American Hot Rod Association
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|Headquarters||Panama City, Florida|
|Chief Exec||Rod Saint|
|Other key staff||Morris Calkins|
The American Hot Rod Association, also known as the AHRA, was founded in Pennsylvania, headquartered in Kansas for much of its existence, and is located in Florida as of 2015[update].
Walter Mentzer felt that the drag racers needed an organization that spoke for them as opposed to one that spoke for the drag strips. Mentzer went to the Pennsylvania county office that handled such things and incorporated the name of the American Hot Rod Association with himself at the helm. At the end of 1955, Hot Rod magazine did a story on the fledgling Pennsylvania non-profit organization and it attracted a lot of attention. Mentzer wanted the racers to actually have a voice in how this organization was run. Every member registered with the home office in Pittsburgh and after a year, they had a vote in how it was run.
Mentzer was drafted in 1957, which took him out of the racing picture. Don Garlits had been elected president of the organization in 1958 with Kansas City racer and insurance salesman, Jim Tice, being installed as vice-president. By late 1959, Garlits had gone on with his racing career and Tice became president of the organization and changed the AHRA into a profit-making organization. Tice moved the AHRA to Kansas City, took over the books, and incorporated the name there, creating a profit-making organization.
On the weekend prior to the Nationals event, the group re-convened and had grown to where 18 states were represented at the second meeting. It was announced that AHRA would hold its National Championship drags at the 8,000-foot long Great Bend site through 1959. AHRA was responsible for much significant drag racing history. It was AHRA that first provided a home for Top Fuel, ignoring the fuel ban of 1957 through 1963, and also giving the Funny Cars their first hot rod association abode. In fact, while it was not called such, AHRA also had the first Pro Stock class, a heads-up, ultimate-statement Super Stock eliminator in 1968.
“AHRA, and in the middle 1950’s, the ATAA (Automobile Timing Association of America), ran nitro," said former AHRA president and 10-time AHRA Top Fuel champ “Big Daddy” Don Garlits. “I had run the ATAA (World Series of Drag Racing) event on nitro race. In fact, the ATAA World Series, which they first held in Lawrenceville, Ill., and later Cordova, really was the first of the big races for fuel cars and that was the way I wanted to race — on nitro."
In 1960, AHRA had undergone some more significant changes and these involved a lot more than what fuel was run. Garlits had been elected president of the organization in 1958 with Kansas City racer and insurance salesman, Jim Tice, being installed as vice-president. Garlits, as could be expected, would have a difficult schedule to wrestle with. On the one hand, he was voted to handle a growing hot rod association, and on the other, he had a full-on, year-long racing schedule. He couldn't do both.
“AHRA was originally set up as a non-profit organization and realistically, I suppose I could’ve been seen as a figurehead president,” Garlits recalled. “Jim Tice used to be involved in insurance and he took the company books with him to Kansas City, while I was racing in Florida. I didn't think there was anything crooked going on, he was a businessman, but over the years, AHRA changed subtly into a profit-making organization.”
By late 1959, Tice had become president of the organization, and not surprisingly, AHRA’s National Championships race was held at Kansas City International in 1960. The 1960 event marked the final time AHRA would be a one-race organization.
The second move by AHRA was its switch of National Championship sites to Green Valley Race City in Smithfield, Texas. If there was one track that was identified with the organization it was this one. If NHRA had Indy and IHRA had Bristol, then Green Valley was AHRA's equivalent. From 1961 through 1976, AHRA held a national event at this facility; always either its National Championship drags or its World Championships events. For 16 consecutive years, the AHRA's biggest event was always at Green Valley.
In 1967, AHRA grew to five national event sites. In 1969, AHRA ballooned up to a super-healthy 10 national events, holding races at Scottsdale, Detroit, Memphis, Bristol (twice), Lions, New York National Speedway, Rockingham, and Tulsa.
According to a Sept. 1968 Super Stock magazine, the AHRA Springnationals at Bristol, Tenn., had 413 classes and 15 eliminators decided on the weekend. AHRA first referred to themselves in their beginnings as “the only democratic national hot rod association,” and some would argue that those numbers show democracy.
At the end of the 1969 season, AHRA could claim over 80 sanctioned dragstrips, over 25,000 members, and sanctioning of over 2,400 events (national and regional races). Counting its 10 national events and the countless weekly races under AHRA sanction, the outfit could boast that about 5,000,000 spectators had seen their races.
When AHRA introduced the Grand American Series of Professional Drag Racing in 1970, the sport was given its first year-long points chase that was paid off with a large season-end bonus check.
The 1970 AHRA Grand American at Lions Drag Strip in Southern California ran opposite the Bakersfield U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships on March 6–8. The Lions show was one of the most pivotal in Top Fuel history. Garlits made the Top Fuel final against Richard Tharp. When the starting light went green, the transmission exploded at the line, sawing the car in two in a flash of fire and severing the top half of Garlits' right foot. This put Garlits on the shelf for most of the year. While recuperating in a Long Beach, California hospital from this violent incident, Garlits drew up the design for the modern, rear-engine Top Fuel dragster.
“Most fans remember the ‘Great Burndown’ between me and Steve Carbone at Indy in 1971,” Garlits recalled. “But do you know how much Carbone made when he won, and we’re talking here about one of the most famous Top Fuel finals in history. He got $3,000; that was it. I thought that was terrible and I just knew that NHRA, which was the bigger of the two associations, could afford to pay a lot better than that. So, I came up with the idea of the Professional Racers Association and the PRA Challenge, which I was determined to run opposite NHRA’s Nationals in 1972. I approached Jim Tice and he thought we could pull it off.”
Garlits and AHRA got together and hosted the AHRA PRA National Challenge at Tulsa International Raceway on Labor Day Weekend with $35,000 going to the winners of Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Pro Stock. Overwhelmingly, their objective was achieved. Like the 1970 AHRA Grand American at Lions, the PRA race took all the top cars away from the big NHRA event at Indy that year.
The Garlits PRA Challenges of 1972 and 1973 were aesthetic successes for AHRA, possibly their greatest ever, but not so financially. Not only that, but the 1973 season was hampered with weather problems. "We lost $3.5-million in 90 days in 1973," Tice Jr. said. "We leased all our tracks- Tulsa, Fremont, Orange County, and it cost us around $250,000 a month in fixed overhead alone." "It just seemed nothing went right that year. On top of all that, it rained on us in 1973 and when you're rained on in drag racing, you're screwed. As one more example, we held a Grand American at Orange County, a popular, money-making Southern California track. Unfortunately, we ran opposite the California Jam, one of those huge outdoor rock concerts, and we took a beating at the gate."
These considerations and the fact that they lost money both years made the decision to slide away from the PRA races easier. In 1974, Garlits moved the show up to New York National Speedway in Center Moriches, Long Island, N.Y., and the Tices hosted an AHRA Challenge at Tulsa, which was nothing more than a Grand American event that capitalized on a familiar name.
Given the heavy losses of 1973, AHRA needed re-financing and went for it in 1974. Since 1970 the younger Tice had headed his father's Motorsports Cuisine, a concessions business that he operated at most of the AHRA national event sites and at other venues. The senior Tice sold his company for a million dollars and with that money and some other financing, he and his son got the organization in running order again. And the organization needed the infusion, because NHRA and IHRA were starting to distance themselves from AHRA with the big financial assists they got from Winston.
AHRA's method for staying afloat in its last 10 years of existence was its continued practice of buying in the race stars. They knew that a Garlits, Don Prudhomme, Bill Jenkins, or some similar talent meant, as Tice Jr. put it, "butts on the boards." They may not have been able to match the dollars that were being pumped into the NHRA and IHRA coffers at the time, but they did have tools at their disposal to insure some profits.
"That's the way we negotiated with the racers," said Tice. "If you were a local pro racer without much national exposure, we couldn't give you as much as a Garlits or Prudhomme. In the late 1970's, we downsized our pro shows to eight-car fields and of those eight, we'd buy in probably half the cars." The formula worked well enough. The AHRA shows of the late 1970s held up well at the gate. The big difference, though, was that NHRA and IHRA gave the fans 16 cars per pro field, better venues, and better exposure, both in the electronic and print mediums.
Spokane Raceway Park was likely the last brand new state-of-the-art-type facility that AHRA was involved in before its finish. The track was top-kicked by Orville Moe, a former racer. "Spokane was probably the first ecologically created track," Moe said. "Long before we ever broke ground, we had governmental studies, environmental impact, stuff like that done, and when we finished the track in early 1974, we had a one of a kind facility. It would seat 40,000 or so people and had permanent concrete restrooms and concession stands. We held the Springs race in '74 and it went off well, but it was the only race we ran that year because there were still other things to do to ready the track."
"Jim offered us the World Finals race at the beginning of 1975, and we hosted it in September, but he and I found out that a lot of racers wanted to hold it in August, when the kids were still out of school." Tice Sr., and Moe had dinner at an oceanfront restaurant in Washington and agreed to an August date and the race, the AHRA or ADRA World Finals, was held there every since until 2005.
In late 1980, Jim Tice Sr., was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. As he got sicker, Jim's wife Ruth and Georgia Miller booked the racers and Jim Jr. ran the events."When Jim was sick, we talked a lot with him," said Moe. "We had a group of AHRA track operators, Tice Jr., Gerald Pritchard at Tulsa, George Eisenhardt at Dragway 42, Chuck Harmon Sr. at Kansas City, and myself, and basically it was agreed among us that we would collectively buy the business from his wife, Ruth, when he died. It looked like that was the way we were going to go, that we would run the association Grand American collectively. Ruth did want to run the track a little longer. So we figured okay, we'd help her out and keep AHRA afloat. Jim died in 1982 and we ran the organization for her until about mid-1984."
The AHRA track owners made up what were called the AHRA Regional Vice Presidents and their opinion on the future of the association counted for a lot. Still, there was the headquarters staff, and the actual headquarters vice-president was Don Garlits. He had a different path for Mrs. Tice and recommended that Ruth sell the association to Mike Gray, who was the president of Terminal Van Lines in Florida and very interested in buying AHRA. Gray, while a successful businessman, had limited drag racing experience, most of it centered around his backing of Bo O'Brochta's record-setting fuel motorcycle in the early 1980s.
"We talked to her about it," said Moe, "but she decided to go with Garlits' deal. When we heard about the deal, we talked to Gray, but at that point I decided to step away. Jim, before his death, made personal agreements that any track operator could cancel any agreements with AHRA if they were unhappy for any reason after his death, and I decided to exercise my option." Tice Jr., had an explanation as to why Moe might've been unhappy with the buy-out by Gray.
"Orville had been offered the contract by Ruth originally, but the wording stated that he would be responsible for any known and unknown debts," said Jim Jr. "Well, there were obvious weaknesses there."
"As for myself, my dad had verbally said that I would get 25-percent, but that was not handled when he died. I had no proof short of my word. Personally, my step-mother, Ruth, and I have never been close and we did have some problems. In the last year we had AHRA, I ran it and we made in the neighborhood of $750,000, but she also had run up some huge debts and had developed some tax problems and needed money. She first offered the deal to sell AHRA to Orville, but he declined. However, along came Mike Gray and there it was." Seeing the decision Mrs. Tice made, Moe, Pritchard, Harmon, Eisenhardt and the other track owners decided to go with a slightly different plan and run another association collectively. Gray had bought the "AHRA" name in mid-1984, so the old guard created the American Drag Racing Association (ADRA) and ran their own races.
In Sept. 1984, Gray held his first AHRA event, and the last in the organization's history. The AHRA World Finals were held in Eunice, Louisiana, and despite having racers like Garlits, Chris Karamesines, Mark Oswald, and the final AHRA Funny Car champ John Force, the race went in the toilet. According to the event announcer Bret Kepner, the grandstands were barren.
Gray decided to sue the AHRA track owners just before this event. Using Orville Moe's name as the target, he sued for a ton of money, but in the process, allegedly slandered Moe. An out-of-court settlement was reached in 1986 with the original track owners gaining the AHRA name back.
In the interim years of 1985 and 1986, ADRA ran two full seasons, hosting shows at old stand-bys Tucson Dragway, San Antonio Dragway, Tulsa Int'l Raceway, Kansas City Int'l Raceway, Ozark Raceway in Springfield, Missouri, Dragway 42, Spokane, and newcomer Carlsbad Raceway. However, after the 1986 season, ADRA, now back to AHRA, held only one consistent race, the AHRA World Finals at Moe's Spokane facility. "The big culprit was insurance," said Moe. "Sometime in the late 1980's, it really became an issue. We had tracks in 12 states, but a number of these states got rid of the waiver / release forms that we see now at all the big races. This made the insurance companies nervous. And in so many words, they dropped racing coverage at all the tracks."
The association's fate seemed predetermined way back in 1985, when it ceased to exist as a national series, and yet the name lived on for another twenty years with activities limited to Spokane. Purists scoffed at the idea that the 'AHRA World Finals' should continue under the AHRA banner. After all, the association had once functioned as a true sanctioning body, with national events at member tracks that included such far- flung venues as OCIR, Beeline (Phoenix), Alamo (San Antonio) and NY National Speedway out on Long Island. Yet Spokane Raceway Park's manager Orville Moe wasn't about to let a good business opportunity slip away. Although the AHRA series had ceased to exist elsewhere, he continued to stage his annual 'AHRA World Finals,' maintaining a semblance of credibility by employing Jim Tice Jr., son of the late AHRA founder. By the mid-1990s John Force was making his final pass down Spokane's asphalt and the AHRA World Finals, though heavily attended, was operating in a void. Few people outside the Northwest were even aware that the event was still alive and kicking.
The AHRA name vanished at the end of 2005, dislodged from its final refuge at Spokane Raceway Park.
In late 2009 Rod Saint acquired the Trademark rights to the historical 1956 organization and began an attempt to resurrect the organization. The 2016 AHRA schedule  has meets in Hilo, Hawaii, Lena, Mississippi, Carlsbad, New Mexico and Deming, New Mexico.