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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Ford unveils a new Mustang for 2024 Le Mans in motorsports ‘lifestyle brand’ retooling

Ford Mustang Le Mans
Ford Performance

LE MANS, France — Ford has planned a return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans with its iconic Mustang muscle car next year under a massive rebranding of Ford Performance aimed at bringing the automotive manufacturer “into the racing business.”

The Friday unveil of the new Mustang Dark Horse-based race car follows Ford’s announcement in February (and a ballyhooed test at Sebring in March) that it will return to Formula One in 2026 in partnership with reigning world champion Red Bull.

The Mustang will enter the GT3 category next year with at least two cars in both IMSA and the World Endurance Championship, and is hopeful to earn an invitation to next year’s 24 Hours of Le Mans. The IMSA entries will be a factory Ford Performance program run by Multimatic, and a customer program in WEC with Proton Competition.

Ford CEO Jim Farley, also an amateur sports car racer, told The Associated Press the Mustang will be available to compete in various GT3 series across the globe to customer teams. But more important, Farley said, is the overall rebranding of Ford Performance – done by renowned motorsports designer Troy Lee – that is aimed at making Ford a lifestyle brand with a sporting mindset.

“It’s kind of like the company finding its own, and rediscovering its icons, and doubling down on them,” Farley told the AP. “And then this motorsports activity is getting serious about connecting enthusiast customers with those rediscovered icons. It’s a big switch for the company – this is really about building strong, iconic vehicles with enthusiasts at the center of our marketing.”

Ford last competed in sports car racing in 2019 as part of a three-year program with Chip Ganassi Racing. The team scored the class win at Le Mans in 2016 in a targeted performance aimed to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Ford snapping Ferrari’s six-year winning streak.

Ford on Friday displayed a Mustang with a Lee-designed livery that showcased the cleaner, simplified look that will soon be featured on all its racing vehicles. The traditional blue oval with Ford Performance in white lettering underneath will now be branded simply FP.

The new mark will be used across car liveries, merchandise and apparel, display assets, parts and accessories and in advertising.

Farley cited Porsche as an automaker that has successfully figured out how to sell cars to consumers and race cars in various series around the world while creating a culture of brand enthusiasts. He believes Ford’s new direction will help the company sell street cars, race cars, boost interest in driving schools, and create a merchandise line that convinces consumers that a stalwart of American automakers is a hip, cool brand.

“We’re going to build a global motorsports business off road and on road,” Farley told the AP, adding that the design of the Mustang is “unapologetically American.”

He lauded the work of Lee, who is considered the top helmet designer among race car drivers.

“We’re in the first inning of a nine inning game, and going to Le Mans is really important,” Farley said. “But for customer cars, getting the graphics right, designing race cars that win at all different levels, and then designing a racing brand for Ford Performance that gets rebranded and elevated is super important.”

He said he’s kept a close eye on how Porsche and Aston Martin have built their motorsports businesses and said Ford will be better.

“We’re going in the exact same direction. We just want to be better than them, that’s all,” Farley said. “Second is the first loser.”

Farley, an avid amateur racer himself, did not travel to Le Mans for the announcement. The race that begins Saturday features an entry from NASCAR, and Ford is the reigning Cup Series champion with Joey Logano and Team Penske.

The NASCAR “Garage 56” entry is a collaboration between Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet and Goodyear, and is being widely celebrated throughout the industry. Farley did feel left out of the party in France – a sentiment NASCAR tried to avoid by inviting many of its partners to attend the race so that it wouldn’t seem like a Chevrolet-only celebration.

“They’re going right and I’m going left – that NASCAR thing is a one-year deal, right? It’s Garage 56 and they can have their NASCAR party, but that’s a one-year party,” Farley said. “We won Le Mans outright four times, we won in the GT class, and we’re coming back with Mustang and it’s not a one-year deal.

“So they can get all excited about Garage 56. I almost see that as a marketing exercise for NASCAR, but for me, that’s a science project,” Farley continued. “I don’t live in a world of science projects. I live in the world of building a vital company that everyone is excited about. To do that, we’re not going to do a Garage 56 – I’ve got to beat Porsche and Aston Martin and Ferrari year after year after year.”

Ford’s announcement comes on the heels of General Motors changing its GT3 strategy next season and ending its factory Corvette program. GM, which unlike Ford competes in the IMSA Grand Touring Prototype division (with its Cadillac brand), will shift fully to a customer model for Corvettes in 2024 (with some factory support in the IMSA GTD Pro category).