Q And A
With Turbo magazine's 15th anniversary still in full swing, we are introducing a back-page feature dubbed "Backpressure," where we look back at a past issue of Turbo. This page will run until next July when we enter our 16th year of publication. Looking back at the history of the magazine in the last few months, we realized that the Battle of the Imports is also celebrating a substantial anniversary-10 years. That's right, Frank Choi and the International Drag Race Association have been leading imports to the burnout box for an entire decade. To mark the occasion, I sat down with Frank for a quick Q&A and would like to share the interview in this month's column. Q
Turbo: The first Battle was held July 8, 1990 right?
Turbo: Do you remember the numbers as far as spectators and cars?
Frank: Yes, we had 60 cars and right around 500 people.
Turbo: What was your mindset going into the race?
Frank: It was more of a personal thing at first. I personally had been denied participation at a race because it was an all-domestic event and I had an import back then. So I had a meeting with officials at the track to see if I could rent the track and put on an event specifically for imports. I wanted the satisfaction of turning away a V8. Which I did, two or three times that first race.
Turbo: After an event with 60 cars and 500 people, what was your mindset then?Frank: It was a relief that the event went off as smoothly as it did. That event started at 11 a.m. and was over by 2:30 p.m., so we were only racing for three or four hours. That was pushing it, because we gave the guys unlimited runs. Out of the 60 cars, I probably knew 40 of them from the local street races. Out of the 500 people, I probably knew more than half of them because they were all friends of the racers. So I really didn't make any money, it was sort of like a gathering of friends-like having a weekend barbecue.
Turbo: What has changed since the beginning?
Frank: Back then, out of the 60 cars, there might have only been four front-wheel drives. The majority of the cars were pre-1985; they were either all rotaries or Datsun/Nissan L-Series-powered cars. If you look at it today, it's practically 99.9-percent front drive.
Turbo: What have been some of the constants throughout the years?
Frank: Probably the age of the people. It seems that when I look back over the last 10 years, the only thing that's really gotten older is me. Other than that, the attitude and dedication to working hard and trying to win has pretty much stayed constant.
Turbo: What was the biggest event you ever had at Palmdale?
Frank: March 1995, the last of the single-day events. That race basically forced us to go to a two-day format. We had 800 cars and attendance close to 15,000. In fact, we had to turn people away because of the Fire Department regulations.
Turbo: Battle went national last season, correct?
Turbo: What were the venues?
Frank: We had two East Coast events, one at Virginia Motorsports Park and one at Route 66 in Joliet, Ill-along with our regular Palmdale dates.
Turbo: What about 2000?
Frank: Well, we have those two venues and we have added Atco, N.J.
Turbo: Which venue has the biggest turnout?
Frank: Last year, it was definitely Route 66. There are many contributing factors but I think the main one is the facilities. It's a $24 million racetrack, a multi-faceted venue. It's brand-new. That Midwest area is a thriving market, but no one had the confidence to put on an import event. Prior to our Route 66 race, there was one other import race at that track. It was an event we were supposed to do, but weren't given enough time to put it together right. So we waited for the following year. But that market is big, so we took a chance and the first time we went out there, it was successful.
Turbo: What are the differences between an East Coast racer and a West Coast racer?
Frank: Well, I think the West Coast racers are the ones who try many different combinations. I mean these guys are the pioneers of performance. They are the ones trying different engine combinations, bigger turbos, using exotic materials and so on.
Turbo: Like wheelie bars on a front-drive?
Frank: Exactly. Granted, having the media and many of the manufacturers located on the West Coast helps. I mean once something works and it's in print, it helps others, whether on the West Coast, East Coast or in the Midwest. I think the East Coast is a huge market, with its own set of pioneers that are both creative and successful. There are a lot more rear-drives on the East Coast, but by the same token, front drives are really taking off.
Turbo: It's a new millennium. Where do you see the Battle series going from here?
Frank: For 2000, we want a successful series of events. We want to add a few venues for 2001, and hopefully be able to maintain our status as a leader. We have our rulebook, which we have yet to print, but it is the only one approved by the SFI Foundation. We also want to concentrate on having some of the outside industry people take on a more active role rather than a passive role in the scene. I think the participation within this industry itself is nearly tapped out. We are saturated. Everyone is looking within this industry for some kind of sponsorship and the manufacturers are getting overwhelmed. In order for the sport to advance, we need to look outside the scene. We are hoping that by this year's SEMA Show, we will have a big supporting sponsor that is outside this industry; hopefully that sponsor will lead to others outside the scene.
Turbo: How many events do you see the IDRA having in the coming years? Do you put a lid on the number?
Frank: I would for right now, because I don't think this industry is ready for a schedule that consists of more than 8 or 9 events. One of the things many people fail to realize is that a majority of our pro racers still have day jobs. It is still just a "hobby." Unlike the Kubos, who go at it full time, you have the Bergenholtzes and others who have jobs elsewhere and race on the side. So if you have an event schedule of more than 8 or 9 events, racers will get picky and choosy about which ones they attend.
Turbo: The fact that other race organizations are also out there makes that decision all the more difficult.
Turbo: What can be done on the grassroots level to catapult the import drag race scene to the next level?
Frank: I think it has the potential to move into the mainstream. If we were to get outside support, say from Pepsi, Coke, Gatorade or the like, it would be on its way because those types of companies have appeal and financial force. So for right now, we are stuck in our own niche market and the existing supporters and sponsors are doing a great job; the scene looks healthy for the foreseeable future. Within the next 3 to 5 years that jump could happen.
Turbo: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Frank: I would think in 5 years we'd have a full schedule. We'll definitely have a TV package consisting of all our events. I see us offering incredible purses and a points system. I think in 5 years, the industry will be strong enough that if you offer a season points system, the racers would be able to commit. I know there are points systems now, but it's my personal opinion that the racers just aren't ready for it. I mean they can hit just the local events and rack up some points and maybe hit one East Coast event. The East Coast guys can do the same. At the end, what are you left with? A possible tie? Of the 30 or 40 pro cars out there, maybe a dozen are in a position to compete in a points race.
Turbo: As far as race promoters go, is there going to be a thinning of the herd? Where is the saturation point?
Frank: The way I look at it, only time will tell. A lot have come and a lot have gone. They are out there for a reason. We concentrate on doing our own thing, we have our own sponsors to make happy. We have our own audience to take care of. This is our 10th year doing this and we have done plenty right to weather out the storms at the beginning and we have paid our dues. Time will tell and time is on our side.