NHRA: Lots of change heading into this weekend’s season-opening Winternationals

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Last season, the National Hot Rod Association adopted a “#BaptismByNitro” theme to attract new fans and attention to the sport.

But as it kicks off the new season with this weekend’s Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, California,  if the NHRA were to come up with a new theme song for 2016, it’d likely be the old Scorpions ballad “Winds Of Change.”

Change – and positive change at that – seems to be all around in the wind for the NHRA, including:

* Peter Clifford begins his first full season as NHRA president (he replaced the retired Tom Compton last June). Clifford has made a number of dynamic hires in an effort to improve the sanctioning body’s reach and attractiveness to fans.

* The NHRA has embarked upon one of its most ambitious marketing and communications initiatives ever to increase fan attention and attendance at events, including the hiring of veteran motorsports reporter Terry Blount late last season as new vice president of communications.

* Another significant hire is Emmy award-winning Ken Adelson as vice president of broadcasting and digital content to supercharge the NHRA’s TV and digital sides.

* Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 has become the official TV partner of the sport, with plans to televise live the majority of the 24 races this season, including expected three-hour presentations of final eliminations on Sundays. In addition, former Funny Car champ Tony Pedregon embarks upon a new career as a NHRA TV analyst.

* New rules in Pro Stock, including the long-awaited implementation of electronic fuel injection and the removal of long-standing monster hood scoops, should inject life into a class that had grown somewhat stagnant to fans in recent years.

* After becoming the first back-to-back female champion in any NHRA pro categories, Pro Stock queen Erica Enders goes for three straight titles this season.

* Fan favorite and five-time Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlan returns to the sport on a full-time basis after racing part-time last season.

* After enduring what he called his “worst season in 25 years” in 2015, 16-time Funny Car champion John Force is bound and determined to earn title No. 17 in 2016. The ageless Force (66 years old) told MotorSportsTalk that he feels as invigorated as he’s ever been and looks forward to significantly improve from last season’s disappointing seventh-place finish.

* In addition, Force will have long-time crew chief Austin Coil “helping out” in an unofficial capacity for Force’s Funny Car, as well as those of son-in-law and John Force Racing team president Robert Hight and Force’s youngest daughter, Courtney.

* John Force Racing also scored another coup in the offseason by hiring 11-time Top Fuel champion team owner/crew chief Alan Johnson as a consultant to oversee the Top Fuel efforts of driver Brittany Force. Judging by some of the runs Force had during last weekend’s preseason testing for nitro cars at Phoenix, not only does she seem likely to earn her first career win, she also is an early possible contender for the championship.

* Defending pro class champions are Antron Brown (Top Fuel), Del Worsham (Funny Car), Enders (Pro Stock) and Andrew Hines (Pro Stock Motorcycle).

And those changes are just for starters. There are a lot of reasons to be optimistic that the NHRA is poised for increased growth and notoriety in 2016.

While the sanctioning body still has not capitulated to what many fans want – the return of full quarter-mile drag strip racing for Top Fuel and Funny Car competition (the standard remains 1,000 feet for 2016) – the changes that have already occurred for this season definitely hold a lot of promise.

Yes, the winds of change are swirling within the NHRA.

And if Clifford and the rest of the sanctioning body officials have their way and many of the changes prove successful, by season’s end the NHRA may be signing another Scorpions song that deals with wind: “Rock Me Like a Hurricane.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski