By John F. Katz
It still represents a huge potential market. And–for traditional racing businesses–it's still as quirky and challenging as ever.
"The market isn't as big as it was five years ago," noted Bill Johnson, of Brainerd International Raceway (BIR) in Brainerd, Minnesota, "but what there is, is very strong."
"The branding and cross-marketing opportunities for parts manufacturers and retail distributors is still huge," added Jason Siu, of the National Sport Compact Racing Association (NSCRA) in West Palm Beach, Florida. "Drag racing in general sells parts. Every kid on the street loves testing their car's performance from light to light. They can bolt on an intake, headers and/or exhaust, go to the quarter mile, and instantly see the result. The market is certainly not as active as it was five years ago, but as with any industry, there are ups and downs. The market as a whole is far from being inactive; it's just not at the high point it was five years ago."
Having been founded in 2006, Modern Automotive Performance, Plymouth, Minnesota, missed that last high point. "But since then we've grown 300 percent, year after year," said Chris Carey, "which leads me to believe that the sport compact market is as strong as ever–while the releases of new sport compact cars like the Mitsubishi Evolution X and Hyundai Genesis have renewed growth in the market."
"The hard parts business has seen a resurgence in recent years," added James Yim, of Falken Tire Corporation in Fontana, California. "With EMS tuning and dyno shops running at capacity, enthusiasts are far more knowledgeable about popular engines today than ever before, which makes it much easier to tune and build decent and reliable horsepower from four- and six-cylinder engines."
"Attendance counts at our events are bigger now than they were five years ago," reported Cliff Wallace, of Hybrid Entertainment in Baton Rouge. Before the year is out, Hybrid's Import Face-Off will have run 22 events in 2009, from Palm Beach to Tucson to Crofton, Maryland. "That the import scene is dying is a myth. Our series has grown continuously since 2001."
To understand where this market segment is now, you have to understand where it's been. "First off, sport compact is the worst term ever created," commented Michael Ferrara, of Import Drag Racing Circuit (IDRC) in Huntington Beach, California. "No one ever used it–beside a magazine that's now dead–and even they hated it–until some of the domestic OEMs wanted to get involved in the Gen-X and Gen-Y movement of front-drive import drag racing. Now the professional segment of 'sport compact' drag racing that existed five years ago is dead." Ferrara added, "But today, a small but growing grassroots/privateer import drag racing movement survives."
Yim reported "a slowdown of R&D on new engine platforms.... Currently, I don't see sport compact drag racing growing. The segment has taken a rough turn in the past three years as major national series have closed, and major sponsors have pulled back in the current economic climate." Without a single national sanctioning body and a competition for a national championship, media coverage suffers, making it "difficult for teams to fund their racing endeavors through corporate sponsorships–and the whole thing flops. But on the grassroots level, hardcore sport compact enthusiasts are still racing. This is apparent in regional events, such as the Import Drag Racing Circuit (IDRC) in California, the Northeast Tuner Showdown–and the Battle of the Imports (BOTI), which is still promoted by the Grandfather himself, Frank Choi. These still draw hundreds of competitors and loyal fans."
Wallace agreed that the pro-level series failed "because they tried to make the import scene much more than it ever was, or ever will be. This is a grassroots, weekend-racer sport for the younger crowd–not a professional race series. It will never be big enough to support the big payouts needed for $100,000 cars."
"This market is not thriving like it was five years ago," confirmed Tony Trimp, of California Modified Imports (CMI), which promotes import drag racing at Sacramento Raceway Park in Sacramento, California. "The economy has taken a major cut out of drag racing, and the price of fuel has been a huge factor. Young racers can't afford $3.50-per-gallon fuel just to drive to the race track!" Trimp sees the NHRA series as a success. "It was the most popular event of its kind we ever had at CMI, drawing over 600 cars and 4000 spectators." Since the demise of the series, the CMI Spring event that Sacramento Raceway itself promotes has seen 200 to 400 race cars.
But Mark Mazurowski, of Mazworx Manufacturing in Orlando, Florida, believes that "there are more opportunities out there for racing retailers. Only a few sport compact cars have made a name for themselves, but our market is diverse because of the nature of each car." It's not like mainstream drag racing, where nearly every car has V8 power and rear-wheel drive. "We have rotaries, four-cylinders, six-cylinders, front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, and all-wheel drive; plus 'all motor', nitrous, and turbo competitors. And you can mix it up."
Mazurowski does agree that "while the pro-level racing has faded, the grassroots racers keep on growing. Before we were competing in the NHRA Sport Compact Series. Now we are just attending local events." Interestingly, he blames part of the change on the Internet: "Most people won't travel 100 miles to see a race when they can see it almost live on their home computer. And now there are forums for each brand of car."
"Events run by sanctioning bodies have significantly decreased," Carey added, "while those that have been organized by industry-leading retailers and manufacturers tend to be the most popular."
BOTI's 2009 schedule comprises six events, ranging geographically from Orlando, Florida, to Portland, Oregon. And when we spoke with Frank Choi, he told us that BOTI has "worked closely with many race tracks across the country, helping them to cater to sport compacts through their local test-and-tune. Some of these tracks have even created their own series, catering to their local markets. Typical car counts can average 100 to 150 cars at a test-and-tune and can reach 250-plus at a BOTI national event.
Siu reported "close to 200 race cars and over 50 pro cars at our events at Palm Beach International Raceway (PBIR)." Contrary to what some others told us, Siu believes that derivative activities such as drifting, Time Attack, and even import car shows have expanded the whole import-industry pie, as opposed to slicing it up thinner. "The NSCRA will always focus on drag racing as our foundation, but that doesn't mean we won't support other forms of motorsport. Hot Import Nights have seen great success, pulling well over 10,000 spectators and hundreds of cars. Redline Time Attack has been surging all over the country, and there's no denying the success that Formula Drift has brought to our industry as a whole. At our July 5 event last year at PBIR, the road course was filled with Time Attack and drift-car exhibitions between rounds of drag racing. We would like to offer a one-stop location for all motorsport activities in a family-friendly atmosphere. And establishing ourselves at a world-class facility such as PBIR helps legitimize everything we do."
BIR ran its first sport compact event, the Modern Automotive Performance Sport Compact Proving Ground, in July of 2009. "We had a combination of drag racing, drifting, and autocross," said Johnson. "We had fewer than 100 cars in the drag racing portion, but most were entirely new to our track. And we plan to have the event again this year."
Which leads us to an interesting observation by Wallace: "At events where we have show, drift, and drag all in the same place, 10 times as many people watch the drag racing as watch drifting." Car counts at Import Face-Off drag races range from 70 to 200, with 100 being "typical"; plus 150- to 300-plus show cars. "And our spectator counts range from 900–in the rain–to 3800." Few local events, he said, draw as many cars as touring shows such as the Face-Off–with the exception of the NSCRA events at PBIR, and the New Jersey shows at Atco and Raceway Park.
"The events, like the cars, change and evolve to follow the trends set by each generation that gets involved," Yim observed. "Unlike, say, the Hot Rod Power Tour or the various events promoted by Goodguys, the age demographic for sport compact and tuner events stays fairly young–between 16 and 28. So the events must change as the people in this demographic change."
And that can present a challenge to traditional promoters who have grown accustomed to a different way of doing things. "You have to live and breathe the import lifestyle," commented Glenn Menard, of the Texas Motorplex in Ennis, Texas. "The shops, the street racing, the branding. They are not traditional race track goers; and those of us in race track management, we don't come from their world. We're old hot rodders. The promoters who are successful are tuned into that world"–or at least have a staff member who is.
Johnson sees a challenge at the retail level: "Many sport compact racers don't initially trust traditional speed shops–and many traditional speed shops don't understand sport compact racers. But once a level of trust is established, business takes off through word of mouth."
Even then, however, these racers' budgets can be an issue. "From a business-opportunity standpoint," Ferrara observed, "the import drag racing market is a tough one. The majority of competitors still race Honda platforms–Civics from 1992-2000 are the hands-down favorites–mostly powered by turbocharged B-series engines. There's also a decent showing of Mitsubishi 4G63s and Toyota Supras, but it's the Honda racers who purchase most of the parts, and they have limited budgets. Of course, they always need race gas, tires, and clutches."
"It's obvious that Hondas and Acuras are presently the staple of sport compact drag racing," Choi agreed; however, "the target demographic possesses a discretionary income–and they will spend money."
Yim confirmed that "Hondas continue to dominate at the grassroots level, due to the parts available and the costs associated. Honda Civics with K20A engine swaps are popular–although we still see Supras and RX-7s running, with incredibly fast times."
"Each class has its own niche cars," Siu confirmed. "Hondas and Acuras have always been fan favorites, given the technology of the B-series and K-series engines. But Scion has really stepped up to the plate, and of course, the Toyota Supra's 2JZ engine has become world famous for high horsepower. At any given NSCRA event you can see everything from new-age piston technology to old-school rotaries. We have such a unique blend that we can't really say which is the most popular car."
Even a Honda B16 or B18 with a bolt-on turbo kit will produce "anywhere from 300 to over 1000 horsepower," said Ferrara, adding that those who can afford them also invest in "engine management systems, fuel system upgrades, engine internals, aftermarket axles, clutches, wheels, and tires. But everyone just tries to go as fast as they can with what they have, then upgrade what breaks as they turn up the boost, or swap to a larger turbocharger."
According to Wallace, however, most racers "start with the typical bolt-ons–intakes, headers, exhaust–then go to forced induction, mostly turbos."
"You can pick up easy horsepower by just upgrading the exhaust," Trimp agreed. "Next is the intake, and some drivers will then opt for a nitrous oxide system for another easy power pickup."
"It's Honda Civics and Accords, all-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer Evolutions, all-wheel-drive Subaru WRXs, and rear-drive Toyota Supras," Johnson added. "Intake and exhaust changes make the car sound better as it goes by. A body kit makes it stand out from the crowd–and then they go back into the engine for more power. The standard hot rod tricks still work, getting the air in and out of the engine easier. Then it gets more expensive, with the next step involving internal engine parts, complete engine swaps, or forced-induction. One of our racers started in high school and made upgrades as he could afford them. So what started out as an all-wheel-drive Eagle Talon that ran 14's is now a rear-drive, fully caged race car that turns 6's at over 200 mph."
So what does it all mean for the future of the sport? "Some people think that sport compact racing was just a fad," said Johnson. "They look at the failure of the NOPI and NHRA series and say that it's dead. But it's not dead; it has just gone back to its roots–that is, street racing, and hanging out at the drive-in on weekends. Sport compact racing never wanted to be a corporate-sponsored event, and its racers are just as happy to fly under the radar of Corporate America–and thus avoid having corporations dictate the rules of their sport. They want their cars to be fast, but still look like cars on the inside. They are the new rebels, the new hot rodders. A lot of them have extremely fast cars that will never see a sanctioned drag strip–and they are okay with that. We've seen cars that look fairly plain, and that were sufficiently streetable that they were driven over 100 miles to our event. Then they rip off a low-10-second pass–and we have to send them home, because they don't have any of the NHRA-required safety gear to run that fast. They just wanted to 'see what she'll do', then it's back to the streets. Sound familiar?"
"There are plenty of business opportunities on the retail side within the sport compact industry and I would like to dispel any notions that sport compact racing is just a 'fad,'" Choi said. "We have seen many series and promoters come and go, which has caused a lot of negativity toward our industry. But a great person once told me, 'I know who you are and what you have done. I think it's fantastic. If you want to continue doing it, never forget the grassroots racers.'
"That person was Wally Parks," he concluded.