Top drivers, team official offer thoughts on how to get NHRA back on-track

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In less than two months on the job as president of the NHRA, Peter Clifford has already made several significant changes and upgrades (with the promise of even more change to come):

* NHRA is buying out the final year of and will end its current TV contract with ESPN at season’s end, in favor of a larger and more comprehensive package with Fox Sports starting in 2016.

* There have been new immediate rules changes in the fledgling Pro Stock category, and with more to come in 2016.

* NHRA hired veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount as vice president of communications for the sanctioning body to improve its media outreach and exposure.

But there’s still plenty for Clifford to do to turn around the NHRA, particularly with sagging attendance and other issues at some tracks.

Eight-time Top Fuel champ Tony Schumacher and former Funny Car champ “Fast Jack” Beckman recently shared suggestions with MotorSportsTalk on what they’d like to see Clifford and NHRA do.

“I feel like the sport hasn’t gotten the notoriety it deserves,” Schumacher said. “I think it’s the greatest sport that’s ever been live in the history of the world.”

But, Schumacher acknowledges, “There’s something missing here, but I know it’s here. We just have to bring it out and get fans that have never been to one of these races. I mean, everyone that comes out to a race for the first time says the same thing: ‘I’ve never been to one of these before. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen. See you next year.’”

One of the bigger challenges NHRA faces is offshoot racing series such as the increasingly popular Street Outlaws, the revitalized Pinks: All Out, nostalgia racing, Super Chevy and All-Mopar (and Chevy and Ford) shows and local independent tracks and other drag racing series.

“(Street Outlaws is) fun to watch,” Schumacher said. “But I don’t want to give the kids out there the wrong idea that people are actually out there on those shows doing that stuff with kids standing on the side of the road. … It is sanctioned. But what they’re not getting across is when you get a kid at home thinking he can just hop in his car and do that, people get hurt.

“Wally Parks founded NHRA to get kids off the street, put them in-between guardrails with safety people here. That’s what I’m for. Is the show good? All the shows are good. I love racing. … Racing has been around for a long, long time. The first time two cars were side-by-side, someone had to see who had the faster car – and that will go to the end of time. But I think what we do is the right way to do it.”

Beckman has had a tremendous Funny Car season thus far in 2015 with a series-high five wins – including the last two events in a row. A veteran of nearly 30 years of drag racing, he began on the grassroots level in his native Southern California before reaching the big time.

One way Beckman suggests for NHRA to attract more fans is to revisit the ticket pricing structure.

“We’re competing for discretionary income out there and I am concerned,” Beckman said. “I think our tickets are the bargain of the century.

“If you look at the price to go to an NHRA race for what you get, it’s a smokin’ deal. Disneyland is something like $93 for one person, per day. A lift ticket at a ski resort 20 miles from Pomona (Calif., site of the NHRA’s season-opening and closing events) is $64 a day.

“However, you can’t argue with empty seats. So, I think maybe we need to say, lower the prices in certain sections. And I know NHRA says ‘Every ticket is a pit pass,’ but 30 years ago, not every ticket was a pit pass. If you wanted to go into the pits, you had to upgrade and pay extra.

“So maybe it’s time to have a $25 section with no access to the pits. Yes, that may create some logistical issues, but what I want to see is full grandstands everywhere we go.”

Veteran drag racing executive Jim Oberhofer, vice president of operations for Kalitta Motorsports and a long-time crew chief, agrees with Beckman.

“My feeling is NHRA needs to be more cost-effective,” he said. “I look at how much it costs for a family to come out to the races – and NHRA has done some great things like kids under 12 free – but it’s still an expensive thing.

“Once you pay for parking, food and things like that, it becomes real pricey. People are watching every dollar they spend. They can’t afford to go out there and spend a couple hundred bucks on something.”

One suggestion Oberhofer offered to MotorSportsTalk could be both revolutionary and controversial.

“One of the things I’ve thought about a lot is do we really need three-day events,” Oberhofer said. “Why can’t we have a two-day event, where a fan can come out and watch three runs and then we run (eliminations) on the next day?

“I just think we need to rethink how we do things. It’s like, do we always have to start at 11 am on Sunday? Why does it have to be that way, because it’s always been that way? We just need to do a better job changing with the times. I think it’s something we need to experiment with.

“The Friday crowds just aren’t there, but Saturday’s are great. I think we need to be more proactive to potentially make things easier on fans and the teams. A good example was earlier this year at Chicago, where the final round (of qualifying) was rained out.

“We were all bummed out that we didn’t get to run, but then I looked at how we saved $30,000 not having all four of our teams run, and that is definitely noticeable. If we go to two-day events, I think you’ll see stronger crowds. Saturday is always good and Sunday, race day, will likely be better, too. I think a two-day event will work well.”

Oberhofer also would like to see the NHRA reduce its national event schedule from 24 to 22 races. But if some of those events, particularly those that have struggled in recent years such as Topeka, were cut to two days, perhaps the schedule could remain status quo at 24 races.

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