Sports Betting Could Be Huge for NHRA, But There’s a Catch

How age-old racing issue of team orders and tanking to help a teammate win a NHRA championship could come under the microscope.

BY SUSAN WADE, Auto Week

Beneath the layers of this season’s first of two NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series visits to The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, this weekend’s Four-Wide Nationals might offer some reasons to see drag racing through a new prism.

Gambling is a staple of the Las Vegas economy and sportsbooks a growing entertainment enterprise worldwide. And NHRA president Glen Cromwell told Autoweek in February that the NHRA is exploring the idea of opening the world’s quickest and fastest motorsport to sports gamblers.

Cromwell said, “It is a discussion we are having here. We are working and talking to various companies as we speak. Nothing has been finalized yet, but we are going down that road. We hope to have something here in the near future. We’re perfectly aligned for something like that. It’s two cars going down (the racetrack), and you’ve got one winner and one loser. It’s a perfect setup.”

The move could toss the premier drag racing league into the trendy mix and expose it to millions more viewers. It could be the blockbuster marketing break that the NHRA has been seeking.

“I would love to see sports betting get involved in NHRA. I think it would be great for the sport,” team owner Don Schumacher said. “It would get the sport in front of additional eyes. And that would be a positive for the sport.”

John Force, the 16-time Funny Car champion and 154-time race winner, said, “If it’s a way to generate revenue, why not?”

It’s unclear if or when that might happen. But to take that step, surely the NHRA would have to address its recent past and craft some new policies to ensure integrity.

As Schumacher said, “It certainly does raise numerous questions, from anybody in the sport, even betting. You’re kind of looking at what goes on in all the other professional sports. And I can’t say anybody in our sport does bet. For years, Las Vegas has had a line on the Las Vegas race. I have never bet on it, but I do know that at some of the casinos, there has been a line on the Las Vegas race.”

However, Schumacher said he doesn’t condone “throwing” or manipulating the outcome of a race.

Caleb Cox, team manager for Cruz Pedregon Racing’s Funny Car team, said, “That’s something NHRA would have to take a tough stand on.”

A decision to become involved with one or more betting platforms could trigger a shift in the structure of the sport: it could diminish the appeal of multiple-car teams or, conceivably, prohibit them.

In a Facebook Live program last week with The Capital Sports Report, John Force said, “If we can’t help each other, why have them?”

Teams still might want to have data-sharing about performance or track conditions for their tune-ups, but manipulating the outcome when teammates were to race each other for the benefit of helping one win a championship, for instance, would, or should, be off the table.

So it might affect drivers of new independent Top Fuel and Funny Car teams who might have had visions of expanding in the future, as well as existing multi-car team owners.

That’s one possible solution to the problem, certainly. But what career-changing upheaval would that cause for a tandem such as Doug Kalitta and Shawn Langdon . . . or the father-son combo of Steve and Billy Torrence, who race together as a family with Billy more or less just having fun? For John Force and Robert Hight (who were accused in 2009 of rigging the competition to put Hight into the Countdown), such a rule would have serious business/funding fallout.

In addition, John Force Racing would have to decide the futures of Brittany Force and Austin Prock in Top Fuel, again with seismic implications. And it’s unclear what impact new rules might have on technical and data-sharing and marketing alliances such as the one between the Top Fuel operations of Antron Brown and Justin Ashley. They’re separate teams that pool resources in particular areas of operation.

It’s a tug-o-war between lucrative benefits for the sanctioning body (in terms of both exposure and revenue) and the guarantee of integrity.

The current case in the NFL of Atlanta Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley serves as a precedent. Ridley, on a hiatus since October 2021 to focus on his mental health, placed bets on his team and consequently is suspended indefinitely and forced to forfeit at least this coming season’s $11.1-million salary. Baseball’s Pete Rose is a glaring example. And even baseball and American heroes Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, for a while, were punished by the commissioner for taking post-retirement jobs as greeters/ambassadors at casinos.

But the Camping World Drag Racing Series doesn’t need to look at baseball or football. It has incidents of its own.

Its most recent occurred in the tour’s previous trip to Las Vegas, last fall. At that time, Pro Stock veterans Greg Anderson and Erica Enders were battling for a fifth title. Anderson lost in the first round. Elite Performance Motorsports teammates Enders and Troy Coughlin Jr. met in the semifinals and were neck-and-neck with each other for most of the quarter-mile course. Then Coughlin’s Camaro went silent at about the 1,000-foot mark. That allowed Enders and her car to breeze into the final round with a chance to make up valuable ground on Anderson.

The move was roundly criticized, and Coughlin said he regrets doing it.

Anderson said count him out when it comes to team orders and helping a teammate by possibly throwing a race.

“Going out there purposely and throwing out the white flag halfway down the track, that’s not acceptable in my book,” Anderson said. “Maybe in some people’s minds it is. Not on anybody with KB Racing. I do have a problem with people going out there and purposely laying down or whatever you want to call it and giving the race up,” he said. “It’s a tough decision to make when you have multiple team cars, like we both do. It’s a hard decision to make to not do that. But you just can’t do it.

“I’ve raced 20 years, and I’ve had sponsorship for 20 years. And there’s been 100 times in those 20 years that you’ve thought to yourself, ‘Man, it would be nice I could get a break from one of my own teammates.’ And never once have we made it happen. You can’t do that. The sponsor won’t accept it. The fans won’t accept it.

“It looked terrible. It made our class look bad. And I don’t care who’s standing here right now – I’ll tell ’em that same thing: It’s wrong. It’s bad for the class. It’s bad for the sport. And whether you’re team cars or not, you have to go out there and race. All these team sponsors have different sponsors on the doors. You can’t do that.”

Enders had a different spin on the situation.

She said, “I have one job, and that’s to win races and world championships for Melling Performance . . . and all the people that make this possible. But for my boys at Elite Performance and Elite Motorsports, a true teammate is defined by what they do for you, what you do for each other. We’re one family. I’m sick of people and what they got to say. If they want to get a couple million dollars together and come out here and try this, they get to do it how they want to. This is how we do it, and we do it with grace and class.”

Fellow Pro Stock Countdown driver Matt Hartford expressed his disgust with the race-day ploy, “To intentionally shut off against a teammate, I got nothing for ya.”

At the time, Coughlin justified the result, saying, “This team is a family, and we all know how it works at this point in the season. It happened the other way around in the past with the same teams involved, so now we’ll take these results and head to Pomona to see how it ends.”

It ended with Anderson getting his fifth championship – and with Coughlin regretting his judgment.

“It’s part of competition. It’s part of the heat of the battle. I made a split-second decision. It was not how it should have gone down,” Coughlin said. “It’s definitely a strange spot. The way I did that was completely wrong. I would probably not do that again. That was 100-percent my personal error. That was something on my shoulders I will always take 100-percent credit for. It’s part of the competition piece that you live with your whole life. You move on and learn from your mistakes. We’re human. We’re going to (make mistakes). You learn from them.”

Neither Coughlin nor the team was fined. When Tony Pedregon and John Force got into a shouting and shoving match in 2009 at Indianapolis regarding the Hight incident, the only penalty meted out was a hefty $10,000 to Force – for making contact with an official during the spat.

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Back when Ron Capps and Tommy Johnson Jr. were teammates, their boss at the time, Don Prudhomme, said he had no team orders: “I don’t think I need a championship that bad to do that.”

Schumacher said, “As far as one racer helping another racer out, I have been against that forever. My teams did not operate that way. It just isn’t something you should do to the fans and to your team members.”

Morgan Lucas found out in 2007 just how polarizing a match-up between teammates in pivotal situations can be. Melanie Troxel was his teammate, and she had a chance to take the final Top Fuel spot in the inaugural Countdown to the Championship. They drew each other in the first round at Reading, Pa., the cutoff event to qualify for the playoff, and they decided to race heads-up. Lucas beat Troxel— and was criticized for not allowing her to win. Had he done that, he said, he knew he would be criticized for taking a dive. He was in a no-win situation.

“I understand team racing and team concepts,” Cox said. “It’s up to the owner of that team what he wants to do. No different than Formula 1— if Max Verstappen’s in second and Sergio Perez is in first and Max is racing for the championship, they’re going to tell Sergio to move over and let Max go. If you’re a driver, you’ve got to do what your team owner says. I don’t like that part of racing. Your team should race heads-up. But I’m not part of a multi-car team, so I don’t feel that facet. I would think that the competitor inside of me would be like, ‘I want to win. I don’t want to dive.’ There would have to be something in the rules about that, because that’s one way to manipulate the system.”

Force said he doesn’t gamble: “I’ve worked my whole life to try to stay ahead, and even though I know gambling is fun, I know that I’m the kind of guy that I couldn’t put a lid on it. I don’t gamble. I’m not that smart.” But he said he has no quarrel if the NHRA decides to partner with a betting company.

“I don’t know how all that works,” Force said. “A lot of things I think is a great idea, other people think are terrible. So you’ve got to balance it. You’re never going to make everybody happy, no matter how hard you try. I do the best I can, and I fail a lot. But I do love it [drag racing], and I do it from the heart. And I never try to hurt anybody, ever. I just want to have fun. I gamble when I’m on that racetrack.

“The only money I ever made in Vegas was winning a race. So what they do with gambling, I don’t know.”

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