NHRA will build upon year of challenges and changes for stronger 2016

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It’s been a year of significant challenges and change for the National Hot Rod Association.

But as the sanctioning body prepares for its season-ending race this weekend at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California, much of that change is expected to pay significant dividends heading into 2016.

Among the changes or achievements that have occurred on the NHRA landscape during 2015:

* Former president Tom Compton abruptly retired for personal reasons after a 15-year stint as the sanctioning body’s leader.

* Veteran NHRA executive Peter Clifford was chosen by the board of directors to replace Compton. Clifford has made a number of key hires since his promotion in June that he hopes will strengthen the organization and its administration going forward.

* After more than a decade with ESPN and ESPN2, the sanctioning body bought out the remaining year of its contract with the sports network.

* Replacing ESPN will be Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1, which will televise all 23 races in 2016 in the first year of a multi-year agreement.

* In addition, NHRA has brought back TV production of races in-house, much like it did in the 1980s and 1990s with the former Diamond P group.

* The 2016 season has been reduced by one race from 2015’s 24-race schedule. However, that could be reversed if logistical issues with Heartland Park in Topeka, Kansas, can be resolved. This year’s race almost didn’t take place until NHRA stepped in to manage the event.

* Sponsorship issues beset several of the sport’s top teams. Some were able to rebound, others weren’t. Among those that rebounded was 16-time Funny Car champion John Force, who replaced 30-year sponsor Castrol Oil with Peak Antifreeze, and a nearly 20-year relationship with Ford switched to Chevrolet. On the flip side, Alan Johnson Racing unexpectedly lost its lucrative An-Anabi Racing sponsorship just before the start of the season. While the former Top Fuel championship team continued racing through the 18-race regular season on a greatly reduced budget and piecemeal sponsorship, it finally suspended operations prior to the six-race Countdown to the Championship due to lack of funding.

* One of NHRA’s biggest strong points has long been its encouragement of diversity within the sport. That was especially seen this season as African-American driver Antron Brown won his second Top Fuel championship in the last four seasons, while Erica Enders successfully defended her Pro Stock championship from last season, the first female to ever win a Pro Stock title in NHRA history.

With this weekend’s race bringing the 2015 season to a close, there were successes and shortcomings. And even though we’re still in the 2015 season, the sanctioning body is already in the midst of extensive preparation and planning for the 2016 season.

While the sport will embark upon its annual three-month winter break after next Monday’s awards banquet, this is not a time to be thinking of vacations or down time.

Rather, Clifford and his staff are working on a number of initiatives to make the sport more popular and successful in 2016.

One of the biggest keys will be the TV package with Fox, which should be a significant improvement over the relationship with ESPN. The latter was beset in recent years by significant numbers of complaints from viewers of poor airing time slots (oftentimes well into the wee hours of the morning), as well as more tape delayed programming and less live programming.

In addition, while NHRA would like to eventually add new markets to the schedule, expansion does not appear likely in the near future. The logic is wise: make each current event as strong as it can be before even beginning to think about adding to the present mix.

NHRA will likely also continue to increase efforts to bring back fans that have either left or lost interest in the sport, as well as expand initiatives like this year’s “#Baptism By Nitro” program that was designed to attract new fans, particularly younger fans.

While the NHRA navigated some choppy waters at times in 2015, the challenges it has faced and the changes it has gone through will likely lead to much smoother waters going forward into 2016 and beyond.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Helio Castroneves ‘hustling’ for IndyCar, IMSA rides; talking with four to five teams

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As his season gathers steam, Helio Castroneves said his prospects for finding new rides for 2021 in IMSA and IndyCar also are gaining momentum.

The three-time Indianapolis 500 winner said Monday he is optimistic about landing in either or perhaps a combination of both series when Team Penske and Acura end their DPi partnership after this season.

“A lot of people I spoke with, four to five teams, are interested,” Castroneves said. “Whether it’s doing Indy 500 only, whether it’s pushing to do full time or do the sports cars as well. It’s been a very nice conversation.

LOOKING AHEADTeam Penske drivers seeking new rides for 2021

“I have a lot of respect for all the teams that have been talking, and I feel the same feedback. We just have to wait for their (sponsor) connections, and I’m also looking for some connections on my side as well, so hopefully we’ll be able to put this together and get something very soon.”

Given two decades of success with Penske in IndyCar and IMSA, Castroneves’ resume hardly needs burnishing. But the Brazilian has combined with co-driver Ricky Taylor in the No. 7 Acura DPi to win the past two overall victories at Road America and Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.

But Castroneves, who doesn’t have a manager, said he has been working the phones hard rather than wait for the strong results to bring in the calls.

“At this point, I feel like I’m the one who needs to be talking to them because people need to know I want to continue racing and understand my desire,” Castroneves, 45, said. “There is opportunity, no question, in both (IndyCar and IMSA), which I’m really happy about it. However, because of the COVID-19, a lot of things sometimes have to be a little delayed. But I’m excited. Whatever the opportunity and whatever destiny guides me, whether IndyCar or sports cars, trust me I’ll be as happy as it could be and doing my 100 percent like I always did.

“It’s like politics, you need to be out there, good news or bad news. People have to make notice of your presence. I’m hustling. I want to continue to keep it going. Hopefully, we’ll have good news very soon.”

The news has been all good lately on track for Castroneves and Taylor, who hope to continue their run Sunday at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

The No. 6 duo has surged to sixth in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship standings, 10 points out of the lead with four races remaining. After thinking there was “no hope” to be competitive after opening the season with three consecutive poor finishes, Taylor now sees an opportunity for a happy ending.

“With the program going away, Helio has won all the big races and given so much back to the team and left such a mark, he’s really part of Penske history,” Taylor said. “For me, it’s been an opportunity of a lifetime to be a part of it. I’d like to leave my little mark as well. Helio has won everything except for a championship.

“Obviously, we’ve won races already together, but we can win a championship now. I think if both of us can do that together and both win our first championship for ‘The Captain,’ that would be an absolute dream come true, and we can tie a bow on it and be happy.”