ABU DHABI // Organisers of next weekend's inaugural drag racing competition at Abu Dhabi's Yas Marina Circuit hope it will rev up Arab motorsport. While there has been a marginal drag racing scene for some years at the Umm al Qaiwain raceway, the Abu Dhabi facility is the first track outside North America to be accredited by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), the US-based governing body for drag racing. Hopes are high that the 5,000 seats at the purpose-built Yas Marina drag racing strip will be filled, despite low attendance at the GP2 and V8 events held at the circuit last month.
"The NHRA wants to create a drag racing scene here that is competitive and safe," said Tom Compton, the president of the association. Rod Fuller, the champion US drag racer who has been hired by Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management (ADMM) to lead the driver training at the facility, is confident that crowds will be drawn to Yas Island next weekend. "Everything ADMM has done has been very calculated so far," he said. "It has been set up to succeed, they didn't overdo anything. They are starting with the small grandstands but there is room out there to expand if the crowds come, which I am sure they will."
Despite the global recession, Mr Compton is confident about expanding drag racing into Abu Dhabi and said the economic downturn has not significantly affected the American drag racing scene. "Everyone in US motorsport was affected one way or another by the recession but it was pretty good for us and we didn't get hit as hard as we thought we would." As well as fans still turning up to watch drag races, sponsorship has not dropped significantly because drag racing sponsorship is more affordable than other forms of motorsport, he added. "The NHRA offers great returns for a lower sponsorship spend; it doesn't cost much to play."
He was clearly impressed by the facilities on offer in Abu Dhabi. He described the facility at Yas Marina as "good or better than anything I've seen in North America", after his visit to the drag strip, support buildings and 5,000-seat grandstands. Hopes are high that the quality of the facility will attract Emiratis not only as spectators to the first drag racing event but also as drivers. "Getting Emirati drivers involved is the whole point of this facility," said Mr Compton, adding that the investment Abu Dhabi Motorsports Management has put into developing Yas Marina Circuit and opening a professional drag racing school played an important part in the NHRA granting accreditation.
"We want to provide training in the various drag racing disciplines to develop safe, professional drivers. The interest is here, the passion is here." The accessible nature of drag racing is another factor which he hopes will increase the popularity of the sport in the UAE. "Every ticket is a pit pass," he said. "Between the races, spectators can get into the open pits, see the cars being worked on and get autographs."
As well as races and a drag racing school, the plans for Abu Dhabi also include corporate days and street legal days when members of the public will be able to use their own cars on the track. Mr Compton and George Case, the drag facility's senior track manager, both hope that a successful event in Abu Dhabi next weekend will help build interest in the sport in other GCC countries. "It is basically a US sport but we are looking to work with other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait," said Mr Case.
"It is just talk at this stage but within a year or so there should be progress." He added that the North American off-season for drag racing runs from December to February, which is when the weather in the UAE is ideal for the sport and this may attract US and Canadian drivers to Abu Dhabi. Mr Compton said that before he visited Abu Dhabi, he went to Bahrain where drag racing has been popular at the Bahrain International Circuit Grand Prix track.
"I had a meeting with Sheikh Salman and he is a big drag racing fan and very keen to promote the sport." He cited the involvement of Qatar's Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad al Thani and his Al-Anabi drag racing team, and plans in Saudi Arabia for a new drag racing facility in Riyadh as further signs that the GCC could become the biggest market for the sport outside of North America. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org