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The Topsy-Turvy Tale of IHRA’s Storied Past

Friday, 10 September 2021

It all began with a dream.

When Larry Carrier dreamt up the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he hoped for a sanctioning body that could rival the best in the business. He dreamt of a place where racers and track owners alike could call their own and proudly fly the red, white, and blue colors of a new home for drag racing.

Five decades and millions of tires turned later, the IHRA has carved out a unique niche in the history of the sport and continues to fulfill that dream to this day.
Founded in 1971 by businessman and savvy promoter Carrier, the IHRA has gone through many different iterations in its storied history. Gracing its tracks have been transcendent names such as Don Garlits, John Force, Bob Glidden, and Rickie Smith, offset by the daily blue-collar racer that makes up the organization's bread and butter: Sportsman drag racing.

Since those early days, the IHRA has been defined by a litany of owners, cutting-edge new classes, bold new ventures, and a continued commitment to the grassroots racer that continues to give the organization its own unique corner of the motorsports world.

“The IHRA has always put their emphasis on sportsman racers and our member tracks,” said Skooter Peaco, Vice President of the IHRA. “I’ve been here for seven ownership changes and no matter what that owner’s vision was we were carrying out on the national event level, the sportsman racer was always treated with respect and welcomed with open arms to whatever we were doing. We have done a lot of really awesome events, created classes and programs that have stood the test of time, but having member tracks, sportsman racers and Summit Racing Equipment come back every year because they believe in and want to support what you are doing at the local level is one of the greatest accomplishments we could ask for.”

Peaco is one of the longest-tenured members of the IHRA family, having worn numerous hats during his nearly 20-year career, including Director of Racing Operations, interim President, and currently Vice President of the company. He is joined by a small, but mighty crew and is only surpassed in experience by the single longest-tenured IHRA staffer, Senior Director of Competition and Racing Operations Michael Baker.

Baker began with the company in 1994 as an event official, before becoming full-time in 1997. During his nearly 30 years with the IHRA, he has seen just about everything and is proud of the cutting-edge nature of the IHRA through the years.

“There are way too many moments in the history of the IHRA to narrow down to just one. I have seen our company go through many changes, both internally and with the event format. The one thing that has remained the same is that we have never been afraid to make the changes and remain a viable alternative for our competitors regardless of the class structure,” Baker said. “This is a testament to the staff and employees who have continued to support the company through many changes over the years.”

Any story about the history of the IHRA must begin with the pioneer who started it all. Larry Carrier built and founded Bristol Motor Speedway and, later, Bristol Dragway in the 1960s and used that facility as a launchpad for a new motorsports sanctioning body. And in 1971, the International Hot Rod Association was born.

In the early years, the IHRA largely followed the same formula that had been so successful with its chief rival. Following the NHRA’s blueprint, the IHRA paired regional competitors with the national glamour of the headlining Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock classes at Carrier’s Bristol facility, as well as his other southern track Rockingham Dragway.

In those early days, the IHRA was able to quickly get up to speed and even pull even with the NHRA thanks to Carrier’s visionary leadership. Carrier was the first to attract the eye of major corporations in the sport, bringing R.J. Reynolds’ Winston brand to the IHRA in 1975, helping solidify the fledgling motorsports sanctioning body as a major player on the national scene.

The IHRA carried on largely unchanged for the first two decades of its existence, say for a rotation of classes in and out of its national lineup, and even introducing a few new ones to the fold. Then, in 1987 with R.J. Reynolds exiting the sport, Carrier sold the IHRA to Texas racer and track operator Billy Meyer.
Owner of the crown jewel Texas Motorplex, which briefly served as the headquarters of the IHRA in the late 1980s, Meyer made several changes to the organization, some of which proved controversial. His Texas Motorplex, which had served as a flagship track for the NHRA in the years prior, hosted two IHRA national events that year, but ultimately the season fell flat due to weather and other circumstances.

Due to financial reasons, Meyer’s reign as owner of the IHRA lasted just one season before it was handed over to the racers themselves. From 1989 to 1992, the IHRA was operated by Pro Stock racer Jim Ruth and Ted Jones, a longtime partner of Carrier. Then in 1993, a group of racers which included Carlton Phillips, Jim Yates, Sonny Leonard, Jim Beatty, and Todd Mack, took charge of the organization for a short stint following the death of Ruth.

While the early 1990s were a time of great change and uncertainty for the IHRA, from the ashes of near financial ruin came the birth of arguably one of the most revolutionary and successful drag racing classes in the history of the sport of drag racing – Pro Modified.

Featured on nearly every continent and a staple of dozens of motorsports organizations to this day, Pro Modified quickly became a fan-favorite for its wild rides and unique body styles and remains one of the most popular classes in the world. Born from Quick 8 showdowns and boundary-pushing Top Sportsman racers in the southeast, the first official Pro Modified race took place at the 1990 IHRA Winter Nationals in Darlington, South Carolina, won by South Carolinian Ed Hoover.

And the rest, as they say, is history. IHRA history.

Another short stint in the mid-1990s saw businessman Elton Alderman, President of Prolong Super Lubricants, take ownership of the company for one year before it was ultimately sold to savvy promoter Bill Bader in 1998. Bader moved the IHRA to Norwalk, Ohio, home to his state-of-the-art Summit Motorsports Park, and began to mold the organization once again into a major player on the national scene, once again rivaling its chief competitor for racers, sponsors, and fans.

The events at Bader’s Summit Motorsports Park became the talk of the sport, and many of the largest events in IHRA history took place at the facility.
Bader sold the IHRA in 2001 but would remain at the helm of the organization until his retirement in 2004.

“Our last national event at Norwalk in 2006 was the best and worst race I have ever been a part of. We had 1,002 competitors at that event. Racers had to park outside the facility fence in what is now the spectator parking lot,” Peaco said. “There were over 200 Top Sportsman and Top Dragster competitors trying to make their respective 32-car fields. It was several hundred cars larger than NHRA’s Indy race that season and it was a physical and emotional marathon from the race director’s chair.

“It was the worst event because it was the last event at Norwalk with the Bader family. They were synonymous with IHRA and I have a long personal history with the entire family. Bill Sr. gave me my start at 21 years old doing my Sports Management college internship at the track when there were three people running it. And he is the reason I came to IHRA during his tenure. They have remained like my second family for the last 30 years, but leaving the track for the final time was tough.”

From 2001 to 2015, the IHRA would again go through several ownership changes and, with it, numerous changes to its national touring structure. During that time, the IHRA was sold, splintered off, and operated under the ownership of a number of different companies including Clear Channel, Live Nation, and Feld Entertainment, before IRG Sports + Entertainment took over the mantle in 2015.

The 2000s saw its touring series featured on national television in a variety of different formats, with some version of dozens of professional categories – including Top Fuel, Nitro Funny Car, Alcohol Funny Car, Nostalgia Nitro Funny Car, Pro Stock, Pro Modified, Fuel Altered, Pro Fuel, Nitro Harley, and even Jet Dragsters – making up its brand. The company also experimented with different competitive formats for those classes.

During that time the IHRA also introduced the popular Nitro Jam Drag Racing Series, featuring professional racing coupled with revolutionary entertainment elements such as jet cars, wheelstanders, monster trucks, pyrotechnics, and an interactive pit experience for the fans.

Among its winningest professional drivers, the IHRA counts current Top Fuel star Clay Millican as its greatest champion, along with legends such as Rickie Smith, Scotty Cannon, Mark Thomas, and even the great Don Garlits. In the sportsman ranks, Anthony Bertozzi stands in the same category as Millican as a driver miles ahead of his peers, while others such as Dave Elrod, Mike Boyles, Dan Fletcher, and Dennis Mitchell have racked wins over the years.

“There are a tremendous amount of great drivers in the IHRA’s history,” Baker said. “I would have to say that Anthony Bertozzi, Steve Furr, and Rickie Smith are at or near the top of the list for me. They all seem to be able to adapt to a variety of cars and classes and be successful in all of them.”

Throughout 2021, the IHRA has inducted 10 drivers into its inaugural Hall of Fame, including the aforementioned Bertozzi, Cannon, Millican, Boyles, Thomas, Smith, Mitchell, and Elrod, along with Doug Herbert and Gene Fulton. Non-drivers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame include the founder of the IHRA, Carrier, and the original facility, Bristol Dragway.

“Based on my 18-year frame of reference, Anthony Bertozzi is always my go-to for the question of the greatest driver,” Peaco said. “The man can drive anything at any track and win. If you put him on the track’s lawnmower I would bet on him to win a sportsman class that night. The second one for me would be Dan Fletcher. He is known as the ultimate NHRA sportsman racer with over 100 NHRA wins, but most people don’t know that for a string of years during off weekends he came to a lot of IHRA races. He racked up 21 IHRA national event wins in Stock and Super Stock, putting him in a tie for third all-time.”

Today, under the guidance of the Palm Beach, Florida-based IRG Sports + Entertainment, the IHRA has returned to what has remained its primary strength since 1971 – Sportsman drag racing. The IHRA currently sanctions drag racing facilities in more than half of the United States, as well as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

With the help of longtime partners Summit Racing Equipment, the IHRA currently operates national competitions for racers throughout North America including the Summit SuperSeries – itself celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021 – Summit Team Finals and Sportsman Spectacular events.

“To see the Summit SuperSeries grow and mature into what I feel is the best sportsman program available for local competitors to race to be a world champion in their respective classes is what I am most proud of,” Baker said. “And we will continue to be the best sportsman sanctioning body possible that provides great value to our racers, partners, and sanctioned facilities.”

From the glitz and glamour of the national spotlight to servicing thousands of grassroots racers around the world, the International Hot Rod Association has enjoyed one wild ride over the past half-century.

And from the dreams of a Tennessee businessman who saw a market for a revolutionary new sanctioning body, has come years of ingenuity, record-breaking performance, and thousands of memories that have withstood the test of time and proven one undeniable truth – the IHRA is here to stay.

“At the end of the day, the people that really hold this sport together are the track owners and the sportsman racers that compete every week at their local track. Those are the people who are never in the spotlight, but they are the people that we have always gone to work for,” Peaco said. “Any time in the last 20 years IHRA has tried to be in the national event business, it hurt the company more than it helped. If we are being honest, the national events can go away, the class racing, the outlaw racing, big money bracket races, no prep, all of it can go away and the core of what this sport is at the local, weekly level can still flourish.

“All of the things I mentioned are really cool in their own context, but sometimes they can take more from the sport than they give back. I believe IHRA’s role in the sport should be at the foundational level. NHRA’s attention and efforts are mainly focused on national events and they do a great job with those. They own that space and they spend millions to move our sport forward in the public eye. IHRA’s attention is focused on how to help tracks and sportsman racers create more opportunities and get more people to their local drag strips.

“This kind of work won’t get the spotlight or media attention, but I see it as critically necessary if we want our sport to be around 20 years from now.”

To become a member of the IHRA please call (561) 337-3446 or email [email protected]

Last modified on Friday, 10 September 2021