DALLAS -- Drag racing, its proponents say, is no longer back alley. The sport has gone Main Street. And mainstream. Figures supplied by the National Hot Rod Association show attendance is up, especially among women, and no longer is it the sole province of latent teen-agers, either.
What NHRA officials lack, however, is a proper impetus for the new image. They have narrowed it to two possibilities. But it still comes down to a question of which came first:
Toilets or TV?
Billy Meyer has no doubts. Meyer, whose Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas, was host to the recent Chief Auto Parts Nationals, knows exactly how many restroom stalls he has 165. He says new facilities, with his Motorplex as the model, and renovations of dilapidated tracks have been the sport's biggest boosts.
Meyer downplays the reports of industry marketing experts who say increased television exposure has made the sport appealing to uninitiated fans. The TV faction contends it is no accident that increased air time over the last five years coincides with increasing attendance figures.
"You can't be a fan of drag racing unless you know it exists," said John Mullin, vice president and general manager of Diamond P Sports, which produces the televised network spots.
On Meyer's side, track operators say TV wouldn't be interested if no fans showed. And, as Meyer notes, the primary reason women once gave for not returning to the track was a lack of restroom facilities.
"We like to feel we have helped," ESPN spokesman Dave Nagle said, straddling the fence, "but, at the same time, we like to choose a sport that's popular with viewers."
Despite the quibbling over the reasons, no one inside the NHRA or the networks questions the increased popularity. Figures from independent surveys show that, in 1985, 14 events drew a total of 747,600 fans. By the close of the 1989 season, 19 events had drawn 1.45 million, a per-event increase of 43 percent.
The target audience also has widened, said Jim Teller, marketing director for the NHRA. According to 1986 surveys, the average spectator at a drag-racing event fit the stereotype. The age ranged from 18 to 34. Ninety-two percent were male.
"Drag racing has always been known as a young man's sport," Teller said, "but our sport is attracting a huge family following."
He bases the belief on the 1989 surveys, which indicate that spectators now range in age from 25 to 49. The biggest increase, however, has been in the number of women. In four years, the female bloc went from 8 percent to 40 percent.
Track owners say more women are showing up because of the increased amenities. Meyer cited a survey at one race in which half the women said they would not return because of inadequate restroom facilities. That problem, he says, is now being remedied.
In the last five years, new tracks have sprung up in Ennis, Houston, Topeka, Kan., and Memphis, Tenn. Complete makeovers were performed at Denver ($4.2 million), Atlanta ($3 million) and Englishtown, N.J. Major renovations are under way or have just been completed at Gainesville, Fla.; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Ind.; and Sears Point, Calif.
The sport had little choice but to make a change, said Dallas Gardner, president of the NHRA. Many tracks on the NHRA circuit were little more than sets of bleachers surrounding a concrete or asphalt strip. Portable toilet facilities were the rule. Dirt infields clouded the pit areas. There were few media accommodations and, consequently, even fewer media.
So Gardner, using Meyer's new $8 million Motorplex as the basis for his charge, went to the track owners with an ultimatum in 1986: Clean up or get out.
"The sport had an opportunity to have a control over its own destiny," Gardner said.
Denver's Bandimere Speedway was one of the first victims of the sport's new thrust. The track was dropped from the 1989 tour while owner John Bandimere Jr. poured $4.2 million into a makeover.
Until then, Bandimere said his track was typical of most on the NHRA tour. His father bought the acreage in 1958, just as the sport was beginning to gain popularity. The Bandimeres had a strip and an old trailer for concessions.
Little changed over the years. Then, in 1979, Bandimere Speedway got a break when it was added to the national tour. He said it did well at first. But he said the facilities were built with the racer in mind, not the public or media. As times became faster, drivers demanded more money. Bandimere said the only way to pay more was to increase ticket prices. But no one wanted to pay more to sit on splintered benches and stand in long porta-potty lines.
Eventually, Bandimere started over. He put in enough bleacher seating to accommodate 23,000. He paved the pit areas, put in new lighting, a public address system and generally brought everything up to date.
The result was phenomenal. Bandimere estimates that, in 1988, the track's 60 annual events attracted a total of 60,000 people.
This year, he said the draw was 360,000.