My Thoughts on WWE’s Failed NHRA Venture

By David G. Firestone

Going in a bit of a different direction this week. I watch a WWE-themed video series from What Culture. One of their recent videos was titled “10 Times WWE Threw Their Money Down The Drain.” There are more examples, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an example that needs to be discussed.

A lot of racing fans and a lot of WWE fans probably didn’t know that from 1999 to 2001 WWE sponsored two NHRA funny cars, one driven by Jerry Tolliver and one driven by Jim Epler. When it comes to WWE messing up opportunities to make money and promote their brand, if they can screw it up, they will. Their NHRA sponsorship was no different. This was doomed from day one for a number of reasons, which we will go through.

The first major reason is timing. Yes there was an auto racing boom in the mid 1990’s. TV deals expanded, viewership went up, sponsorship money was great. By 1999, the teams needed more and more money from sponsors. Sponsors were also getting annoyed when they sponsored a mediocre driver, who didn’t get much camera time. Granted, the WWE didn’t start sponsoring the team until 1999 because of budget issues, but it was so badly timed I can’t rationalize the decision.

The second major reason is their choice of racing, the NHRA. Anyone who knows me, and anyone who reads The Driver Suit Blog knows that I LOVE the NHRA and I love drag racing. That being said, I’m not so dumb that I think the NHRA is the best, or most popular sanctioning body in auto racing. NHRA drag racing has always been low on the totem pole of American auto racing. Their television contracts have been mediocre, they don’t get much mainstream press, their viewership ratings have never been great, and they aren’t the alpha dog in auto racing.

For those reasons, it’s perplexing that the WWE would choose the NHRA over NASCAR. NASCAR is the alpha dog of American auto racing, especially when it comes to viewership. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m willing to bet that one Sprint Cup car costs a whole lot less that two funny cars. NASCAR would have also been a better decision because WCW had sponsored cars for years, and it would have been a good competition, I’ll get to that a little later. Keep in mind that this is 1999, and while the Monday Night Wars were more or less won, they were still going on. This would have been a great to keep the competition going on, and promote the brand, again, I’ll get to that a little later.

The third major reason is that the WWE chose to sponsor two funny cars. Now this could go either way, it could be rationalized that the category is one of the most popular, and the most visible in drag racing. I can’t disagree with that logic, since it is the case. But when it comes to Epler and Tolliver, there was a major Force preventing them from having any real success, a John Force, that is. This took place in 1999 to 2001, when Force was at the height of his dominance. Keep in mind that from 1990 to 2004, there was only one funny car championship Force was not involved in, and that was Cruz Pedregon in 1992. 2004 saw Force’s teammate Tony Pedregon winning the championship. Force was unstoppable. Anyone racing in funny car at that time was chasing John Force with little success. While Epler and Tolliver had wins, they weren’t able to stop Force.

While we’re on the subject of drivers, let me add the fourth major reason, the choice of drivers. Compared to John Force, most drivers were mediocre at that time, but I would have aimed a little higher than Jim Epler and Jerry Tolliver. They aren’t bad drivers, but they aren’t close to John Force in terms of talent and wins. While they did win in their Camaros, which at that time was Chevy’s funny car program on life support, they couldn’t match John Force. So the WWE is pumping money into a racing program that can’t live up to the hype, no matter how hard they tried.

The fifth major reason this was a horrible decision is because of promotion…or lack therof. As I said above, WCW sponsored NASCAR for a number of years. While many racing fans hated it, it was a brilliant move. WCW promoted their cars, used the drivers in angles, worked the nWo angle into the racing, and at one point even had wrestlers on their pit crews. So you would think that WWE would promote their funny cars similarly…right? Most wrestling fans who read this would not have known that the WWE even got involved with the NHRA, since WWE never mentioned the funny car sponsorship at all. They didn’t mention it on television, or on their website. Their talent appeared on the sides of the cars, but were never seen at the track. While they used their cars to promote the XFL, which had even less of a fan base than WCW in 2001, they never promoted their own racing team.

As merchandise is a big part of WWE’s business plan, you would think that WWE would use merchandise to help promote their brand, and again you’d be wrong. While the merch trailer was always at the track, racing merch was never to be seen on the WWE shop on their website. I can’t understand how WWE seemingly went out of their way to not promote their racing. It’s mind boggling. Again, this isn’t a cheap venture, this was costing them millions of dollars. Why they didn’t at least mention it on TV, or have a wrestler at the track, or promote it in any way is baffling.

CM Punk said it best: “Vince McMahon is a millionare who should be a billionare.” Thanks to the XFL, WWE New York-been there, food wasn’t great, Million Dollar Mania, ECW, Tout, Icopro, the WBF, and a host of other failed ventures, Vince has lost more money than the bottom 100 million Americans will ever see in their lifetime. I’m just going to end it here, because it seems that Vince isn’t a great businessman.

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