle for the ADRL’s new concept. It was, Nowling said, a “crazy, off-the-wall idea.”
            Yet on race day, the crowd was so large that Nowling and Earwood were terrified by their lack of preparedness.
            Almost immediately, an understaffed Earwood realized his error. By the time eliminations got under way, “there were people standing on top of the buildings and people climbing over the fences to get in and see what was going on,” he said.
            “And we had the worst thing that can happen at a drag race — ‘down time,’ when there’s nothing going on. We’ve had a great show, but we get down to the finals — and they were only running three classes back then — and you’ve got to have 45 minutes to an hour to cool these cars down before the next round. But instead of leaving, the people sat there like they were in church, waiting to see it. You didn’t dare get up because you’d lose their seat. They didn’t move — it looked like a painting out there.”
            So how do the ADRL and Earwood prosper without ticket revenue?
            Earwood said he makes his money from concession sales while the ADRL pockets the parking fee. Corporate sponsors such as the National Guard and Simpson Racing pay the ADRL for the right to mingle with fans and pitch their business. A full house was on hand Saturday for Dragstock VII, which was canceled by rain.
            Nowling said the ADRL’s 10 events average 73,000 fans per weekend, which — if accurate — is 4,000 more than the average NFL attendance for 2009-10.
            “I’ll put our entertainment product up against anything in sports, let alone motorsports,” he said. “The awe factor is really tremendous.”

‘The fans love it’

            The ADRL’s on-track product isn’t unique, but its presentation is. Racing takes place in six divisions, and by the time a round of competition is finished, it’s time to start the cycle again.
            And the ADRL holds its races in an eighth-mile sprint, or half the distance that IHRA runs cars at its national events. The NHRA’s top two categories — Top Fuel and Funny Car — race to 1,000 feet for safety purposes while its other classes vie on the quarter-mile.
            The ADRL’s 660-foot distance from launch to finish serves multiple purposes.
            With the engines under duress for only half the traditional distance, racers can expect longer life from their powerplants. That means that in the long haul, their overhead is lower and they can be more competitive over the course of a season.
            Because top speeds are reduced by the shorter distance, there’s less chance of a catastrophic accident.
            The time saved by shorter races and fewer oildowns means the program moves at a brisker pace.
            It all makes perfect sense to Charles Carpenter, a Harrisburg racer and one of the pioneers of the Pro Modified class in the early 1980’s. (ADRL splits Pro Mod cars into two categories, supercharged and nitrous-assisted.) Carpenter’s an ADRL fan when he isn’t guiding his Pro Nitrous car down the track.
            “ADRL giving tickets away for free gets people in the door,” Carpenter said. “Think about how much money some tracks and sanctioning bodies spend on radio and TV advertising, all to try to sell a $50 ticket, versus giving the ticket away, then working on selling the fans stuff once they’re in the gates.
            “A lot of the people here have never seen a drag race. The hope is that you make a fan of them and they’ll come back. If you can get them hooked on it, you’ve built your fan base and helped the sport.”
            And it’s only a taste of what’s to come, said Earwood, who has seen the light since his skepticism of that first meeting with Nowling.
            “He’s the one in a thousand,” Earwood said.
            “P.T. Barnum would be jealous.”