Aaron Polburn - Sweet Talking Visionary

By Jim Luikens

Aaron serves as the Night of Fire
emcee dressed for the occasion.
Aaron Polburn’s first job in drag racing was to hand out E.T. slips at Thompson Drag Raceway in his hometown of Thompson, Ohio when he was just 12 years of age. Unfortunately no one told him to match the time slip to a specific car. He thought he had the easiest job in the world until a hornet’s nest of angry drivers descended on him, demanding their rightful slip. This is the story of Aaron Polburn, who’s learned more than a just a little bit about motorsports management since then.

Actually passing out the E.T. slips was his afternoon job at Thompson. In those days, before permanent numbers, he would spend the morning painting the car number and class onto each participant’s car. Both of those jobs were just his race day duties. During the week he cut the grass, worked in facility maintenance and handled the trash.

By age 15 his race day duties had expanded to helping the tech guys. One race day the track’s announcer quit unexpectedly. The track operator then asked for a volunteer from among his staff. When no one was willingly stepped forward Aaron was drafted and his announcing career began. He recalls today that he pretty much limited his first announcing to just the car’s number and time. However, slowly he acquired the taste for microphone duty.

The next year he was 16 and he expanded his scope again to learn promoting from the track’s General Manager. Suddenly, he was writing radio commercials and designing track fliers while he was still in high school. Meanwhile, he was a pretty good high school athlete with a real opportunity to play baseball. However, he destroyed his right knee when he was a senior and never again heard from the college recruiters that had been pursuing him.

The damage to his knee ruined any chance for a college athletic scholarship. But he was still able to get some financial assistance via an educational scholarship. To augment the scholarship dollars he began a taxi service that made the four-hour trip from southern Ohio back to Cleveland each weekend. He had to make the trip anyway since he was now announcing at not just the drags, but an oval track as well, in the Cleveland area. Each Friday he would pull out from school heading north towards Cleveland and then return again Sunday night after his announcing duties were completed.

He eventually graduated from college with a Bachelor of Arts Degree, specializing in Radio and TV Journalism. Upon graduation he went back to his old stomping grounds, which by now was known as the United States Auto Raceways. Not only did they own his beloved Thompson Drag Raceway but they had also added Dragway 42, another Cleveland area drag strip while he was gone. On the oval track side-of-things they owned area short tracks Lorain County, Cloverleaf and Painesville. Aaron’s job was to run the drag racing entities and help out on the ovals as needed.

Polburn enjoys some of Clay Millican's humor.
Wanting to grow in the business world, he and a group of buddies leased the Painesville track. Simultaneously he still worked at Thompson Drag Raceway in some capacity. After a few seasons off this dual arrangement he realized that he really didn’t like oval track racing all that much. Looking to grow again he and Bill Bader founded Concepts Incorporated as an indoor motorsports sanctioning body in 1983. He had originally gotten to know Bill as a consultant for Bader's drag racing operation. After having originally started the business alongside Bill he later bought out Bill’s portion in year 10 of the company’s existence.
Concepts Incorporated’s primary product was the Thunder Nationals, literally a 5-ring motorized circus. After growing that business for a decade and a half he had a chance to sell it to Clear Channel Entertainment in 1998. Thinking that some less hectic times were ahead he seized the opportunity. Instead things went the other way when Bill Bader, his long time sidekick and business partner, bought the IHRA. On very short notice Aaron was asked if he wanted to be a part of the new IHRA. Thinking that there was some fun to be had again, he became a minority investor alongside Bill’s majority position.

Instead of the fun that he was expecting he found he had yet another tiger by the tail when the business grew. In 2001 he sold his portion of the IHRA to Clear Channel. Choosing to remain with the company, his sale allowed him to direct his full energies to those parts of the business that he knows the best, Announcing, Marketing and Growing Ticket Sales.

One new marketing wrinkle introduced recently was the announcement of not just one, but two Nights of Fire at most IHRA national events. Theoretically, if a fan was tied up on Saturday night he could also see the same show on Friday night. Most of the remaining events this season will feature that entertainment format with an adequate promotional ad budget to let the public know about the new format.

Looking ahead, Aaron sees many opportunities for the IHRA. The IHRA staff is working hard and everyone involved is very committed. They are learning how to leverage the assets of Clear Channel to grow the IHRA. Currently the drag racing business, using its traditional business model, is stagnant at a time when it should be growing by 15% annually.

Aaron collects his thoughts
before another day of racing.
Aaron himself is optimistic on some of the alternative forms of drag racing that the IHRA is experimenting with this year. In addition to their traditional national events, the IHRA has experimented with Street Warz. One such event, in Edinburg, Texas, was a huge success. Scheduled to run from 8pm to 3am, the gates had to be opened at 6pm due to the large crowd that had already assembled.

Catering to a different fan base, the event featured a band, a bikini contest, a car cram (won by the 17 people that squeezed themselves into a Honda and drove to the starting line) and grudge racing without scoreboards where you could pick your opponent. Occasionally the scoreboards would be turned on for a limited period of time so that those who desired could try to record the quickest E.T. or the highest mile-per-hour of the evening.

In closing, Aaron wants everyone to know that traditional sportsman drag racing will always be the base of the IHRA business model no matter what other experiments that they try. The marathons (national events) are here to stay even as the IHRA searches for a shorter entertainment package to present to those that only want to spend an evening, instead of a weekend, at the track.

Aaron and the entire IHRA staff are not bound by any past rules, only common sense, as they shape the future. Having said that, they intend to offer every opportunity possible for the racers to enjoy their hobby and make it affordable. Anyone that doubts this is invited to call the IHRA’s home office. Aaron is as committed today as he was years ago, to making sure that every customer is satisfied and that they have the right time slip.