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Influential team owner thinks hot rod group should move HQ from California to Brownsburg

September 26, 2009

A meeting between high-level National Hot Rod Association executives—including NHRA President Tom Compton—and Gov. Mitch Daniels and members of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. has fueled speculation that the drag racing group might be looking to significantly expand its presence here.

Officials with the Governor’s Office and IEDC confirmed the meeting. IEDC officials wouldn’t divulge what was discussed. A representative for Daniels said the governor met with NHRA officials just before the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in early September because he “wanted to express his appreciation to the organization for its many years in Indiana.”

More than 25 NHRA teams have their headquarters in Brownsburg, and John Force, a team owner who operates a 160,000-square-foot shop and retail outlet just west of Indianapolis, said NHRA officials should consider moving their headquarters here from Glendora, Calif., near where the sport was born in the early 1960s.

NHRA, which has more than 200 employees—most of them in Glendora, near Los Angeles—already has an office at O’Reilly Raceway Park due to Indianapolis’ central location and proximity to race-related businesses.

NHRA officials were tight-lipped about their meeting with the governor and denied there is a move to bring the headquarters here anytime soon.

But that doesn’t mean momentum isn’t building.

Force

“Business-wise, bringing the NHRA headquarters to central Indiana makes all the sense in the world,” Force said. “I, personally, think it’s time to take a serious look at it.”

Jerry Archambeault, NHRA vice president of communications, said he isn’t aware of any ongoing talks to bring the drag series’ headquarters to central Indiana, but he agreed the proposition has some merit.

“It would be tough to relocate to that marketplace from here, but having said that, [Indianapolis has] one of the most active and historic NHRA tracks in the nation, they have a gorgeous airport that more than meets our needs, a central geographical location and an ample motorsports talent pool,” said Archambeault, who grew up in northwestern Indiana before moving to California as a teen-ager.

If NHRA officials chose to move the headquarters here, they’d have plenty of potential locations to select from. The drag series already owns O’Reilly Raceway Park and could expand its recently updated office there. They could also look at Brownsburg’s Nitro Alley, a business strip named by the many NHRA inhabitants on the northwest side of the city. NHRA officials could also look for a site closer to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where Speedway town officials are planning to create a massive motorsports-centric development called Speed Zone.

Savings in the heartland

Force began expanding in Brownsburg five years ago and now has 55 of his 75 employees working there. His expansion plans include a larger retail presence, including a Mac Tools outlet, an expansion of the drag-racing museum he operates, a restaurant, and possibly a TV studio and hotel.

The cost of living and doing business is much cheaper in central Indiana than in California, said Force, adding that his team saves hundreds of thousands of dollars annually by being here.

Force said with his shop only a 17-minute drive to the new airport terminal and every NHRA track within about a two-hour flight, he’s saving more than $100,000 annually in housing costs and travel expenses for his team and crew. He thinks the NHRA could achieve similar savings.

Force isn’t the only one who thinks moving the NHRA’s headquarters here makes sense.

“I’ve heard a lot of people talk about this possible move, NHRA officials included,” said Zak Brown, president of Just Marketing International, a motorsports marketing consultancy, who has worked with some of the biggest global motorsports sponsors in several series.

“I don’t know that a move is imminent, but I’m hearing a lot of noise about this. It’s definitely getting talked about by some of the people who matter.”

One of those people is Force.

“John Force has as much influence as anyone in NHRA,” Brown said. “He’s gravitating his entire operation here, and he’s making a solid case that the sport’s headquarters should be here too.”

In addition to operating one of the most powerful NHRA teams, Force has 126 career victories and is a 14-time NHRA series division winner.

On top of the city’s proximity to drag racing tracks and its ample supply of motorsports workers and parts makers, Force said tax breaks and other incentives offered by local authorities is helping grow the NHRA base here.

“With the tax breaks and expenses and materials being lower in Indiana, we built our building 40 percent cheaper than we could have in California,” Force said.

Brownsburg has invested more than $200 million in the area since 2003. The investment appears to be paying off. Most of the biggest names in drag racing have built shops there, including Don Prudhomme. Don Schumacher, Kenny Bernstein Racing, David Powers Motorsports and Vance & Hines Racing.

History as an obstacle

Dave Moroknek, whose Indianapolis firm, MainGate, has been a longtime manufacturer and seller of NHRA-licensed merchandise, thinks the drag racing series may be too deeply entrenched in Southern California to uproot.

Another factor keeping NHRA anchored in Glendora is the fact that the NHRA’s season-opening and -closing events are held at the historic track in nearby Pomona.

“The sport was practically born there, and all the employees at the headquarters are from there,” Moroknek said. “I think it would be a difficult move to sell.”

Force disagrees.

“People in NHRA realize [central Indiana] is the motorsports capital of the world, and that fact has only been strengthened in recent years,” Force said. “It’s getting to the point that everyone in NHRA, all the teams, want to be there. All my employees are moving there. My own daughter, Ashley, is looking for a home near Brownsburg right now.” Force’s daughter is one of the most popular drivers on the NHRA circuit.

Force isn’t alone in his thinking.

“Brownsburg is quickly becoming the place for NHRA teams,” said Alan Johnson, who led Tony Schumacher’s U.S. Army team to five consecutive NHRA Top Fuel championships as its crew chief. “Although the sport’s roots will always be in Southern California, with so many teams locating in central Indiana, the area is really becoming the center of the sport.”

Local government officials aren’t the only ones embracing the NHRA’s Indiana movement, Force said. Fans are, too.

“To show you the kind of momentum this move has, I can tell you my Brownsburg museum and retail store get more traffic than my [museum and retail store] in California by far,” Force said. “The outpouring from fans and everyone else here is just fantastic.”•

 

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