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

Justin Grant prevails over Kyle Larson in the Turkey Night Grand Prix

Grant Larson Turkey Night
USACRacing.com / DB3 Inc.
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On the heels of his Hangtown 100 victory, Justin Grant worked his way from 13th in the Turkey Night Grand Prix to beat three-time event winner Kyle Larson by 1.367 seconds. The 81st annual event was run at Ventura (Calif.) Raceway for the sixth time.

“My dad used to take me to Irwindale Speedway, and we’d watch Turkey Night there every year,” Grant said in a series press release. “This is one of the races I fell in love with. I didn’t think I’d ever get a chance to run in it, never thought I’d make a show and certainly never thought I’d be able to win one.”

With its genesis in 1934 at Gilmore Stadium, a quarter-mile dirt track in Los Angeles, the race is steeped in history with winners that include AJ Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Gary Bettenhausen and Johnnie Parsons. Tony Stewart won it in 2000. Kyle Larson won his first of three Turkey Night Grands Prix in 2012. Christopher Bell earned his first of three in 2014, so Grant’s enthusiasm was well deserved.

So was the skepticism that he would win. He failed to crack the top five in three previous attempts, although he came close last year with a sixth-place result. When he lined up for the feature 13th in the crowded 28-car field, winning seemed like a longshot.

Grant watched as serious challengers fell by the wayside. Mitchel Moles flipped on Lap 10 of the feature. Michael “Buddy” Kofoid took a tumble on Lap 68 and World of Outlaws Sprint car driver Carson Macedo flipped on Lap 79. Grant saw the carnage ahead of him and held a steady wheel as he passed Tanner Thorson for the lead with 15 laps remaining and stayed out of trouble for the remainder of the event.

“It’s a dream come true to win the Turkey Night Grand Prix,” Grant said.


Kyle Larson follows Justin Grant to the front on Turkey Night

The 2012, 2016 and 2019 winner, Larson was not scheduled to run the event. His wife Katelyn is expecting their third child shortly, but after a couple of glasses of wine with Thanksgiving dinner and while watching some replays of the event, Larson texted car owner Chad Boat to see if he had a spare car lying around. He did.

“We weren’t great but just hung around and it seemed like anybody who got to the lead crashed and collected some people,” Larson said. “We made some passes throughout; in the mid-portion, we weren’t very good but then we got better at the end.

“I just ran really, really hard there, and knew I was running out of time, so I had to go. I made some pretty crazy and dumb moves, but I got to second and was hoping we could get a caution to get racing with Justin there. He was sliding himself at both ends and thought that maybe we could get a run and just out-angle him into [Turn] 1 and get clear off [Turn] 2 if we got a caution, but it just didn’t work out.”

Larson padded one of the most impressive stats in the history of this race, however. In 10 starts, he’s won three times, finished second four times, was third once and fourth twice.

Bryant Wiedeman took the final spot on the podium.

As Grant and Larson began to pick their way through the field, Kofoid took the lead early from the outside of the front row and led the first 44 laps of the race before handing it over to Cannon McIntosh, who bicycled on Lap 71 before landing on all fours. While Macedo and Thorson tussled for the lead with McIntosh, Grant closed in.

Thorson finished 19th with McIntosh 20th. Macedo recovered from his incident to finish ninth. Kofoid’s hard tumble relegated him to 23rd.

Jake Andreotti in fourth and Kevin Thomas, Jr. rounded out the top five.

1. Justin Grant (started 13)
2. Kyle Larson (22)
3. Bryant Wiedeman (4)
4. Jake Andreotti (9)
5. Kevin Thomas Jr. (1)
6. Logan Seavey (8)
7. Alex Bright (27)
8. Emerson Axsom (24)
9. Carson Macedo (7)
10. Jason McDougal (18)
11. Jake Swanson (16)
12. Chase Johnson (6)
13. Jacob Denney (26)
14. Ryan Timms (23)
15. Chance Crum (28)
16. Brenham Crouch (17)
17. Jonathan Beason (19)
18. Cade Lewis (14)
19. Tanner Thorson (11)
20. Cannon McIntosh (3)
21. Thomas Meseraull (15)
22. Tyler Courtney (21)
23. Buddy Kofoid (2)
24. Brody Fuson (5)
25. Mitchel Moles (20)
26. Daniel Whitley (10)
27. Kaylee Bryson (12)
28. Spencer Bayston (25)