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The new National DRAGSTER, Phase 1: In living color

13 Oct 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

You would have thought it was Christmas around the National DRAGSTER office yesterday when the week's new issue arrived from the printer. Staffers were running around to one another's offices and cubicles like little kids with a new present.

The cause of celebration is the new-look National DRAGSTER that rolled off the presses this weekend at Conley Publishing in good ol' Beaver Dam, Wis.

I'll admit, after seeing more than 1,300 issues go to print, I might be a bit more jaded than the average staffer or reader. By the time each new issue lands on my desk each Monday, I'm more than intimately familiar with its contents, having been a major part of the planning and proofreading of most of the editorial pages. When the new issue arrives, I usually skim through it to see how some features actually look once they're printed, then I'll size up the overall presentation of the issue, then file it in my bookshelf.

But this one … this one had me – and everyone else -- on pins and needles.

Externally, you might not notice the difference unless you had last week's issue in your hands; it's about an inch shorter and an inch less across the striking image of Memphis Funny Car winner Jeff Arend's burnout and the photo of him and team owner Connie Kalitta celebrating what truly will be remembered as one of this year's most memorable moments.

But, like most things in life, it's what's inside that counts. For the first time in 50 years – we're talking 2,340 issues -- the entire inside of the magazine is not only presented on glossy, magazine-like stock, but it's full color throughout. It's a milestone day for our publication.

NHRA national event Sportsman coverage ... in living color. [View PDF]
Even the Summit Series E.T. Finals are in color! [View PDF]

Yep, that's right. Sportsman stories from the national events? In glorious color! Summit Series Finals coverage? Yep. Member-track stories? You bet. Even the back-page column – by me this week – has a color headshot now. As we opened our issues for the first time, we each seemed to race to different sections and were yelling out and holding open our magazines to different pages … "Hey, look at this. Awesome!"

You might ask what the big deal is; most car magazines have been full color for years. Sure, but National DRAGSTER is not some monthly magazine that comes to you two to three months after it's printed -- that's no knock on those glossy print publications; just the way that business is – it's your weekly guide to your favorite sport.

No one – either in print or on the Internet – shows the love to the NHRA Sportsman racer the way National DRAGSTER does, and we're proud of that. Ask any of our writers, and they'll tell you that their post-event interviews with the Sportsman winners are often the highlight of their weeks. And now to be able to tell their stories and show off their cars in color is a huge home run for us.

Pro coverage, too, which was trimmed back earlier this year to a mix of color and black and white, has returned to its full glory. Even the Joni's Race Shop and Performance Directory ads are now full-color capable!

I've seen a lot of iterations of National DRAGSTER in my 27 years on the staff, 23 of them with me at the top of the masthead, and a lot of improvements, but I have to say that this week's issue has everyone on the staff all revved up – and it's just the beginning.

We'll finish the publishing year – nine more issues – at this size and with the features already in place, then we'll get hard to work not only redesigning the look inside but also in many ways reinventing National DRAGSTER and launching it as an exciting – and in some ways different – magazine in 2010. It's what we need to do and what you deserve.

It's no secret that print publications are struggling in this economy as advertisers and circulation drop off, and it's also no secret that through-the-mail publications such as ours no longer can be on the cutting edge of news the way that television and the Internet can be. By the time that National DRAGSTER is produced and delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, a week or more may have elapsed since the event was held or the story written. Today, that's not good enough. By then, you've seen the race on TV or read the news on NHRA.com.

For the last several months, the leaders of the individual National DRAGSTER departments have been meeting to help create the road map, following tried-and-true business methods. We painstakingly (and, in some cases, painfully) created a SWOT analysis, honestly and openly chronicling our Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats (no, it did not involve uniformed men with silenced MP5s breaching the conference-room door, and no flashbangs were used in this exercise ... pity). We crafted a new mission statement and new goals and action items.

One of the clear things to come out of all of this was the need to change the way we do something. Because we already have a breaking-news vehicle – this Web site – to deliver important, accurate, interesting, and timely information to the NHRA membership, NHRA fans, and NHRA's other customers, there's no need for National DRAGSTER to compete with it as it has, on occasion, since its launch in 1995.

Everything you've come to enjoy and expect in National DRAGSTER will still be there -- behind-the-scenes coverage and awesome photos from the NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series national events, in-depth interviews with the stars of our sport, tech, Lucas Oil and local track results, and all of your favorite columns – but we plan to make some changes – some subtle, some not-so subtle – to the way they're presented.

I don’t have a lot of details to share right now, just a million ideas running around my head that we'll put to paper in the coming weeks. I do know that I want to complete National DRAGSTER's metamorphosis from a newspaper to a magazine while having the best that both formats have to offer. What I think that means is more feature material, more thought-provoking stories, and more special features and regular columns. This column eventually probably will become part of that mix; it also will remain online, but I'm not sure in what form.

We have some very talented writers on our staff, each with his or her own style, and I plan not only to give them the freedom to use that voice in National DRAGSTER, but also plan to encourage it. I think we'll get a very interesting publication, written by people who know and love drag racing as much as anyone on this planet.

It would certainly be easier to keep doing what National DRAGSTER has done so well in the last 50 years, but what we want to create is not just a publication that you receive for being an NHRA member, but a publication that you want, period.

Sure, there will be growing pains as we stretch our editorial legs, and there may be tweaks and tune-ups along the way. I'm as excited as I am nervous about the changes, but I know full well that the time is now for National DRAGSTER to in many ways reinvent itself and reinvigorate its current and potential future audiences. A lot of exciting things are coming down the road that I hope will encourage current members to stay with us, former subscribers to give us another fresh look, and new readers to hop on the bandwagon.

As is always my style, whether online or in print, I would love to hear from all three types of readers. If you’re with us now, what do you like or dislike; what do we need more or less of? If you're looking at rejoining us, what made you stop reading us, and what kinds of things will bring you back? If you've never subscribed to National DRAGSTER and have been looking for the right reason, tell me what things will get you over the hump on that decision.

Senior Editor Kevin McKenna and I attended the memorial service for Shaun Carlson yesterday in nearby Chino. It was held at Shaun's regular place of worship and drew several hundred people whom he had touched in some way in his short 35 years.

There were a ton of his fellow former NHRA sport compact friends, his new drifting pals, and people for whom he had done work over the years. It was a great ceremony, filled with music – sung by his aunts and his two adorable nieces – poetry, and heartfelt remembrances.

His brother Trevor chronicled Shaun's life from start to finish, talking about how when Shaun got into Freestyle MX, he didn’t just go buy a bicycle like everyone else, he built his own (much to the detriment of Trevor's bike, which "donated" some parts). Same thing for skateboards. All of that eventually moved into mechanized mayhem, and the Carlson family garage quickly became "Shaun's shop" and a 24/7 hangout for some of the most car-crazy kids in the region. Tales were told about spare body parts cluttering the family living room, cars being painted in the backyard, and much more.

Many people spoke, including fellow racer John Mihovetz, for whom Carlson had fabricated a special manifold that helped his turbocharged Cougar crack the six-second and 200-mph barriers, and the guy known to most simply as Chip, who ran the NuFormz fabrication business with Carlson.

What came out through all of their words was Shaun's dedication to hard work and perfection in everything he did. No project was too tough, no deadline too tight, nothing impossible. He was a guy who would give anything to anyone, would help anyone, and was loved by everyone. As Kevin said to me on the ride home, spookily reading my mind, "Man, I wish I had known him better."

The service (which was followed by a reception at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by Automobile Club of Southern California) concluded with a touching moment and the release of several white doves by family members. Sport compact racer Abel Ibarra – one of the first guys to befriend me and teach me the ropes and the players when I started covering the class for National DRAGSTER in 2001 – raises roller pigeons for relaxation and through a buddy got the doves to bring to the service. I watched Shaun's family cradle the doves lovingly, even planting small kisses on their heads, before releasing them to the skies. It was pretty special.