Interview with Keith Bartlett

2008 will go into the history books as a very difficult year for Santa Pod Raceway with snow falling on the Easter Thunderball, the FIA Main Event rained out, three out of four days of the FIA European Finals lost to rain, and various of SPR's lifestyle and other specialist events also affected by the weather. As the water table continued to rise at the FIA European Finals, Santa Pod Raceway CEO and FIA and FIM/UEM Championship Promoter Keith Bartlett announced the addition of the Nitro Fuel Shootout to the UK National Finals, which up to that point was to be one of SPR's two showcase Sportsman events of the year. interviewed Keith in the week leading up to the 2008 UK National Finals to find out how Santa Pod Raceway as a business was faring in the face of so many wrecked events, how the decision was made to add Fuel cars to a nominally-Sportsman event, and how future plans for Santa Pod Raceway had been affected by all the disruption. Just how bad has it been for Santa Pod Raceway this year?

Keith Bartlett: Basically this has been our worst year since 1997, as a result of the exceptional adverse weather, which in turn has a direct result on the overall performance of the company. In 2007 we saw around fifteen events weather-affected including a totally rained-out, or should I say flooded out Main Event in May. We began 2008 with the hope that the weather and rained-out events of 2007 would not be repeated in 2008. As for the Main Event, we felt it was most unlikely that lightning would strike twice but as you all now know it did, in fact almost to the same hour as in 2007. That followed an already snowed-out Easter Thunderball plus of course a heavily rained-out and flooded European Finals a few weeks back. When you add to that all the other rained-out or weather-affected events, it adds up to our worst year since 1996/97, almost solely as a result of the adverse weather.

We have not even really been able to fully assess the impact of the economic downturn upon our business, as our events have been damaged purely by adverse weather for nearly all of 2008. At what point did you determine to have the Nitro Fuel Shootout at the UK National Finals?

Keith Bartlett: We made a provisional decision on the Sunday morning of the European Finals, at around 8.30 am. The facts were that at that moment we were looking at more rain due to come in during the day, the likelihood that we would not be able to complete much or any racing during the day, in addition to a completely flooded-out campsite where our loyal weekend camping fans had not seen any racing all weekend despite camping out in horrendous conditions, plus of course all the one-day spectators who had come along to see nothing on Friday and Saturday. With all these facts in mind we decided to give something back to all those fans who had spent the weekend or turned up at Santa Pod in terrible conditions to see little or no action at all.

From then on throughout the day it was just a matter of finding nitro teams and drivers who would be willing to run at the National Finals. This of course involved team owners having to leave their cars and rigs at Santa Pod and not returning to their home countries and destinations.

After some more discussion through the day we had three Top Fuel Dragsters and three Fuel Funny Cars available to run at the National Finals. From that we structured a Nitro Fuel Shootout, and all that was left was to structure the format and let the public know what we were doing at the National Finals. Were you worried how the addition of the Nitro Fuel Shootout to their showcase event would be received by the Sportsman racers, especially given their cancellation at the FIA European Finals?

Keith Bartlett: Of course that was our main concern especially since, as you point out, we had to cancel the Sportsman classes on Sunday to enable us to complete any Professional racing. I can fully understand the frustrations of the Sportsman racers, both in terms of having no runs at the European Finals and then a Nitro Fuel Shootout being held at their final Championship round. But we need to look at the bigger picture here, not just the short-term needs of any one group of racers.

This year our paying spectators and drag racing fans have hardly been able to see any Fuel cars in action, apart from a couple of short days. And let's not forget that the general paying public come mostly to Santa Pod to see these 300 mph, four-second nitro burning fuel cars running down the quarter mile track. I know and accept that the Fuel cars are only but one part of the whole drag racing classes and entry at any major event. But it is the Fuel Cars and even the Jet Cars that our customers want to see, and they travel hundreds of miles to do so. Given that they have not had many, or hardly any, opportunities to do in 2008 we decided to add the Nitro Shootout to the National Finals, as this was the last permitted drag racing event on the calendar where would have a enough high-level competition drag racing teams competing to make the overall event appealing. In addition of course it is about as late in the year as we can go for Fuel cars to be able to run fast and competitively, although given our weather in 2008 I am beginning to think that late November may have a better chance than July or August regarding weather. I might add that we do have a large proportion of spectators attending these FIA and UEM events who are seeing drag racing for the first time. If they become hooked on the sport and the spectacle, as so many do, then maybe in the future they will attend the Sportsman events as well or even maybe one day become racers themselves. We mostly all started in drag racing by going to Santa Pod and watching the drag racing and often as not being blown away by the nitro fuel cars, be it in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s or today.

Just look at the USA where their international NHRA Championship events have overall attendance figures of over 100,000 spectators at a four-day event. However when the Sportsman classes come out onto the track the stands just empty out, despite the fact that in those classes you would be likely to see the best, pure and hardest drag racing competition in the world. The bottom line is that the fans pay to see Top Fuel and Nitro Funny Cars, and even classes like Pro Modified do not command the same audience. When you take an all-Sportsman or Divisional event on the NHRA calendar, with no nitro cars running, the spectator attendance is no more than a few thousand on the average. Of course there can be exceptions.

Looking at the overall bigger picture, everyone must understand and realise that over the past few years we have built these FIA and UEM European Drag Racing Championship events to a level whereby they generate a large income stream, of which we have made sure a very large percentage of that revenue has been re-invested back into the infrastructure and facilities at Santa Pod Raceway. This has benefited everyone connected with the sport and mostly all the racers, including the Sportsman classes, plus of course improved facilities for our spectators and loyal fans. If you look back over the past four years the proof of what I am saying is there to be seen by everyone.

When we purchased Santa Pod Raceway in 1996 the plan was to first re-build the sport of drag racing by making changes to the type and numbers of events, plus the classes running at those events, then to build the brand of Santa Pod out of the ashes in which it was laying and into a known brand with appeal to all ages and demographics. Lastly, but by no means least importantly, once those objectives were on course, we needed to re-invest our income streams into the re-generation and improvement of the overall facility to the benefit of both the racing teams and spectators alike. All of the above objectives have been either partially met or are in the process of being met, and so far we have achieved sixty per cent of our goals in many of these areas. But there is still a long way to go before I will be anywhere near satisfied that we have truly achieved our goals and objectives. We already have Sportsman-only events; after the FIA European Finals can you see the day when we have Pro-only events? Is that something you would want?

Keith Bartlett: The short answer to that question is not currently, and not in the short term do I see that we will be holding all Professional-class events. However I do see that the events like the two FIA and UEM European Drag Racing Championship rounds may see further limited reductions in the Sportsman classes that run at those events. That would be looked at very carefully before any decisions would be taken in that direction anyway. In the longer term (five years), if the Professional classes were to continue to grow and develop we may one day see one or two all Professional-class events, but I do have reservations about whether that is ever likely to happen.

As I have always made quite clear the Sportsman racers and teams are just as important to the ongoing development of Santa Pod Raceway as any Professional class, although their profile and impact upon that development may differ from that of the Professional racers. Without the Sportsman racers and classes there will only be a very limited future for the sport of drag racing. That is just pure fact and applies anywhere in the world where drag racing is going to develop or is established. On a personal note I am one of the many people who watch the Sportsman classes to see the best and purest drag racing and which will often produce the closest competition. What are the implications of the 2008 season for Santa Pod? Increased ticket prices in 2009, cutbacks on development work, both?

Keith Bartlett: The most damning and biggest implication upon this years poor performance, as a result of the adverse weather, is that we will almost certainly have to reduce or cut back on all or planned capital expenditure, track and facility improvements planned for 2009. This will affect us all, of that there can be no doubt. What I can add is that we will not be putting ticket prices up in 2009 to try to recover lost income streams from 2008. Any ticket price changes, up or down, will be as a result of the merit of that event and its criteria to set the entry price. This is how Santa Pod Raceway has operated for the past twelve years and how we intend to continue to operate our business in the future. There are always ticket price increases at various times and stages of the development of the various events. I feel that we have maintained a very fair pricing policy at Santa Pod Raceway and one that is recognised throughout the motor sports fraternity as being very good value for money. Finally, is it true that FIA Championship status is being considered for the 2009 Easter Thunderball?

Keith Bartlett: I am looking at the possibility of maybe holding an additional round of the FIA European Drag Racing Championship, for the Top Fuel class only. However at this stage it is only a consideration and there are many facts and elements to be taken into account prior to applying to the FIA for that round. If we were to apply for this round, it would be at the Easter Thunderball 2009. With that said I must point out, before any teams get their hopes up and spectators begin to make plans, that there is only around a forty per cent chance that it will happen. In fact, after all that has happened in 2008 at Santa Pod Raceway, it is far more likely that this will be put on the back burner to 2010. Thank you very much for your time, Keith. We'll see you at Santa Pod at the weekend.

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