With only one professional drag racing championship to be decided--between Joe Amato and Dick LaHaie in top fuel--the biggest news from the National Hot Rod Assn.'s 23rd annual Winston Finals may be occurring off the drag strip.
Billy Meyer, the Texas millionaire who races funny cars and builds multimillion-dollar race tracks, has bought the International Hot Rod Assn., a rival of the Glendora-based NHRA.
Practice and qualifying start today at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona for Sunday's Winston Finals, but the stunning news of Meyer's purchase already has the hot-rod set buzzing with speculation.
The key question seems to be what will happen at Meyer's Texas Motorplex, a $6.5-million drag racing facility near Dallas. Although the all-concrete strip, located in Ennis, Tex., is less than two years old, five of the six NHRA records in top fuel, funny car and pro stock have been set there.
Of the fastest 12 top-fuel speeds in history, 11 have been set at the Texas Motorplex.
The NHRA has two races scheduled there next year, the Winston All-Stars April 10 and the Chief Auto Parts Nationals Oct. 1-2.
"That poses a very interesting issue, doesn't it?' said Dallas Gardner, NHRA president. "We have a contract through 1990 with Billy Meyer, making the Motorplex an NHRA-sanctioned track for all its drag racing events until that date."
Meyer is also building a similar all-concrete track south of Detroit, which is scheduled to open early in 1989.
"We'll either have to live together cooperatively or be adversaries," Meyer said. "Of course, if we're adversaries--but I don't think that will happen--I know the guy pretty well who owns the Dallas and Detroit tracks."
The IHRA, which has been quartered in Bristol, Tenn., was owned by Larry Carrier and primarily runs at tracks in the southeastern region of the country, principally Bristol, Darlington, S. C., and Rockingham, N.C.
"We have never looked at the IHRA as competition," Gardner said. "We have always felt that it was more a regional sanctioning body."
Meyer, who will move headquarters to his native Waco, Tex., said he hopes to expand the IHRA, perhaps even into Southern California, the birthplace of drag racing.
"This area has a definite need for a drag strip, but the problem is getting land," Meyer said. "Just when you think you've found the perfect site, someone comes along and declares it a natural habitat for a rare species of butterfly. I'm sure the NHRA and the people at Riverside looking for a site have found the same problem in Southern California."
Purchase price of the IHRA was not disclosed, but Carrier indicated it was in seven figures. Carrier will remain as a consultant to Meyer.
Meyer, 33, won the IHRA world championship in 1980, but more recently he has concentrated on NHRA competition. He has won 11 national events, the most recent being the Springnationals June 14 in Columbus, Ohio.
After winning the Texas go-kart championship, Meyer was licensed to drive funny cars when he was only 16 years old. Two years later, he stunned his elders by winning the independently produced U.S. Manufacturers Funny Car championship at the Orange County Raceway in Irvine.
Although Meyer has never won the NHRA world championship, he has been third four times and second three times. This year, going into Sunday's final event, he is sixth.
Kenny Bernstein, who defeated Meyer in last year's Winston Finals, has already clinched his third straight funny car championship, as has Bob Glidden in pro stock.
"I have spent 17 years in this sport as a driver, car owner and track operator and I feel strongly that we need a single focus," Meyer said. "I feel it is too fragmented, with too many factions pulling in different directions.
"The sport has reached a plateau and it needs to move on. To reach the next plateau, it needs some new ideas and new direction. I hope we (the NHRA and IHRA) can move on together, but if we can't, I'm prepared to take the necessary steps myself."
Meyer, who would not specify his plans, said he would make them public Nov. 17 during the Specialty Equipment Manufacturers Assn. convention in Las Vegas.
"Sooner or later, I thought that someone was bound to purchase IHRA from Carrier," Gardner said. "But Billy's buying it was certainly the best-kept secret in racing. It came as a complete surprise.
"Since the announcement, though, I have had more calls from people wanting to know what's going to happen, than I've ever had as long as I've been involved with drag racing."
Glenn Menard, former manager of the Irwindale Raceway drag strip, is vice president and general manager of Meyer's organization.