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The Nitro Challenge 2015: A Melting Pot of Competition and Exhaustion

Article by Stephen Bess
The RC industry is better for having The Dirt Nitro Challenge in it. There’s simply nothing else like it. Several pros said that the DNC is “the RC world’s Daytona 500,” or is “the RC equivalent of Woodstock/Bonnaroo.” People come from all over the country, and all over the world, just to say they raced the Nitro Challenge. I’ve attended approximately 10 of the 16 Nitro Challenges, and this year’s was one for the ages in both good and not so good ways.

A short term memory is a racer’s best friend. It’s arguably the most important trait a racer can have. A memory span the size of a gnat helps racers forget about crashes, bad racing lines, and poor finishing results. It gives them optimism that next time will be different.

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Perhaps this is why the Dirt Nitro Challenge has grown over the years from a large race into a monstrosity of an event unequaled in size by any RC race in the world. A year later, racers have forgotten about the pain and exhaustion from last year’s event, and they’re excited once again, with good reason. Three tracks – 1/8-nitro, 1/10 electric and 1/5-scale gas – a festival-like atmosphere, and tight competition is what makes the Nitro Challenge the event of the year, every year.

After enduring a long weekend at the ’15 Nitro Challenge, I spent most of the 6-hour drive back to LA thinking about the race, the tired faces and red-eyes I witnessed everywhere, and the ways RC racing has evolved over the years. Back when the Nitro Challenge was held at Hemet, entries topped out at a few hundred.  There was basically one track, although a tiny electric track behind the drivers’ stand functioned as a playground for racers’ children. The DNC had 3 nitro classes – buggy, truggy and 1/10 gas truck. Everyone raced in the same class and there was an A to a Z main, separated by qualifying times. There was no sportsman/expert/pro. We all raced together. Only a handful of RVs and trailers were on-site, because there was so little parking area available. And although the race was exhausting, there was plenty of time for a late-night “Driver’s Social” party at a local bar, where we would relax and unwind together after the long day.

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My how times have changed. This article is the article you probably won’t read anywhere else, because writing about challenges, problems and issues isn’t PC in the RC world. Oh well; I’m old enough to not care and to know that things don’t change until they are discussed out in the open. I have the utmost respect and admiration for Joey and The Dirt crew — what they have built is mind boggling. Growth is good, and it’s important to sustain a business in today’s economy.

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The questions everyone seemed to ask this weekend, however, were, “At what point does this get way out of control? At what point does this cease to be racing, and it becomes a torturous endurance event? If 2,000 people showed up next year, would it be a 24-hour race?” If the Nitro Challenge started in ’01 in its infancy as a cute baby pet lizard, the 2015 DNC has grown into an alarming 2,000lb pet crocodile. The question becomes, how does one contain this thing?

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As it was this year, the ’15 DNC nearly was a 24-hour event. Due to technical issues involving generators, race computers with no backup system, and an avalanche of last-minute entries, Day 1 of racing became Day 1.5 of last minute qualifiers and races, with the final race wrapping up at a “just shoot me now” 3AM. Sportsmen/Expert drivers who had raced at 2 or 3AM then had to be back at the track at 8AM for the next day’s that day’s races. Pros were allowed to run earlier in the day, get some sleep and race later the next day. Racers were exhausted, and several questioned what they were doing there. I heard more than a few guys say, “I’m so tired I can’t think straight.”

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I walked around the pit area during my 3-days at the race, and I spoke with racers at length about their experience. The responses I received were nearly identical, with only a few exceptions. The social aspect of the DNC is unrivaled, and a significant reason many racers attend in the first place. Motorhomes, 5th-wheel trailers and RVs are parked as far as the eye can see to create an RC-racer village.

Yet racers also told me through bloodshot eyes and stuffy noses, “This race has too many entries.  It is the biggest race of the year, and it’s fun, but I’m absolutely ready to pass out.”  One racer said, “This race is our Daytona 500 — it’s the biggest, baddest race of the year, so you gotta just endure the pain to get through it.” 

Endure the pain? Is that what racing expensive toy cars is about now?

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The compassion and understanding of RC racers should not be underestimated, either. Sure, we are a primarily rough, outspoken, loud and blue-collar group of guys, but the patience I witnessed during the power outages, computer problems and delays impressed me. Guys were complaining under their breath, but when it came down to it, they were there for that 5-10minutes of magic on the track. Well, that and the BBQ and beer in the pit area. It comes back to that short term memory again. Forget the bad parts, and focus on the good. The Fear Farm track layout looked fun, flowing and less technical than last year’s layout, which made for exciting racing — in fact, the racing was some of the best in the event’s history.

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What racers hope for in the future, as it relates to the Nitro Challenge, is for its continued success. This article is written in hopes that the DNC goes on for another 16-years. But this year’s race concerned lots of people. With 3 tracks running at the same time, almost a thousand racers in attendance, and unthinkable amounts of money spent by racers to just be there, the Nitro Challenge must run like a well oiled machine to succeed year after year. The reward for attending a nearly week-long event must match its risk and cost, and many racers questioned that balance this year.

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The industry loves Joey Christensen and the experience he has created in the Nitro Challenge. He is a master track builder and event promoter, and it’s impossible to not like him. For the DNC to continue in a positive, fun and enjoyable way, the racers deserve (and demand, behind closed doors) to have the event tightened up and improved.

So what were racers talking about? These topics came up time and again when I talked about the race with a wide variety of people.

* Scheduling. Racers desire a solid schedule they can rely upon. If this means having multiple backup generators and computers, then so be it. If it means having an entry deadline a month earlier so everything can be sorted by race day, so be it. Sitting in a motorhome 500-yards away from racing, unable to hear the pit monitors, is unnerving because you never know when your race may be up.

* Reduced entries, for an improved schedule.  If I heard one phrase the most this weekend, countless times, it was simply this: This race has tooooo many entries. The Nitro Challenge is, we can safely assume, The Dirt Racing’s biggest and most profitable race of the year. Right on Joey, make money. But to have unlimited entries, with pros paying to run in expert classes for more track time, and guys running 4-5 classes only to get a single practice session before qualifying starts — racers told me that they didn’t appreciate that this year. Who knows what the solution may be; cap the entires, and increase the entry fee? Racers will still show up, and the event will still sell out. The difference might be happier, well rested racers.

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* Actual seating for spectators. For RC racing to grow in a healthy way, it needs spectators — the kind of spectators that aspire to do what we do. And the Fear Farm facility has a nearly-endless number of potential future RC racers right there on the premises, because the majority of the ‘Farm’s facility is occupied by hundreds of kids and their parents at the soccer fields. Why not invite as many of those children’s soccer teams over as possible to watch the incredible spectacle that is RC racing? No one can, because there’s NO SEATING ANYWHERE. Race participants have to sit around the track on hay bales — feet dangling precariously over the straightaways and at the end of pit lane–and climb atop shipping containers to watch the A-mains. How about some rented bleachers along the back straightaway, filled with locals, families and kids? Could you imagine the growth potential for RC?

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* Racers entered into the appropriate classes. Unless you’re a pro racing in the pro class, racing the DNC and expecting a fair fight can be challenging when racers with vastly superior skill-sets pay to enter lower classes just to get more track time. At some point, the racers must find their sense of pride and honor, and enter a class that will challenge their abilities rather than allow them to easily make the A-main. How this will ever happen is a mystery to me.

* Fewer late nights. Racing an RC car at 3AM should be something that happens while you’re in college, on a Friday night, at a frat party, by choice. After starting the day at 7-8AM, a 3AM tee-time doesn’t seem like a good idea…especially to the sportsman/expert guys who truly support the hobby with their hard earned dollars.

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So the Nitro Challenge is over. The competition was incredible. The track was fast and fun. The carnival atmosphere is unmatched. The scheduling was not.  Stuff happens and everyone knows that, but it seemed like the entries got way out of control. But guess what; that short term memory we all have means we will probably return next year, optimistic once again that the pain won’t outweigh the fun.

Knowing Joey and The Dirt Crew’s passion for this event, I’m confident that they’ll straighten it out in their own way. And the Nitro Challenge certainly isn’t the only race guilty of allowing unlimited entries; it happens elsewhere, and racers are tired and miserable there too. Much like Bonnaroo and Coachella, the Nitro Challenge’s festival/party atmosphere takes on a personality of its own where attendees are both ecstatic and, at some point, regretful to be there.  

When the program runs smoothly, everyone is happy. We can only imagine how much work goes into making the Nitro Challenge a successful event. With the lessons learned from this year’s insanity, I can bet that most racers are already planning to return, confident that Joey and The Dirt Crew will sort out the challenges for a smoother, shorter program next year. The Dirt crew are pros, and they obviously take personal pride in putting on a top-shelf show — which they have done, repeatedly for 16 years.

Indeed, a racer’s short term memory is his biggest strength and weakness. We will be there in 2016; will you?

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