As part of his responsibilities as NHRA’s Vice-President Track Management & Operations, Kasey Coler oversees the NHRA-owned and operated facilities in Indianapolis, Gainesville, and Atlanta. While they are primarily known for their NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series national events, Coler has helped to expand their schedules to include a wide-ranging schedule of events that include the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series, NMRA and NMCA muscle car races, NHDRA motorcycle events, and the Ultimate Call Out Challenge Diesel festival, just to name a few. In 2019, Lucas Oil Raceway Indianapolis will feature 165-days of on-track activities while Gainesville Raceway and Atlanta Dragway are each expected to have nearly 100 days of racing apiece.
When Coler talks about NHRA’s “Speed for All” initiative, he takes it seriously and to that end, he’s worked to develop a wide range of programs and events that suit racers from every skill level first-time amateur drivers to Mello Yello series pros. Street car events, Jr. Dragster races, Pro Mod exhibitions. In short, Coler has an interest in any program that has the potential to expose the sport to new fans and to keep current fans coming back for more. In this NHRA.com interview, Coler addresses a wide variety of topics related to NHRA-owned facilities.
As we hit the halfway mark, how has the 2019 season been so far?
So far, we’re off to a great start at all three facilities. We celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals with a huge event in Gainesville and we just came off a successful Arby’s Southern Nationals in Atlanta. We start a little later in Indy, but our first event of the season was a Wild Wednesday test session that attracted a record 212 cars, which is about max capacity. We also had 1,000 people in the stands which is awesome for a midweek event. We have a similar program in Gainesville called Midnight Madness that is also off to a great start.
Last weekend, the Division 3 Lucas Oil Series race held here at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indy had more than 700 entries. I believe that is a record for this event, and it would make it one of the largest divisional races that has been held anywhere.
On the topic of Wild Wednesday’s, they are particularly interesting as mid-week events, and their ability to attract new racers. How have you developed them?
From an NHRA perspective, in Atlanta, Indy and Gainesville, we’ve seen continued growth in our midweek programs. Those are the ones that fall under the umbrella of test and tunes but mostly it’s guys and girls off the street with factory production cars. Those are the people that are coming out here. For a lot of them, it’s their first time on a dragstrip so maybe they’re not as interested in going head to head, but just want to see what their car can do. We’ve seen a lot of growth in that area, especially in the 18-24 age group. We get a lot of college kids and I think that’s a result of our interaction with local universities where we try to reach out to local kids. It destroys the narrative that kids don’t want to drive anymore. Based on what we’ve seen that’s not true at all. It's very encouraging to see how many first-time racers we have, and of course, out goal is for them to have an enjoyable experience so they return.
We are also just launching our Jr. Street program here. We might be a little late to the table, but we have a lot of Junior kids that are 14 or 15 and at that age, it doesn’t make much sense for the parents to invest in a Jr. Dragster, but they can use family vehicle. That’s been eye-opening for us. We’re starting to see some of those younger folks that are hopefully going to turn into participants for Wild Wednesday or even get into the bracket racing side.
Given the climate in the Midwest, you’ve only got six months to race in Indy, so you have to pack a lot of into that time frame?
We do have to make the most of our good weekends, which is why we look very carefully at the calendar every year and try to maximize our available time. Obviously, our signature event, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, will always be held on Labor Day weekend but we’ve shuffled dates around on other races including our Division 3 Lucas Oil Series event, which was held July 4 weekend, and as I mentioned earlier, it was very strong. It’s always very difficult to predict weather but we used to have a lot of problems with rain when we had that event early in the season. Now, it seems to work better as a summer event. The end result is that we’ll have 165 days of activity here. It may be a SWAT team using a lot for training or pro testing or a bracket race. We also have a bicycle race that begins and ends here and a pair of 5k running events.
Given its long history, Lucas Oil Raceway is a very special place . Everyone wants to race at Indy so it stands to reason that’s very useful as a marketing tool?
Absolutely. We’re here every day so it might not be as apparent to us, but we see it all the time with people who come to visit. We’ve had racers come to non-NHRA events like the PDRA or NMCA and many of them are thrilled just to be making runs at a track that has been home to so much history over the years. It’s always great to see them taking photos on the starting line after the race or under the famous crossover bridge.
As for Gainesville Raceway and Atlanta Dragway, two more NHRA-owned facilities. Can you shed a little light on some of the things happening there?
As you know, we had the 50th annual Amalie Gatornationals in Gainesville back in March and it was one of the most successful events in NHRA’s long history. It was also a great event because we were able to complete a long-overdue repaving of the entire track surface just before the event. We’ve been trying to share ideas between the three properties such as the streetcar programs have been extremely popular. In Gainesville we had our 352 Shootout that continues to grow every year. We’ve also got the NHDRO series and the Diesel racing series going to Gainesville for the first time. It’s been a big help to have all three of the NHRA tracks working together.
In Atlanta, we've also got a very ambitious schedule that includes a variety of events including Fast Friday street legal races, Summit E.T. Racing series events, the NMRA/NMCA series, and even swap meets. Of course, its' also the longtime home of the Arby's Southern Nationals, which was held in May.
What are some of the upgrades that have taken place at all three facilities?
Prior to the 50th Gatornationals we made a major investment in a new track surface in Gainesville and it paid off with record times and speeds. That also helps from a business perspective, especially when we deal with a third party [track rental]. We’ve seen an example of that with the NHDRO bike series. They’re excited to go out and try to break their own records. The same applies to Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School. The new surface makes it much easier for him to run his program and get new drivers licensed. We also ground the Atlanta track ahead of the Arby’s Southern Nationals and that helped contribute to a solid event.
We are excited for continued growth at Lucas Oil Raceway as it relates to the enhancement of the facility as well as continuing to develop our ingress and egress operations. Not only is some of this work being done directly at the facility, but also in the community by the Town of Brownsburg, and the State of Indiana as they continue to invest in motorsports and the surrounding areas.
What else is in the works that NHRA fans should know about?
We have a number of things in the early planning stages but one project that I’m really excited about is our goal to have a live stream for all our activity at Indy, Atlanta, and Gainesville. We’re currently working through some of the technical issues and working with Warren Evans of DragRacer.TV to make it happen and we hope to roll it out before the end of the year. That’s something that is long overdue for all tracks and can really go a long way towards exposing the sport to a broader audience and cultivating new fans. We've already seen how effective live streaming can be with NHRA.TV at Mello Yello Series races and DragRacer.tv at Lucas Oil Series races. I think you'll see that technology continue to grow and improve, and to spread to other events.