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


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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IndyCar Detroit GP starting lineup: Alex Palou wins first pole position on a street course


DETROIT — Alex Palou won the pole position for the second consecutive NTT IndyCar Series race and will lead the Detroit Grand Prix starting lineup to green on a new downtown layout.

The 2021 series champion, who finished fourth in the 107th Indy 500 after qualifying first, earned his third career pole position as the first of three Chip Ganassi Racing drivers in the top four (Scott Dixon qualified fourth, and Marcus Ericsson sixth).

Scott McLaughlin will start second, followed by Romain Grosjean. Coming off his first Indianapolis 500 victory, Josef Newgarden qualified fifth.

INDYCAR IN DETROITEntry list, schedule, TV info for this weekend

It’s the third career pole position for Palou and his first on a street course — a big advantage on a nine-turn, 1.645-mile track that is expected to be calamitous over 100 laps Sunday (3 p.m. ET, NBC).

“It’s going to be a tough day for sure,” Palou told NBC Sports’ Marty Snider. “It feels good we’ve had a great car since the beginning, and it was just about maximizing. They did a great strategy on tires and everything. We need to finish it (Sunday).

“I got off a lot in practice. We wanted to see where the limit was, and we found it. It’s a crazy track. I think it’s too tight for Indy cars and too short as well, but we’ll make it happen.”

QUALIFYING RESULTSClick here for Detroit GP qualifying speeds | Round 1, Group 1 | Round 1, Group 2 | Round 2 l Round 3

The narrow quarters (originally listed as a 1.7-mile track, its distance shrunk by a couple hundred feet when measured Friday) already were causing problems in qualifying.

Colton Herta, who has four career poles on street courses, qualified 24th after failing to advance from the first round because of damage to his No. 26 Dallara-Honda. It’s the worst starting spot in an IndyCar street course race for Herta (and the second-worst of his career on the heels of qualifying 25th for the GMR Grand Prix three weeks ago).

Andretti Autosport teammate Kyle Kirkwood also found misfortune in the second round, damaging the left front of his No. 27 Dallara-Honda despite light wall contact.

“I’m disappointed for the crew because that was a pole-winning car,” Kirkwood told NBC Sports’ Kevin Lee. “Man, I barely touched the wall. I touched it way harder in all the practices, and it’s just like the angle at which the wall was right there, it caught the point and just ripped the front off the car.

“If the wall was rounded, that wouldn’t have happened. That’s just unfortunate for the guys, but it’s my mistake. It’s hard enough to get around this place let alone race around it. We’ll see how it goes.”

Many IndyCar drivers are expecting it to go badly, which isn’t uncommon for a new street layout. The inaugural Music City Grand Prix in Nashville, Tennessee, was the biggest crashfest of the 2021 season with 33 of 80 laps run under caution plus two red flags.

It could be worse at Detroit, which is the shortest track on the IndyCar circuit. It also features the series’ only split pit lane (with cars pitting on opposite sides and blending into a single-lane exit), a 0.9-mile straightaway and a hairpin third turn that is considered the best passing zone.

“If there’s one day you need to be lucky in the year, it’s tomorrow,” Grosjean told NBC Sports’ Dave Burns. “A lot is going to happen, and it’s being in the right time at the right place.”

Said Dixon: “Expect probably a lot of unexpected things to happen. We’ll try and get through it. I think it’ll be similar to Nashville and maybe the last man standing is the one who gets the victory.”

With the field at 27 cars, Palou estimated the length of the course leaves a gap of about 2.4 seconds between each car, which he preferred would be double. During practice Friday, there were six red flags and 19 local yellows as teams tried to sort out the tricky and tight layout.

“I don’t know what the perfect distance is, but I would say adding 30 seconds to a track or 20 seconds would help a lot,” said Palou, one of many drivers who also said the streets were too bumpy despite work to grind down some surfaces. “We have a lot of cars. It’s crazy. It’s really good for the series, for the racing. But when it comes to practice, and we have 10 red flags, 25 yellows, it’s traffic all the time.”

It seems certain to be a memorable reimagining of the Detroit GP, which was moved downtown by IndyCar owner Roger Penske after a 30-year run at the Belle Isle course a few miles north.

McLaughlin, who drives for Team Penske, believes the race will be very similar to Nashville, but “it’s just going to be up to us with the etiquette of the drivers to figure it out along the way. I think there’s going to be a lot of passes, opportunities.

“With the track, there’s been a lot of noise I’ve seen on Twitter, from other drivers and stuff,” McLaughlin said. “At the end of the day, this is a new track, new complex. I think what everyone has done to get this going, the vibe is awesome. Belle Isle was getting old. We had to do it.

“First-year problems, it’s always going to happen. It’s just going to get better from here. The racetrack for the drivers is a blast. We don’t even know how it races yet. Everyone is making conclusions already. They probably just need to relax and wait for (Sunday).”

Here’s the IndyCar starting lineup for Sunday’s Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix (qualifying position, car number in parentheses, driver, engine and speed):


1. (10) Alex Palou, Honda, 1 minute, 1.8592 seconds (95.734 mph)
2. (3) Scott McLaughlin, Chevrolet, 1:02.1592 (95.271)


3. (28) Romain Grosjean, Honda, 1:02.2896 (95.072)
4. (9) Scott Dixon, Honda, 1:02.4272 (94.862)


5. (2) Josef Newgarden, Chevrolet, 1:02.5223 (94.718)
6. (8) Marcus Ericsson, Honda, 1:02.6184 (94.573)


7. (12) Will Power, Chevrolet, 1:02.1817 (95.237)
8. (60) Simon Pagenaud, Honda, 1:02.1860 (95.230)


9. (6) Felix Rosenqvist, Chevrolet, 1:02.1937 (95.219)
10. (5) Pato O’Ward, Chevrolet, 1:02.2564 (95.123)


11. (11) Marcus Armstrong, Honda, 1:02.2958 (95.063)
12. (27) Kyle Kirkwood, Honda, 1:04.6075 (91.661)


13. (7) Alexander Rossi, Chevrolet, 1:02.5714 (94.644)
14. (21) Rinus VeeKay, Chevrolet, 1:02.1911 (95.223)


15. (20) Conor Daly, Chevrolet, 1:02.9522 (94.071)
16. (77) Callum Ilott, Chevrolet, 1:02.2644 (95.111)


17. (29) Devlin DeFrancesco, Honda, 1:03.0017 (93.997)
18. (45) Christian Lundgaard, Honda, 1:02.6495 (94.526)

ROW 10

19. (55) Benjamin Pedersen, Chevrolet, 1:03.1599 (93.762)
20. (78) Agustin Canapino, Chevrolet, 1:02.9071 (94.139)

ROW 11

21. (18) David Malukas, Honda, 1:03.2126 (93.684)
22. (14) Santino Ferrucci, Chevrolet, 1:02.9589 (94.061)

ROW 12

23. (06) Helio Castroneves, Honda, 1:03.3879 (93.425)
24. (26) Colton Herta, Honda, 1:03.4165 (93.383)

ROW 13

25. (30) Jack Harvey, Honda, 1:03.7728 (92.861)
26. (51) Sting Ray Robb, Honda, 1:03.7496 (92.895)

ROW 14

27. (15) Graham Rahal, Honda, 1:03.8663 (92.725)