NORWALK, Ohio -- As it turns out fans weren't the only ones raving about the new-look Nitro Jam series at last month's Palm Beach Nitro Jam at Palm Beach International Raceway.
"I have traveled the circuit for 20-plus years. There are very few folks that have put on the miles we have. It was such a good feeling to win a race like this. We got treated better than the pros," said Hot Rod competitor R.L. Koontz. "We felt like we were high class this weekend. This wasn't like other events I have attended. The event was run so well that I was out of the track on Saturday night and on my way home.
"This format was the best I have ever seen. I really, really like it."
Koontz is one of the many sportsman drivers who gave the new format a try last month and in turn walked away with an Ironman and one of the first seven spots in the 2010 Tournament of Champions at Virginia Motorsports Park in October.
Koontz joined Mark Brown (Top Dragster), Keith Russell (Top Sportsman), Scott Richardson (Super Stock), Michael Beard (Stock), David Bledsoe (Quick Rod) and Steve Furr (Super Rod) as the first seven sportsman national event winners of 2010.
"I thought this event was neat. I could not believe the crowd that they drew. It was just unbelievable on Friday and Saturday night," said Koontz. "The sportsman program was superb. The facility was good, our parking was good and the track was good. All in all it was a great set-up."
"I thought it was a great race. The track was smooth, the traction was great and the race was smooth," said multi-time IHRA World Champion Steve Furr. "I don't know how anybody could complain. Personally, I thought it was a breath of fresh air. IHRA has a pretty cool deal going.
"They ran us until 4 p.m. The Pros didn't bother us. We ran unimpeded and we didn't impede on the Pros."
Along with a full day of uninterrupted racing, sportsman competitors also enjoyed one less day at the track. Drivers were able to get in their qualifying runs on day one followed by eliminations on the second day of competition.
While many veterans enjoyed the new look, for new drivers such as David Bledsoe it was above and beyond anything they had ever seen in the past - especially at the Palm Beach facility.
"This is the first time I have ever attended an IHRA Nitro Jam event. It was absolutely fantastic. I am a local boy. I grew up here and have never seen anything like it at West Palm. It was the biggest crowd in history," said Bledsoe. "The new race format is very racer friendly. There is such a difference between the treatment we received at this event versus the other sanctioning body.
"Every single IHRA official thanked us for racing here. I can't explain how great this felt."
Sportsman competitors at Palm Beach also enjoyed one of the largest final round crowds for the sportsman portion of the event in years due to the redesigned schedule. With sportsman final rounds coming just before Fan Fest and the start of Nitro Jam professional rounds spectators filled the stands to watch the best sportsman in the world compete for IHRA gold.
Following sportsman final rounds fans were invited to tour the pits and meet the drivers - both sportsman and pro - before taking their seats for the professional portion of the event later in the evening. Even the drivers had an opportunity to call it a day and enjoy the action-packed Nitro Jam event.
"My wife and I were discussing the new format and we came to the conclusion that the show portion is quite alright. Is it a traditional IHRA national event? Absolutely not. But that is exactly the point," said Beard. "Right now the market is crowded with NHRA, ADRL and Super Chevy style events. IHRA really did do a lot of neat things for the fans. No, it's not NHRA's little brother anymore and that is exactly the point."
And even during the professional rounds sportsman competition still played a key role. Recognizing the star power of IHRA's quickest and fastest sportsman categories, the newly created Harland Sharp Elite 8 series for Top Sportsman and Top Dragster competitors was a hit in its first time out as many of the top drivers in those categories competed for an additional trophy and prize money in front of a capacity crowd.
With Palm Beach Nitro Jam in the books, another set of sportsman competitors added their names to the list of 2010 Tournament of Champions qualifiers this past weekend at Immokalee Regional Raceway.
Those drivers were John Buening (Top Sportsman), Steve Furr (Top Dragster), Scott Richardson (Super Stock), Doug Humes (Super Rod), Jim Morrison (Quick Rod), Myron Piatek (Stock) and Kenny Underwood (Hot Rod).
With two tournament qualifiers already in the books drivers are already gearing up for the second Nitro Jam national event of the year March 6-7 at State Capitol Raceway in Baton Rouge.
Despite the perception of some, the reality is the new Nitro Jam format is a hit with sportsman competitors and promises to only get better as the season progresses. Don't miss your chance to be a part of this history making season at a Nitro Jam event near you.