NHRA: New president Peter Clifford full of ideas to get drag racing back on-track

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While questions continue to surround the abrupt retirement of NHRA president Tom Compton, replacement Peter Clifford has the experience and apparently plenty of ideas already to get the sport of drag racing moving forward and out of neutral.

Over the last several seasons, it is no secret that the NHRA has experienced several challenges, including:

1) Attendance issues at a number of tracks.

2) Was almost forced to cancel an event just days before it took place this season (Topeka in May).

3) A significant turndown in both national and local media coverage in the 24 markets the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.

4) An increasing number of fans have been very vocal in their frustration over inconsistent TV coverage (particularly airing times).

Clifford, who was appointed president on Wednesday and has has been with the NHRA for 18 years, most recently as vice president/general manager and chief financial officer, appears ready to hit the ground running like a high-powered Top Fuel dragster.

His comments during Wednesday’s national teleconference announcing his appointment as NHRA president give the indication that this was something that had been in the works for quite a while.

Compton had been conspicuously absent from national events since late February, prompting the organization to take the unusual step in early June of issuing a media release that he was taking time away to deal with unspecified family and personal issues.

Those issues apparently were significant enough that it prompted his retirement from NHRA at the age of 56 and after 22 years of service to the organization.

While we may never know the real reason why Compton stepped down, Clifford feels confident that he can reinvigorate the sport in quick fashion.

“Over the last couple months, the leadership team at NHRA has worked on a number of initiatives, and we’re eager to roll them out over the next couple of months,” he said in Wednesday’s teleconference.

Those initiatives include:

1) Improved TV coverage. This will include bringing production of race broadcasts back in-house starting next season. Clifford also hinted there could be a change in TV coverage. ESPN has covered the sport the last several years, but fans have complained vocally about airing times, scheduled channel changes or last-minute changes to the airing schedule.

2) Improve participation in the Sportsman (amateur) racing ranks, as well as support of member tracks where those Sportsman drivers race. “We know we need to develop more Sportsman racing going forward, and we have a plan to do that,” Clifford said.

3) Expanding – and finding new – sponsorships. “We’re going to be adding more resources to this area, and we’re going to have some announcements on that, as well,” Clifford said. However, that could be a difficult sell, as a number of teams have lost long-term sponsors in recent years, most notably 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who parted ways after last season with Castrol Oil after nearly 30 years, and with Ford after nearly 20 years. If Force couldn’t keep his long-time partners, how will NHRA find new ones? Fortunately for Force, he was able to bring in Peak Antifreeze, Chevrolet and Monster Energy to his four-car team for 2015.

4) Expand media coverage. This could be even more difficult than finding new sponsorships. With significant declines particularly in newspaper and web site staffing over the last several years, NHRA press rooms have grown increasingly empty. “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,” Clifford said. “We’re going to be adding some resources, and we’re excited about that, as well.”

5) Improved competition at national events. With classes such as Pro Stock having difficulty getting a bare minimum of 16 cars to show up for national events, this could be the biggest challenge of all for Clifford. While it wasn’t all too long ago that NHRA considered expanding the schedule, don’t be surprised if it cuts the current 24-race schedule to 18 to 20 in 2016 to play to the strongest markets it has.

6) New fan development. NHRA has attempted to attract new fans for the last several years with mixed results. “Our goal is to get more people exposed to our sport in order to increase participation and to add fans,” Clifford said.

Clifford has a big job ahead of him, no question. Compared to Compton, Clifford has to become more proactive and start forging new partnerships and relationships.

Most importantly, he has to find a way to sell the sport to the next generation. While high-profile drivers like Courtney and Brittany Force will help, NHRA needs to start grooming even more younger talent and put them in the spotlight.

Unfortunately, both the current and next generations have so many distractions vying for their time and money, drag racing hasn’t been as high on its priority list as it might have been when their parents and grandparents were there ages back in the day.

There’s no question that a lot of work has to be done within NHRA to get it back down the right track. Its problems are not unique: other motorsports series such as NASCAR and IndyCar are battling similar problems.

But given the ideas, enthusiasm and forward vision Clifford seems to have, the world’s fastest sport may just start picking up some of the speed it’s been missing.

Follow @JerryBonkowski