NHRA president Peter Clifford: Major changes are coming fast

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As he closes in on his first six months as president of the National Hot Rod Association, Peter Clifford is a man on a mission.

He wants to make the 2016 season as spectacular as possible, including a new TV package, new competition rules in several classes (particularly Pro Stock), hopes of attracting higher car counts and devising quicker and more efficient ways to clean up on-track debris and oil-downs.

In a recent interview with AutoWeek.com, Clifford laid out some of his plans going forward, particularly in the Pro Stock class, which has struggled in recent seasons to have full 16-car race counts in national events.

“The one area we have seen declines over probably the last eight to 10 years is in Pro Stock, and we rolled out the plan to address that a month or so ago,” Clifford told AutoWeek. “We are trying to make the cars more relevant, but also we want to attract more participation in the class.

“We’ll now go to fuel injection next year—which more people can relate to fuel injection—and it makes it more relevant to Detroit, the cars more relevant. And also we did simple things like make sure the cars get turned around when they come back into the pits to give our fans better access to the cars and the teams.

“It is noticeable at the events when you walk around and see the crowds in the Pro Stock pits. It’s night and day compared to before. It’s so important to the fans because our sport is all about access. We’ve heard from a number of teams that used to participate that the changes we made might be enough to help bring them back into the Pro Stock arena.”

Clifford is very high on a new TV contract with Fox Sports that will air live 17 of the 23 races in 2016 on either Fox Sports 1 or Fox TV.

We think it’s going to be transformative for the sport because it will bring in new viewership and higher recognition for our drivers and teams, and I think it’s going to do so much for the sport going to 17 live events, with four of those being on network,” Clifford said. “We’ve never been on network TV in our history, and having four live events in the middle of the summer, I think it’s going to be very, very exciting for the sport.”

Clifford also promised improvements to digital and social media to make it more timely and relevant.

“That’s one of our big initiatives,” Clifford said of improving the digital side of things. “We know that (NHRA’s digital app) has had some issues in the past, and we are literally, as we speak, working on improving the app so it’s much more reliable. We are also doubling our efforts in the digital and social media area.

“We are adding more staff to that area. It’s very important, in sports today, digital and social, especially as we’re attracting more and more youth. As we go live on television, that’s going to be critical because that’s the opportunity to interact with our fans during the television shows.

“… Our whole idea is to show more of the drivers, get to know the drivers, get to know them behind the scenes, to create more stars because people out there can relate to our drivers.”

The 56-year-old Clifford, who has been with NHRA since 1997 and succeeded the retired Tom Compton as president on July 1, has other initiatives in mind, as well.

“One of our big initiatives is improving competition,” Clifford said. “(In addition to Pro Stock) another area that we need to improve upon for fan experience going forward is reducing the oil-downs at the track.

“It not only impacts our fans on-site, but potentially it could impact our fans at home with the live television. And we’re working with the teams, and we have their commitment to address oil-downs and minimize that in the future.”

In a sense, NHRA is borrowing a page from NASCAR’s innovation, which dramatically improved track drying the last few years with the introduction of the Air Titan system.

Clifford is hoping to further develop a system that will do for oil cleanup what the Air Titans did for NASCAR with rain cleanup.

“We are bringing in new equipment to help speed up the cleanup process and we are going to start working with a university on how to better clean up oil,” Clifford said. “And we have a commitment from the teams, and I am thrilled about that. That, to us, is a game-changer for the sport.”

In addition to attracting new fans, particularly the younger generation, Clifford also has plans to attract and increase participation from a competition standpoint in NHRA’s sportsman ranks.

“We want to get more people participating in the sport,” he said. “We’re going to be announcing a plan to do just that.

“Not only are we making it easier for people to participate at the entry level, but also reducing the cost and also reducing some of the requirements for people to participate.”

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