Up in smoke? The NHRA at a crossroads

With a new president, can the National Hot Rod Association move to the next level?

Up in smoke? The NHRA at a crossroads
Top Fuel winner Antron Brown
Top Fuel winner Antron Brown
Antron Brown
John Force
Funny Car winner John Force
Pro Stock winner Erica Enders
Erica Enders
Hector Arana Jr.
Hector Arana Jr.
Hector Arana
John Force and Courtney Force
Hector Arana Sr.
NHRA President Tom Compton

The National Hot Rod Association has a difficult, perhaps painful decision to make: Continue with business as usual, with one of the oldest average-age fan and participant base in motorsports, or try to take drag racing to the next level?

Normally I don’t like to use terms like “the next level,” because they’re convenient catch-alls that really don’t mean much. In this case, though, it sort of works. The NHRA is viewed in the industry as a very traditional sanctioning body that resists major changes, due in part perhaps to a leadership team that has been in place for a very long time.

In one sense, that’s commendable: It brings a sense of stability to the sport. But a team like that may be resistant to new ideas, to change, to evolving sponsor needs. Ford, for example, once a mainstay in the NHRA, dropped its sponsorship of John Force’s team after 20 years, and pulled completely out of pro drag racing. Force’s main sponsor, Castrol, dropped him after 30 years.

And it wasn’t because Force and his team weren’t winning, because they were. And are. Force has rebounded with sponsorship from Peak and Chevrolet, but at what is, by several accounts, a reduced rate. With Ford’s director of racing, Jamie Allison, moving on to a different non-motorsports job within the company, there may be a chance Ford might return, because I can tell you that as long as Allison was in charge, there was no chance of a return to the NHRA or, for that matter, IndyCar.

As for Force: He’s still winning, and his four-car team remains the sport’s biggest draw. But Ford not seeing the value in top-rung drag racing is a problem.

The TV stepchild

Not helping is NHRA’s television deal with ESPN, which has long treated drag racing like an unwanted stepchild. When ESPN had a teleconference with its executives about its motorsports plans going forward after it lost NASCAR, I asked Rich Feinberg, vice-president for motorsports production, if this might mean that the network may finally pay more attention to the NHRA. Here is his response:

“Well, in addition to the NHRA, where we've had a long-standing partnership and continue to have one is in the IndyCar Series, particularly the Indianapolis 500. This year, this past year was the 50th anniversary of ABC's coverage of the Indy 500, and next year it'll be the 99th Indy 500, and of particular interest to me as a race fan, the chance to do the 100th Indy 500 in two years.”

Yes. Well. I took that as a “no.”

While the ESPN on-air announcers do the best they can, the telecast itself has suffered from what I’m told is an insurance-related decision to do all track photography by robot, with fixed cameras. Gone is the cool starting-line video of the camera panning alongside a race car from a foot away as it starts its burnout: It’s all done from the truck. And try to find any meaningful NHRA coverage on ESPN’s web site – aside from perfunctory Associated Press accounts of race results, there’s nothing there. And hasn’t been for a long time.

Compton out, Clifford in

I bring all this up because the NHRA has a new president. The past president, Tom Compton, in the job since 2000, has been missing in action since spring, and rumors have been widely circulated that suggest he has had some personal problems, something the NHRA would not address in the press conference that announced the fact that the NHRA’s chief financial officer, Peter Clifford, was the new president, beginning July 1.

When Compton took the job in 2000 he came to the Michigan office of Car and Driver magazine, where I was the executive editor, for a meeting. And since then, I spoke to him once, at the announcement in Charlotte for the new drag strip there. He has not been a consistent out-front leader, the way, say, Brian France is at NASCAR. But that is not a criticism of Compton.

This is, though: The NHRA has addressed some fairly pressing concerns over the years with the speed of a glacier. With some notable exceptions, such as cutting the length of the drag strip from 1,320 feet, a quarter-mile, to 1,000 feet for the Top Fuel and Funny Cars, the attitude at the NHRA seems to be this: It’s how we have always done it, and that’s how we’ll always do it.

That said, I readily admit that the sport is limited in to what extent it can freelance the format – after all, it’s two cars, one strip. And when Charlotte track owner Bruton Smith strong-armed the sport into allowing cars to run four-wide at his new track, the novelty made a huge splash, but has worn off, and most fans and competitors agree that it’s almost more of a distraction than a consistent marketing plan.

To sell or not to sell

So, back to that “next level” thing.

Rumors have persisted for years that the NHRA is up for sale. Recently the NHRA endorsed the rumor by approving the sale of its top four pro categories – Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and possibly Pro Stock Motorcycle – but that is misleading, as the approval only means they can sell those four classes, not that they have, or will. The assumption is that somebody would acquire the pro classes, take them to that next level, and the NHRA would use that money to do what they do best: Manage the thousands of sportsman racers scattered across the country that many of us never hear about, but who make up the vast majority of the dues-paying NHRA membership.

This is nothing new, rumor-wise: Since 2007, the NHRA has been sold to racer Billy Meyer, HD Partners, Feld Entertainment, Direct TV, Dish Network, Bruton Smith, NASCAR, Clear Channel, and most recently a sheik from Bahrain.

But Clifford, the new NHRA president, said in a teleconference last week that no part of the NHRA is for sale. “I know there was a rumor out there the last couple weeks about us being sold to Bahrain or something like that, and these rumors circulate. It's not true. We're going forward as a company. We're very excited about the initiatives we have that I mentioned today. We're confident about our future and the company is not for sale.”

But there are, he said, lots of “exciting” announcements to be made soon. How exciting? He used the word three times – in just his opening statement. As far as his aforementioned “initiatives,” they are, in his words:

“First, improved television. We understand from a lot of our constituents that we need to address some of the issues facing television, and we have some exciting announcements to come on that in short order.

“Second, increase Sportsman participation and support our member tracks. At the heart of our pyramid, and we look at the sport as a pyramid, we have our Mello Yello Series on the top, at the base is all our Sportsman racing, and we know we need to develop more Sportsman racing going forward, and we have a plan to do that.

“No. 3, expanding marketing partnerships or better known as sponsorships. We're going to be adding more resources to this area, and we're going to have some announcements on that, as well.

“No. 4, expand media coverage. We want to make sure we get the coverage that we deserve as the No. 2 motorsports property in the country, and we have a plan in place to do that. We're going to be adding some resources, and we're excited about that, as well.

“No. 5, improved competition at national events.

“No. 6, which is certainly impacted by the first five, new fan development, and last but not least because obviously new fan development is extremely important to us. Our goal is to get more people exposed to our sport in order to increase participation and to add fans.”

PR problems

Well, that’s all good. Let me address one of those initiatives: NHRA’s public relations staff, which are the point people for media coverage, are great at the track level – guys like Anthony Vestal and Scott Smith are as good as they come. But at the overarching strategic level, the NHRA has done a miserable job for years.

That appeared to be changing late last year when they hired auto industry veteran Geno Effler, who promptly started thinking outside the box, and some non-traditional media coverage followed quickly. Then a few races into the 2015 season, as Effler was making some long-range plans, Tom Compton fired him, to the surprise of pretty much everybody in the NHRA press room. Even Effler isn’t sure why. I have an idea: He isn’t a good old boy.

Consider this: Dallas Gardner, chairman of the board, has been an NHRA executive since 1973, and has been chairman since 2000.

Graham Light, a former Top Fuel driver, has been the senior vice-president of racing operations for 21 years.

Tom Compton joined the NHRA in 1993, and became its president seven years later.

Peter Clifford joined the NHRA in 1997, and was its chief financial officer until being elevated to president on July 1.

That makes Clifford the rookie, with “only” 18 years of service. Why are all these new, “exciting” ideas surfacing now, if the top four executives have been in place longer than some of its drivers have been alive?

New ideas

I am not remotely suggesting that to generate new ideas, you need new people. But you need, at least, veterans who can embrace new ideas. That, we haven’t seen much of. Compton did indeed steer the NHRA through the 2008-and-beyond recession with skill, but aside from shortening the track, his other main claim to fame is the complicated “Countdown to the Championship,” the series’ awkward answer to NASCAR’s Chase, which was that series’ awkward answer to every other form of sports’ playoff system.

Bottom line: While we tend to focus on the NHRA’s Pro Classes – the Mello Yello Series – the NHRA is so much more. There’s the Lucas Oil Divisional Series, the Lucas Oil Regional series, the NHRA J&A Service Pro Mod Series, the Hot Rod Heritage Series, Hot Rod Reunions, the Summit JDRL Challenge, the Summit E.T. Finals, the Summit Junior Drag Racing League, the King of the Track, the National Dragster Challenge, the NHRA Harley-Davidson Drag Racing Series – that’s just a sample. The NHRA has so much on its plate. Maybe they need to place the Pro classes in the hands of a group that can, to get back to the original premise, take it to the next level.

One huge advantage the NHRA has: Enormous and successful participation at the very top level by women and racial minorities. In Top Fuel, Antron Brown, an African American, is leading the points. In Pro Stock, Erica Enders, the current champ, is second in points. In Pro Stock Motorcycle, Karen Stoffer is second in points, with two wins. Hector Arana is fifth in points, and his son, Hector Jr., is fourth. Both have an enormous Puerto Rican following.

And there the two Force sisters, Top Fuel driver Brittany and Funny Car driver Courtney. Funny Car driver Alexis De Joria is the daughter of John Paul DeJoria, billonaire co-founder of Paul Mitchell hair care products, and Tequila Patron. And she's married to Jesse James. And she started from the grassroots level, a very un-billionaire-heiress thing to do.

There are so many great NHRA stories out there.  

The Sports Car Club of America once tried to do it all – grassroots racing, up to and including the Pro level. They took a step back and let most of the professional series like Trans-Am go. It was a smart move.

And like the SCCA and its successful nemesis, NASA, the NHRA has the newly invigorated International Hot Rod Association making some interesting moves. Do you concentrate on defense, offense or, well, neither one?

Peter Clifford has some “exciting” plans – we know that. And we await the details.

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