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.
THERMAL, Calif. – Winning the Indy 500 is a crowning achievement for driver and car owner, but for Chip Ganassi, last May’s victory by Marcus Ericsson had meaning even beyond just capturing one of the world’s greatest sporting events.
When Ganassi was 5 years old and growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, his father, Floyd, attended a convention in Indianapolis in 1963. Floyd went to Indianapolis Motor Speedway to tour the track and visit the former museum that used to stand next to the main gate on 16th and Georgetown.
Ganassi’s father brought young Chip a souvenir from the gift shop. It was an 8-millimeter film of the 1963 Indy 500, a race won by the legendary Parnelli Jones.
“I must have watched it about 1,000 times,” Ganassi recalled. “More importantly than that, something you did when you were 5 years old is still with you today.
“I was 50 years old when I celebrated my Thanksgiving with Parnelli. It dawned on me that something I did when I was 5 years old took me to when I was 50 years old. That’s pretty special.”
Ericsson and Ganassi were presented with their “Baby Borgs,” the mini-replicas of the Borg-Warner Trophy, in a ceremony Feb. 2 at The Thermal Club (which played host to NTT IndyCar Series preseason testing). The win in the 106th Indy 500 marked the sixth time a Ganassi driver won the biggest race in the world.
Ganassi will turn 65 on May 24, just four days before the 107th Indianapolis 500 on May 28. The 2023 race will mark the 60th anniversary of the victory by Jones, who is now the oldest living winner of the Indianapolis 500 at 89.
Jones wanted to do something special for Ericsson and Ganassi, so each was given framed photos personally inscribed by Jones.
“Congratulations Marcus Ericsson and my good friend Chip Ganassi on winning the 2022 Indianapolis 500,” Jones said in remarks conveyed by BorgWarner publicist Steve Shunck. “There is no greater race in the whole world and winning it in 1963 was by far the biggest thrill in my life.”
Ganassi’s relationship with his racing hero began 60 years ago, but the two have shared some important moments since then.
It was Jones that signed off on Ganassi’s first Indianapolis 500 license in 1982. Jones was one of the veteran observers who worked with Ganassi and other rookie drivers that year to ensure they were capable of competing in the high-speed, high-risk Indianapolis 500.
When Ganassi turned 50, he got to celebrate Thanksgiving dinner with Jones.
“We’ve been friends over the years,” Ganassi told NBC Sports. “He wrote me a personal note and sent me some personal photographs. It really says what this race is all about and how important it is to win the biggest auto race in the world.”
Michelle Collins, the director of global communications and marketing for BorgWarner, presented the “Baby Borgs,” first to Ganassi and then to Ericsson.
“More special is winning the Indianapolis 500,” Ganassi said during the presentation. “It’s been a big part of my life. I want to call out my buddy, Roger Penske, and thank him for the stewardship of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and what it means to us. It’s about the history, the tradition and, to me, it’s about the people that have meant so much in my life.
“Thanks for the trophy, Marcus.”
The Baby Borg presentation also came on the birthday of sculptor William Behrends, who has crafted the Bas-relief sterling silver face of each winner on the Borg-Warner Trophy since 1990. The “Baby Borg” presents each winner with a miniature of one of the most famous trophies in sports.
“I have to thank BorgWarner for everything that has happened since winning the Indianapolis 500, including the trip to Sweden,” said Ericsson, who took a November victory lap in his native country. “I’m very thankful for that because it’s memories that are going to be with me for the rest of my life.
“To bring the Borg-Warner Trophy to my hometown, seeing all the people there on the city square on a dark day in the middle of November. It was filled with people and that was very special.
“I’m very proud and honored to be part of Chip Ganassi Racing. To win the Indianapolis 500 with that team is quite an honor. It’s a team effort and a lot of people worked very hard to make this happen.
“Our focus now is to go back-to-back at the Indy 500.”
If Ericsson is successful in becoming the first driver to win back-to-back Indy since Helio Castroneves in 2001-02, he can collect an additional $420,000 in the Borg-Warner Rollover Bonus. With Castroneves the last driver to collect, the bonus has grown to an astronomical amount over 21 years.
Ericsson is from Kumla, Sweden, so the $420,000 would have an exchange rate of $4,447,641.67 Swedish Kronor.
“It’s a nice thing to know I could get that if I do win it again,” Ericsson told NBC Sports. “But the Indianapolis 500 with its history as the biggest and greatest race in the world, it doesn’t matter with the money, with the points, with anything. Everyone is going to go out there and do everything to win that race.
“It’s great to know that, but I will race just as hard.”
A popular slogan in racing is “Chip Likes Winners.” After winning the 106th Indy 500, Ganassi must really love Ericsson.
“It doesn’t get much bigger than that, does it? I’m very thankful to be driving for Chip,” Ericsson said. “He likes winners and winning the Indianapolis 500, it doesn’t get better than that.”
When Ericsson was presented with his Baby Borg, he stood off to the side and admired it the way a child looks at a special gift on Christmas morning. The wide-eyed amazement of his career-defining moment was easy to read and met with delight by executives of BorgWarner (an automotive and technology company that has sponsored the Borg-Warner Trophy since its 1935 debut).
“I noticed that immediately and I was watching him look at it wishing I had a camera to capture that,” Collins told NBC Sports. “But maybe not because we always have our phones in front of us and it’s nice to take in that moment as it is. That is what makes the moment well worth it.”
Said BorgWarner executive vice president and chief strategic officer Paul Farrell: “It’s very special to have the big trophy that has been around since 1935 and to have a piece of that. Hopefully it’s something that (Ericsson) cherishes. We think it’s special, and clearly, Marcus Ericsson thinks it is very special.”
The process takes several more steps before the face is reduced to the size of an egg and casted in sterling silver. It is attached to the permanent Borg-Warner Trophy and unveiled at a ceremony later in the year. Ericsson’s face was unveiled last October during a ceremony in Indianapolis.
That’s when it hit Ericsson, a three-time winner in IndyCar after going winless in Formula One over 97 starts from 2014-18.
“Until then, it was strange because you are so busy with your season right after the Indy 500 you don’t really get much time to sit back and think about what you had accomplished,” Ericsson said. “It was the offseason before I really realized what I had done.”
The permanent trophy remains on display at Indianapolis Motor Speedway but has been known to travel with the winning driver on special tours, such as the Nov. 3-7 trip to Sweden.
“It’s been incredible to see the amount of interest in me and the IndyCar Series and the Indy 500,” Ericsson said. “The trophy tour with the Borg-Warner Trophy we did in November really made a huge impact in Sweden. I was on every TV show, morning TV, magazines, newspapers, everywhere. People are talking about IndyCar racing. People are talking about Marcus Ericsson. It’s been huge.
“I was back in Sweden last month for the Swedish Sports Awards and I finished third in the Sports Performance of the Year. Motorsports is usually not even nominated there, and I finished third. That says a lot about the interest and support I’ve gotten back home in Sweden.”
Ericsson continued to reap the rewards of his Indianapolis 500 victory last week at the lavish Thermal Club, about a 45-minute drive from Palm Springs, California.
Earlier in the day before the Baby Borg presentation, Ericsson, and Chip Ganassi were among the 27 car-driver combinations that completed the first day of IndyCar’s “Spring Training” on the 17-turn, 3.067-mile road course. The next day, Ericsson turned the test’s fastest lap.
The 32-year-old still seems to be riding the wave, along with his girlfriend, Iris Tritsaris Jondahl, a Greece native who also lived in Sweden and now lives with Ericsson in Indianapolis.
“Today, receiving my Baby Borg, it was another thing of making it real,” Ericsson said. “It’s not a dream. It’s reality. To get the Baby Borg and bring it home. My girlfriend, Iris, and I are house hunting, looking for a house in Indianapolis. It will definitely have a very special place in our new home.”
Ericsson told NBC Sports his most cherished trophy before getting his Baby Borg was for his first NTT IndyCar Series win in the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix in 2021.
“It was such a huge win for me and such a huge breakthrough for me and my career,” he said. “After that, it catapulted me into a top driver in IndyCar.”
The Brickyard win was another level for Ericsson, who moved to Ganassi in 2020.
“Marcus kept himself in the race all day,” Chip Ganassi Racing managing director Mike Hull told NBC Sports. “Anybody that ran a race like Marcus ran, maybe you deserve the race win, but you don’t always get it. Marcus did everything that it took, and we are really, really proud of him.”
Ericsson also proved last year to be one of the best oval drivers in the series, a much different form of racing than he experienced until he came to the United States.
“Racing in Europe and around the world, I always liked high-speed corners,” he explained. “It was always my favorite. I always had this idea if I go to IndyCar and race on the ovals, it is something that would suit me and my driving style. I was always excited to try that. When I came to IndyCar and started to drive on ovals, I liked it straight away. It worked for me and my style.
“The first few attempts at Indy, I had good speed, but it was always some small mistakes that got me out of contention. I learned from them. I’m very proud I was able to pull it off, but it was a lot of hard work behind that.”
The victory in the Indianapolis 500 is etched in history, as is Ericsson’s face on the trophy.
“It’s such a special thing,” the driver said. “The BorgWarner people and IndyCar and everyone at IMS, I get to experience so many cool things since winning the Indy 500. It’s a win that keeps on giving. It never ends. It still does.
“I can’t wait to get back to Indianapolis, the month of May, as the champion. I still have to pinch myself. It’s a dream, for sure.”
Ganassi doesn’t have to pinch himself — all he needs to do is look at his collection of Baby Borgs.
His first Indy 500 win — as a team co-owner with Pat Patrick — came in 1989 with Emerson Fittipaldi’s thrilling duel against Al Unser Jr.
In 1990, Ganassi formed Chip Ganassi Racing. Juan Pablo Montoya won the Indianapolis 500 in 2000, Scott Dixon in 2008, Dario Franchitti in 2010 and 2012 and Ericsson in 2022.
“It’s a feather in the team’s cap for sure just to have our representation on the Borg-Warner Trophy with five other drivers,” Ganassi said. “It’s a testament to the team, a testament to Mike Hull that runs the team in Indianapolis. I just feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s great to work with a great team of great people.
“Just to relive that moment again and again never gets old; never goes away. I’m really lucky to be in the position I’m in. It’s an honor to represent the team with the great people that it took to bring Marcus across the finish line. He and I get to celebrate events like this, but it’s really about the people at Chip Ganassi Racing in Indianapolis that pull this all together.”