Championship Drag Racing


Happy birthday, NHRA.com: 10 years of online coverage of our sport


07/26/2005

The way we were ...


From 2400 baud modems to six megabit high-speed cable connections, from 150 pages to hundreds of thousands, NHRA.com has come a long way in 10 years. NHRA Editorial Director Phil Burgess, along with Senior Editor Rob Geiger, former Webmaster Brent Friar, and video specialist Bob Frye recount some of their fond memories of the past 10 years and look to the road ahead. [More ...]

Ten years ago today, July 26, 1995, NHRA became the first major motorsports sanctioning body to have a presence on the Internet with the launch of NHRA Online. At the time, the World Wide Web was just beginning to be that and was a mere shadow of the global communications medium it is today.

Back then, the Internet boasted 25 million computer users around the globe; today, the number is estimated at 938 million.

The launching of NHRA into cyberspace was the result of the early prodding of a computer-science student at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania, who found an interested ear in National DRAGSTER Editor Phil Burgess.

Michael Beard was a Division 1 E.T. racer with an early interest in the Internet who saw the opportunity for NHRA to better reach its fans through the new technology. (Beard's memories of the early days)

With the tentative approval of then NHRA Vice President Neil Britt, the duo sketched the early elements of the site, which included news, event and television schedules, a track directory, national indexes, links to major sponsors that had websites (early pioneers included Goodyear, Valvoline, and DuPont), rules revisions, and contact information.

The initial launch comprised about 150 pages and included a preview of NHRA's weekly print publication, National DRAGSTER (including the text of selected stories), as well as a photo gallery of cars.

1995: Getting our feet wet
The site first went live on the Bucknell University web servers, where each student was allowed a small amount of space for personal use. Though Internet usage was still very light in those days (mostly by America Online members), response from the wired NHRA fans to the beta version of the site that summer was immediate and grateful.

"There weren't a lot of people who even had e-mail addresses back then," recalled Burgess, who still is actively involved with the website, which today comprises hundreds of thousands of pages. "I shared the URL with some friends I'd met in an online chat group on AOL, guys like Division 2 Super Street racers Bob Williams and Craig Ridenhour, and sought their input, and Michael used his friends in the DragNet mailing group. We got some great feedback."

 
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It also didn't take long for the site to draw the attention of National Motorsports Marketing and its sister company, Tech2000, a fledging web design and hosting firm that already had built a web presence for NHRA member track Lebanon Valley Dragway. NHRA quickly built a tight bond with the Tech2000 (T2K) team, who took the early site and added slick graphics and housed it on their powerful goracing.com web servers. The site officially went live July 26 (original press release), debuting with what, in retrospect, was an amateurish logo pictured here that was quickly replaced by a series of more professional logos, including the popular animated Christmas Tree countdown  (click here for a look at NHRA.com logos and other crazy graphics and fun stuff from throughout the years).

The initial attempt at providing "instant" race results is a far cry from today's sleek presentation. The first race "covered" by the new site was the 1995 Fram Autolite NHRA Nationals in Sonoma, whose results were little more than final-round info posted immediately after the event.

"Back then, we didn't have the ability to post our own information," said Burgess. "I remember calling the T2K office on the East Coast and reading them the results, which they posted. Back then, there weren't many HTML editors available to the general public, and most of the coding was done by hand in Notepad. Still, being able to get the results online, even in their brief format, within an hour of the event was a miraculous accomplishment."

Results from divisional races were often not posted until the following day when the division director could fax the information to the National DRAGSTER office. Here's an early example.

For that year's U.S. Nationals in September, the staff pulled out all the stops and provided the first round-by-round results. Obviously, the site has come a long way.

1996: Instant results, E-Ticket! are born
 
The following year, NHRA partnered with Racing Information Systems, an online reporting pioneer. RIS agreed to provide NHRA Online with a portion of the results it was posting on the CompuServe online bulletin board system (read RIS founder Mike Hollander's remembrances of early reporting here) to provide detailed coverage of the 1996 racing season, beginning with the Winternationals.

The service eventually became Summit FastNews, with which a strong relationship and working partnership still exists. The results, arranged then by round rather than today's sortable stats, also included embedded links for QuickTime video clips from the final rounds provided by longtime member Bob "not the announcer" Frye, who still provides NHRA.com with video clips. That first year, 1996, clips were only available for the season-opening and season-closing events, and the downloads page carried the following warning: "The videos vary in file size from 1MB up to 5MB and may take from 10 to 60 minutes to download." Obviously, this was back in the day when a 14.4k modem was fast.

Throughout the years, Frye, who works in the multimedia arena, has optimized the clips for smaller file sizes and quicker downloads despite clips that are considerably longer than their predecessors.

At that year's U.S. Nationals, the NHRA.com staff put up digitial versions of its onsite daily newspaper, Daily DRAGSTER, for fans to read. This was a tough year, as we lost Blaine Johnson and Elmer Trett at the event.

 
Honors for the NHRA site stacked up quickly in 1996.

That year also marked the debut of a weekly e-newsletter authored by Burgess. E-Ticket! was a subscription-based publication that allowed fans with slower connections (who might not have been able to afford a fast modem) to get results and news without having to visit NHRA Online directly. The service lasted for years and grew very popular; it later was converted into the free NHRA Nitro News, which is mailed each Friday to more than 70,000 NHRA fans.

1997: First webmaster, more new features added

 
James Roe, NHRA's first webmaster

In 1997, NHRA hired its first full-time webmaster, luring longtime drag racing fan James Roe west from Ohio. Roe had volunteered his services at the previous year's U.S. Nationals, and, impressed by his coding skills and pressed by the ever-growing demand for more Internet content, Burgess hired him to come to California the following February.

Race coverage continued to improve when photos were added to the multimedia section from the events, beginning with the Winternationals, as was a preview notebook and class-by-class notebook section, which debuted at that year's Arizona event and included a MapQuest feature for directions to the track. Entry lists also were added that year (example).

 
 

The first special-edition site, www.usnationals.com, was developed to cover that year's Big Go as a stand-alone site and featured daily trivia quizzes (with prizes) and historic video clips and photos. Most important, it marked the debut of the first live audiocast over the Internet. The format was repeated for the 1998 Winternationals. \

1998: Team reports and custom results; April Foolishness
The feature now known as Team Reports made its debut in 1998 (example); Chevrolet and Pontiac submitted driver notes from its teams, and racers such as Del Worsham, Gary Densham, and Paul Romine were among the first to capitalize on the free ink. The NHRA web team also linked event-relevant stories from this page. The event-preview pages (example) also became a little more streamlined.

The 1998 Madison event also marked the debut, in beta form, of the current race-results format, which allows fans to select by class, by day, or both; it made its official debut at the next event, in Denver, albeit with a horrid color palette that thankfully was replaced at season's end.

Here's a look at a typical 1998 home page, complete with retro logos.

 
1998 also marked the debut of one of NHRA.com's most popular annual traditions, the April Fool's edition. The first edition was prompted by submissions from Photoshop maestro Jim Billups, a fan who took some liberties with photos on the website to create realistic -- if far-out -- visions of race cars, including rear-engine Funny Cars and Pro Stockers, six-wheeled Top Fuelers, and more. Under the byline I.M. Soshure, Burgess crafted a report of "top-secret test sessions" to accompany the images, and many visitors were taken hook, line, and sinker, which only encouraged the staff. It's been a yearly tradition since, with good-natured jabs taken at many top racers and fans still biting hard on the fictitious stories.

1999: Improved race-day coverage, Geiger comes aboard

 
Rob Geiger

Beginning in 1999, NHRA.com offered in-depth day-by-day race recaps to supplement the results statistics, beginning with the Winternationals, and launched a search for a dedicated editorial writer. Until that point, Burgess had been writing and editing most of the content while continuing his full-time role as National DRAGSTER editor. Fate dealt NHRA a kind hand. Rob Geiger, who had been doing publicity for Pennzoil racers such as Eddie Hill and Mike Thomas for the previous year, suddenly became available. Having been impressed with his professionalism, news-gathering ability, fluid writing skills, and knack of making friends everywhere he went, Burgess hired him immediately, much to the still-ongoing delight of NHRA.com readers. Whereas many times the event summary had been written based on stats, Geiger attended every race as he has now for 163 consecutive events and penned his observations and obtained quotes from the drivers independent of the racers' publicists.

More photo galleries began to be posted from most events. Initially, the photos were supplied by Pontiac and Pennzoil of just their drivers remember, this is long before everyone had a digital camera but by year's end, NHRA was able to offer daily photo galleries at select events.

The year ended on a downer when Roe returned to Ohio to accept a position closer to his family as webmaster for the growing Jeg's Mail Order site.

The 1999 home page began to take on some familiar elements, such as the audiocast link and other event information.

2000: We Have Ignition (and a new name and webmaster)

 
Brent Friar spent more than five years as NHRA's second webmaster.

NHRA launched into the new century with a new slogan, "We Have Ignition," and creating a new web design to match the catchphrase was one of the first tasks for new webmaster Brent Friar, who brought with him an eager attitude, lots of experience, and a wide-ranging skill set. The new site had a Flash introduction at the top of the page, fancy hierarchal menus, and other gee-whiz goodies (example). The site name also was changed from NHRA Online to NHRA.com after a protracted battle with several parties who had registered the domain name and refused to hand it over to NHRA's control.

A bold, new black design was implemented and carried out site-wide, as evidenced by the Winternationals coverage.

 
Mike Fischbeck, who ironically had applied for the webmaster position as well, was instead hired to shoot new and improved photo galleries, taking visitors from the starting line to the pits and everywhere between at all races on the tour (he also later gained fame for stopping a thief trying to make off with one of Pro Stock racer Warren Johnson's car doors at the 2001 Atlanta event).

In June 2000, NHRA.com launched its first special mini website, a special section devoted to John Force's pursuit of Bob Glidden's all-time mark of 85 wins. John Force: Chasing the Record chronicled his race to the record with a rolling count-up image that changed with every win until Force finally scored his 86th Wally at that year's Chicago event. Included were a voluminous amount of stats on Force's wins, charting everything from wins by state, age, and car make to qualifying positions and more.

Throughout the year, work also was heavily under way in preparation for the 2001 season, which would mark NHRA's 50th anniversary. Burgess and Friar hatched an ambitious plan to chronicle the 50 years through reprints of old news articles from each of the years as they had been printed in National DRAGSTER. Burgess pored through thousands of issues of ND for the 10 most important or interesting news stories of the years, which were then either scanned (using optical character recognition software, which often had trouble reading the older issues) or retyped by hand. Burgess also read dozens of early issues of Hot Rod Magazine to fill in NHRA's history from before the 1960 launch of National DRAGSTER, working with NHRA founder Wally Parks to create the most accurate portrayal of the 1950s NHRA scene ever published.

Late in the year, NHRA ended its long relationship with goracing.com, which had been acquired by Action Performance, and moved its website to an outside host, AT&T.

2001: Celebrating the 50th, mourning 9/11 losses
 
The 50th Anniversary site went live and, with it, the ambitious venture of naming the Top 50 Drivers of NHRA's first 50 years. Burgess had assembled an all-star panel of the sport's top journalists, historians, and commentators to vote for the top 50, whose identities were revealed a week at a time on NHRA.com.

During the course of the year, NHRA.com chronicled events surrounding the golden anniversary, such as a reunion of original NHRA officers at the spot where NHRA was first incorporated in 1951, NHRA Day in Los Angeles, which was highlighted by Frank Hawley taking L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan for a spin down Los Angeles Street in his two-seater dragster, and, of course, a special third event at Pomona Raceway, the Pep Boys 50th Anniversary Nationals.

After much disappointment with its AT&T hosting arrangement, NHRA.com partnered with Primedia's GR8RIDE family of websites, which promised to provide hosting, design, and online advertising and sales solutions for NHRA.com, allowing the site to handle the massive traffic that had developed as the site's popularity and the popularity of the Internet itself continued to grow.

The site got another facelift complete with an exciting Flash movie and menu system created by Friar and the vehicle of a randomly loaded drag racing hero in the top left corner. (Note: This archived page will not display 100 percent correctly as some coding is missing, but all elements are present.)

Also early that year, the web team launched a stand-alone site for the NHRA Sport Compact Series that featured news and racing results from that popular segment of the sport. Through necessity, Burgess became the editor of the site and throughout the years worked to forge alliances with other sport compact sites such as UrbanRacer.com to get NHRA's foot in the door with racers and up to speed on technology and personalities.

 
The world was shaken Sept. 11, 2001, by the devastating terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. NHRA.com quickly designed a logo to remember those who lost their lives that day, a button that ran the remainder of the year and linked NHRA.com visitors to more information about how to donate money and other items to various charity organizations. Racers shared their sentiments with NHRA.com visitors, and Racers For Christ Chaplain Ken Owen offered words of advice on how to cope with the tragedy.

At year's end, "Big Daddy" Don Garlits edged John Force for the top spot in the Top 50 Drivers final list. Few people, including Force, could argue with the results.

2002: Site blue, Forever Red, Notebook read; division sites added
The site underwent another redesign in June, switching to a predominantly blue format that stayed until early 2005. Two now-popular features, the NHRA.com poll and Fast Talk quotes, were added to the site along with a long-overdue Search function. (Quick fact: To date, the site has featured more than 260 polls.)

 
Another new mini section was launched in January devoted to Kenny Bernstein's Forever Red retirement tour; it included Bernstein's personal reflections on his most memorable outings in each venue plus head-to-head records, stats, and more.

That July, the popular NHRA.com Notebook was launched (original page) to bridge the big gap between legitimate front-page news stories and trivial notes of all sorts that otherwise might not have had a home.

Perhaps the biggest project of the year was the introduction of websites for each of NHRA's seven divisions, which also were launched late in the year. Hosting all of the websites in-house allowed implementation of a user-friendly content-management system (CMS) that enabled division personnel to add content without having to know HTML. Friar handbuilt a compact CMS that worked until NHRA purchased a full-blown program the following year.

2003: More sites added
 
As NHRA discovered new ways to market its programs on the Internet, the web team (still consisting primarily of Burgess and Friar for day-to-day operations and Geiger churning out compelling feature stories) was charged with building sites to promote NHRA's Street Legal program and the Disney Channel movie about Jr. drag racer Erica Enders, Right on Track, which was linked from the extremely popular Disney Channel website.

In February, NHRA moved its website to Ultimate Internet Access, a local hosting company that for the previous four years had proven itself by providing Internet services to the NHRA main and satellite offices. UIA had the redundant telecom partners NHRA required, and its staff was knowledgeable and local.

In April, the web team completed work on a stand-alone site for the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, which previously had been part of the main site. The beautiful design was the first on the site by talented graphic designer Todd Myers, whose work continues to be featured on NHRA.com's current look as well as other special sites launched since then.

With the division sites firmly entrenched, NHRA decided it was time to bring in-house the websites for its owned tracks: Atlanta Dragway, Gainesville Raceway, Indianapolis Raceway Park, National Trail Raceway, and Pomona Raceway. Planning began that year, and, because many of the sites were complex, much coordination with track personnel was required to get the projects under way. Pomona was the first finished, followed by National Trail and Gainesville. The Indy and Atlanta sites were completed in 2005.

NHRA also rolled out a special website devoted to its Jr. Drag Racing League, featuring news, information, and results from the series.

Fischbeck was replaced by Ken Sklute and Racers Edge Photography at the Phoenix event as the NHRA.com event photographer, a position that he and Bob Hesser continue to hold to this date.

2004: Special event sites added

 
The 2004 season also marked the creation of two more special websites, saluting the 50th Anniversary Mac Tools U.S. Nationals and the 40th Anniversary Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals. Both contained voluminous histories of the event, including stats, stories, and photos, plus a database-driven driver search for past winners. Both were designed by Myers, coded by Friar, and researched by Burgess, along with invaluable help from staffer/historian Todd Veney. Lorraine Vestal, NHRA's managing editor of special projects, began to offer her immense organizational skills to the team to keep the projects on track, and she continues to work with the team today. These sites brought to 16 the number of full-time and ongoing sites administered by the team and pushed past 20 the number of combined websites created.

The team also had the sad duty in midyear of creating a special mini site devoted to the passing of popular Top Fuel star Darrell Russell that was updated throughout the year with news about services, reflections, and benefit events.

2005: New members section, new sheriff in town
After five incredible years, Friar announced in January that he was leaving NHRA to work for Top Fuel racer Doug Herbert to help develop e-commerce solutions for Herbert's mail-order business, though he agreed to stay on as a consultant until the new webmaster was hired.

Friar's last official duty was the completion of another extremely ambitious project, a special section for NHRA members that was launched in February and gave NHRA members the ability to access special features and listen to national event audiocasts for three days instead of just the traditional Sunday-only program. Members were now able to find events and tracks near them based on ZIP code, communicate with NHRA's Membership Services department, and much more, and racers also had custom points tracking. It was a major project, fraught with complications and enhanced security features, but the section launched successfully and registrations have been impressive.

 
Current NHRA.com webmaster Jade Davidson

After an exhaustive search involving dozens of qualified candidates, NHRA found its new webmaster in Jade Davidson, who had vast experience with similar racing sites, including the popular RaceFan site, which offers complete motorsports news and results. He also had worked with Valvoline, Primedia, NASCAR, USAC, and ASA Racing before joining the team in late May.

Other new features were added in 2005, including the immensely popular Geiger Counter, authored by (of course) Geiger, which debuted in April (and already has nearly 100 entries), and the NHRA.com blog, which opened in April to keep visitors abreast of new features and other site-related news. The team also opened its salute to Warren Johnson's final full season behind the wheel for his School's Out tour, tracking his season to date and sharing his memories from the tracks along the NHRA tour.

The season also proved to be among the frustrating because traffic, driven by various methods, including a partnership with ESPN.com, surged by 30 percent, overwhelming NHRA's database servers. NHRA CIO Doug Caton and the NHRA Information Technology department, assisted by Davidson and Friar, spent hours optimizing tens of thousands of lines of code, and Caton purchased a powerful new SQL server to meet traffic needs well into the future. The final work was completed last week, ensuring a happy 10th birthday for motorsports' first full-time site and ensuring its continuing legacy.

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