It's said that when you get to the top, there's nowhere to go but down. After winning off-road racing's most prestigious challenge, the Baja 1000, Roger Norman could have stayed in the competition game, making a run at the record books and etching his name multiple times in the sport's storied history. Instead, when Roger got to the top of the proverbial hill, he decided to elevate the hill itself and bring the rest of the off-road racing world to a higher plane.
"As a racer, it was impossible to influence changes in the sport the way I wanted to," relates Roger. "I felt there was a lot of room for improvement on the race promotion side." With this in mind, Roger decided to trade his fire suit and steering wheel for racing equipment of a different sort. Roger's new equipment includes a pen, multiple cameras, a TV studio set, and smart phones and computers. The first move was to revive the HDRA name, which had been largely dormant since Sal Fish and Walt Lott merged SCORE and HDRA (High Desert Racing Association) in 1985.
The HDRA series is run exclusively in the United States and features amateur-level entry fees, tough courses, and easy logistics. For 2013, the four-race schedule includes the South Point Vegas 250, the King Shocks HDRA 250, the Eldorado Reno 500, and the Laughlin Desert Challenge. The Eldorado Reno 500 is a radical departure from tradition because it will take place completely on private land, affording spectators a generous view of the course from a single vantage point, and will allow competitors unlimited prerunning.
Norman was happy to own and promote the HDRA series, but he felt the pull of something even bigger. "After I'd gotten HDRA going, I called Sal Fish," he recalls. "I told him about HDRA and what I was doing. I told him I was interested in SCORE, and if a list of possible buyers existed that I wanted to be at the top of that list. I also told him that I didn't want to buy SCORE until I had some experience behind me with the HDRA series."
The HDRA schedule for 2012 included five races: Redline at Stateline, Imperial 250, Fireworks 500, Dusk-Til-Dawn, and Rockin' on the River. Promoting these races gave Roger the experience he was seeking. Now it was just a matter of whether or not Sal Fish was ready to call it a career, accept Roger's offer, and hand over the reins of SCORE.
Sal had wanted to see his SCORE tenure through until after the 45th running of the legendary Baja 1000. Roger had wanted to learn all sides of race promotion before taking the SCORE helm. Late December 2012 turned out to be when all the pieces of the puzzle came together. The deal had been about a year in the works, but the announcement took many by surprise.
As you might guess, Roger has a lot of ideas about how he'd like to shape off-road racing's future. "It's not that I want to make it more professional, because there are already many teams with a high level of professionalism. I want to make off-road racing more prominent. We have the most exciting form of motorsports there is. It's just a matter of showing the world what we've got."
How will off-road racing become more prominent? Norman sees two major avenues: worldwide television and social media. "In Europe, there's a great deal of interest. Every European who experiences American off-road racing falls in love with it. First, they're amazed that we have the space to do this kind of racing. Second, they can't believe the capabilities of the race vehicles we have. This is the only motorsport where there are unlimited classes that are truly unlimited: no limits on the suspension, brakes, or horsepower. The only limits are the construction methods and equipment that are mandated for safety."
Of course, to showcase off-road racing to the world, you've got to have action footage. GoPro-style video camera technology plays a key role. During a race, HDRA and SCORE staff members have many of their own cameras recording the action, but racing teams are encouraged to submit their footage after a race. "Even if a team doesn't win," Norman says, "they've still got the chance to be part of the show."
There's more to off-road racing than action footage, and Norman addresses other sides of the sport in his weekly show, "Dirt Live." "Dirt Live" is currently carried on the Internet, but the endgame is to have it on major networks. The show includes interviews, racer profiles, and news about upcoming races. Show host George Antill poses the questions and segues from one focal point to the next. "Dirt Live's" slogan, "promoting racers one interview at a time," speaks volumes about Norman's vision for racers and the sport they're a part of. Instead of passively allowing media to cover off-road racing, Roger is aggressively promoting the sport to the world at large.
Another side of promoting off-road racing is dealing with the general challenges the sport faces. Land access, safety issues, and environmental regulations are all major hurdles that must be overcome at each and every racing event. These challenges are different for HDRA and for SCORE. As mentioned, HDRA is run exclusively in the United States, while the SCORE races take place south of the border in Baja.
"In the United States, racing needs access to private property," asserts Roger. He's not just talking theory: The 2013 Reno 500 will take place on 139 square miles that he owns.
What about environmental issues? "Whether we're racing on private or public land, we need to abide by Tread Lightly ethics—self-policing so that every racer stays on the course is important."
Roger sees another way that off-road racing can realize a brighter future in the United States. "We need assumption of risk laws. Those laws already cover sporting events such as baseball and hockey. Assumption of risk laws place certain demands on the promoter. For instance, a hockey rink must have a barrier of a certain height between the ice and the crowd. At the same time, people in the crowd assume a certain amount of risk by being at the event. You have to stay alert because a hockey puck could fly into the stands. Assumption of risk laws define how much risk the promoter is liable for, and how much risk the spectators assume by being there. Off-road racing needs those laws, and I am working in Nevada to get them passed."
Facing the challenges in Baja is a bit murkier because it's tougher to control the spectators. Roger explains: "At the San Felipe 250 this year, we worked with the military and with the local police. On top of having law enforcement present, we put up snow fencing at Zoo Road to try to control the crowd. At a certain point, law enforcement just gave up because the crowd got too big and too crazy. We've got some ideas about different things we're going to try, but they're still in the development stage."
Along with new ideas for facing off-road racing's challenges, Norman has some new ideas for pre-race festivities. Tech and contingency operations have traditionally resembled street parties on both sides of the border. The plan is to kick up the concept several notches. For the Eldorado Reno 500 this year, Reno's main street will be closed to traffic so that the "Dirt Live" off-road expo can take place. Freestyle motocross, industry vendors, and the Monster Energy Ninja Stunt Team will all be a part of the festivities. South of the border at the SCORE Baja 500, tech and contingency will feature a central stage. As each team crosses the stage, they'll be interviewed live—a chance for the racers and fans to directly connect.
For some, it might be tempting to yearn for off-road racing's "good old days," but there's no escaping the onward march of time. We can't go back; forward is the only way. There's also no way to remain static: Off-road racing will either grow or shrink. By trading his driver's equipment for promoter's equipment, Roger Norman has expanded his sphere of influence. As a result, off-road racing's influence is expanding, as well. "We have a great opportunity to promote the companies and people who are already involved in this sport," Norman declares. Off-road racing's future looks bright as we motor onward in the 21st century.