Online petition challenges NHRA's playoff system

Not everybody likes the new playoff format the NHRA will run with in 2007. Some naysayers have even started an online petition, but there's no way the NHRA changes its mind. In fact, the playoff system could be a boon, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: January 8, 2007, 7:21 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

The NHRA is changing to a playoff-style points format this season, similar to NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup.

It's a good move, but you can't please everybody. Some NHRA fans are fighting mad about it. A petition drive is under way to show NHRA officials how much opposition there is to the playoff system.

Countdown in a nutshell
The NHRA's new playoff system is an elimination process. That's the biggest difference between the Countdown to the Championship and NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup.

It starts with the NHRA's biggest event -- the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend at Indianapolis. In the 18th of 23 annual events, the top eight racers in each pro category will begin competing for the championship.

It means the 17th event, the Toyo Tires NHRA Nationals at Reading, Pa., on Aug. 16-19, is the last chance to make it to the playoffs.

Starting at Indy, the standings are reset, with points awarded in 10-point intervals from the first- to last-place finishers for the eight contenders in each class: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle.

Indy begins the Countdown to Four over the next four events. The drivers who rank in the top four in each class after the Richmond race on Oct. 7 will compete for the title in the last two events: Las Vegas and Pomona, Calif.

Points are reset again at Las Vegas with a 10-point margin between the four competitors in each category.

"The one thing most of the drivers wanted was to keep the top eight in it until the end,'' said six-time NHRA champion Kenny Bernstein. "No one was complaining about going to the top-eight playoff. But a lot of teams and crew chiefs don't like cutting it down to four in the last two races.

"It's a brutal way to end it, but this always has been a brutal sport. You line up at 23 events and can lose in the first round each time."

-- Terry Blount

"There is a large and growing group of fans who are strongly against such a system," wrote PJ Sapienza, who started the petition. "The goal is to gather signatures and deliver them to the NHRA and POWERade [the NHRA's title sponsor for the professional classes].

"We hope this will impress upon [them] our dislike of the playoff. We hope they will listen and reverse this unwise decision."

Sorry PJ. That's not happening.

"You can't fault the passion of our fans," said Jerry Archambeault, NHRA vice president of public relations. "But we feel it's going to be exciting by providing more opportunities for more racers.

"And it's going to bring more awareness to the NHRA. This is a great example. You're writing a story on the NHRA in January. People are talking about it. And we believe this will create a buzz at the end of the season."

Sapienza respectfully disagrees. The 31-year-old Brighton, Mich., resident said he is a lifelong drag racing fan.

"I was at the U.S. Nationals [at Indianapolis] when this was announced," he said. "The initial reaction was very negative. I thought about starting a petition then, but I didn't want a knee-jerk reaction. I wanted it to sink in."

More than 1,200 people have signed it as of Friday. Many of them added a short comment to illustrate how they feel.

"Leave it alone," wrote Bobby Jackson of Texarkana, Ark. "Quit trying to be NASCAR."

Fans wanting to sign the petition can do so at www.petitiononline.com/nhra/petition.html.

Sapienza e-mailed me the petition, hoping I would support their cause. I'm more than happy to list his views, but I don't agree. The petition lists six specific points:

"(1) Every [NHRA] National event is a playoff by design. It is a true win or go home scenario."

Good point, but if someone has a 300-point lead with two races to go, the championship is over.

"(2) In a true playoff, non-playoff teams do not compete at the same time and against playoff teams."

Why does that matter?

"(3) NASCAR has had a similar system with less than stellar results. After an initial surge the first season, their TV ratings have dropped, especially during their playoff races. NHRA can not survive that type of ratings decline."

Not true. The TV ratings were down this year for most Cup events, but the overall ratings for Chase races are up.

"(4) This season saw the most amazing comeback ever in Top Fuel. Last season we saw a three-way battle for Funny Car. To create a welfare points system with forced drama and fake excitement takes away from the sport. If every year comes down to the same thing then it loses any meaning and feeling."

Coming down to a close championship battle at the end never gets old.

"(5) Fans want to know that their championships are real and earned throughout a season-long effort. Under the new system a racer who has a few good races at the end of the season could win a championship."

True, but every major sport, except college football, has a playoff because it adds interest, excitement, and more importantly, money.

"(6) Currently, the entire season means something, every race, every round, every qualifying position. Under the new system, with losing records being able to get in, only the last six races mean anything now."

"If you look back, you'll see that most of the time throughout history, the championship was decided long before the last event."
-- Kenny Bernstein

Not true. The regular season has more meaning because you have to push hard to stay in the top eight.

Most NHRA drivers are keeping an open mind on the change. NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein, who is coming out of retirement this year to race in Funny Car, supports the NHRA's playoff format.

"In reality, I don't think it will change much," Bernstein said. "Tony Schumacher still would have won the Top Fuel title [in 2006] under the new format."

The way Schumacher won it is one reason the petition signers don't want a new format. Schumacher made a dramatic comeback down the stretch to edge Doug Kalitta in the final event. And Schumacher had to set a national record to do it.

In 2005, three Funny Car drivers battled for the title in the final race. Gary Scelzi won it by eight points over Ron Capps.

"Granted, those were exciting," Bernstein said. "The NHRA is trying to guarantee that happens every year. Those are exceptions to the rule. If you look back, you'll see that most of the time throughout history, the championship was decided long before the last event."

The three seasons before 2006, the Top Fuel champ won by at least 300 points.

Bernstein said some NHRA drivers, crew chiefs and team owners agree with the petitioners and think the NHRA is making a mistake.

"I know [team owner] Connie Kalitta is upside down about it," Bernstein said.

Many Nextel Cup drivers and team owners were adamantly against the Chase when it was announced, but the vast majority support it now and see the merit of it.

If the Chase was a mistake, why are there sports leagues doing it? The PGA also will implement a Chase-type points system this year.

This was a good move for NASCAR, but it's a better one for the NHRA. Nextel Cup was the top dog in racing before the Chase. The NHRA isn't, so it can benefit more from the added attention in its fall events.

It's the right thing for a league wanting to reach into the sports mainstream.

"Every other sport does this," Archambeault said. "If you don't think they should, then just give San Diego the Super Bowl trophy now and forget the NFL playoffs."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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