Exclusive: NHRA president Peter Clifford already seeing gains in sport’s success, future

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Peter Clifford has served as president of the National Hot Rod Association for a little over a year now.

And in that time, drag racing’s No. 1 sanctioning body has gone through a number of changes that have begun a rejuvenation of the sport and the series that had been long overdue.

As only the fourth president in NHRA’s 65-year history, Clifford has already proven to be among the most progressive and forward thinking leaders of the straightline motorsport series.

Given the success so far, Clifford has just touched the surface of taking the NHRA to bigger and better things. The 20-year veteran of the NHRA is shepherding the sanctioning body and sport into new areas and ways to attract new fans, retain old fans and to utilize the sport’s open access, technological advances and colorful drivers to new heights.

Last Friday at Route 66 Raceway in suburban Chicago, Clifford sat down with NBCSports.com for an exclusive interview on where the NHRA has been, where it’s at now and, most importantly, where it’s going from here.

Here are selected excerpts from that interview:

Q) You took over your position midway through last season. How has the first full season for you as NHRA president gone so far?

CLIFFORD: “It’s gone very well. We rolled out the plan in July of last year. We knew we had to address a number of items. There were six initiatives to grow the sport. First and foremost, we had to address television. That had to lead the charge, and it’s done exactly like we thought. It’s actually done better than we ever envisioned, to be honest with you. Fox has turned out to be a great partner and promotional partner for us, they’ve promoted our sport.

“The content of the shows, with us taking production in-house, has changed and the viewership numbers don’t lie. Total viewership, including re-airs, is up 72 percent through the first 11 events. If they had told us we’d have been up 10 percent, we’d have been thrilled. But to be up 72 percent, we never would have imagined it would have been this good.

“I give all credit to the production crew as well as Fox. They’ve done an incredible job with racing excitement on the track. What we’re trying to do is educate the fans not only when they’re on-site, about the sport and about the drivers which we do with our NHRA Nitro School, but we’re also trying to educate the fans at home through our shows, trying to build the stars, have them learn more about the drivers, the technology and the sport. The more educated the fans, the more likely they are to stay tuned-in to the shows as well as come out to races in-person.

“The part we’re most excited about is we haven’t even hit our live network (Fox Sports, rather than FS1) shows coming up at Denver, Sonoma, Seattle and Indianapolis. Those will be in front of an even bigger audience that potentially hasn’t seen us before. We’re really, really excited about that because we’ve never been live network in our history. That’ll be very exciting for us.”

Q) You’ve been with the NHRA for about 20 years now. How excited are you not just as president of the NHRA, but just as a drag racing fan, at all the positive changes?

CLIFFORD: “I’m very, very pumped because I always knew the capabilities of the sport; all we had to do was make more people aware. And what’s happening now is the awareness we’re getting from television is driving attendance. We’ve had three sellout crowds on Saturdays so far this year. And the increased attendance and viewership is going to lead to increased sponsorship, which is going to help us, the teams, the tracks, it’s going to help everybody.

“The more sponsors we have is going to help further with the awareness, where more people are going to be exposed to our great sport. The sport is just too good and has so much access and so many things other sports don’t have, we just needed to increase awareness because we know the potential is huge.

“We never envisioned it to start out this quickly, but we’re very, very pleased.”

Q) In other words, you want to take fans to school, right?

CLIFFORD: “In a sense, Not the existing fans, but the idea was to bring new fans in and educate them about the sport because I feel there’s always more to learn. Our whole idea is when people walk away from either a television show or on-site, we want them knowing more about the sport than they did before. And we’re going to continue to do that, to educate more, because the more they know the more engaged they’ll be – and the more likely they’ll come back. That’s our view.”

Q) Drivers like John Force, 67, and Doug Kalitta, 51, are getting up in age. Who are the drivers that will eventually replace them?

CLIFFORD: “We have a lot of great drivers out there. Look at some of the female drivers that have won at the highest level, from Brittany Force to Courtney Force, Alexis DeJoria, Erica Enders to Leah Pritchett. All of them have won and I think any sport would be envious to have them as their stars. They’re great on the track and great off the track as spokespeople for the sport. We also have everybody from Tony Schumacher to Antron Brown, Shawn Langdon, there’s a million other drivers. Look in Pro Stock, we have Alex Laughlin, 27 years old, and Vincent Nobile, 24.

“We’re so thankful and I think any other sport would be thankful to have John Force as an ambassador, and I hope he’s going to be racing for a long time still to come. He’s a star and we never want to lose John Force. He’s too good to lose out there.

“Then, in the up-and-coming series, a couple of young drivers that are making a name for themselves are in Top Alcohol Dragster: Ashley Sanford, 22, Mia Tedesco, 22. Both are very talented.

“Our Junior Dragster program keeps growing, as well. Four of our current pro competitors all started in Junior Dragster: Erica Enders, Leah Pritchett, JR Todd and Shawn Langdon. In fact, 50 percent of Junior Dragster competitors are females. That’s an all-time high and adds to our theme of diversity and keeping diversity going.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever have another John Force, but there’s quite a few drivers that have the potential to be big stars. That’s our job right now, is to help develop and build the stars, and that’s what we’re trying to do on the shows and on-site, to get the fans to know these drivers because each driver can bring a different group of fans because they have things like different interests, show what their like, show their personalities and that will attract certain fans for each of those drivers.

“That’s what hadn’t been done in the past, and that’s what we’re trying to do now, to push the driver stardom.”

Q) Given how much success you’ve had in just over a year as NHRA president, what’s next?

CLIFFORD: “It isn’t my success, it’s the team’s success. The thing we’ve done over since last July is bring in new people who are working with our existing staff, who’ve been with the company for a long time. We have people who know the sport extremely well, and we’ve brought in people with different skill sets to help us grow in addition to the strong staff we already have had. We have a fantastic team right now and have a lot of plans in place for the future. We’re going to continue build upon what we’re building.”

Q) Do you have any expansion plans for the NHRA to go into new markets?

CLIFFORD: “Right now, we’re very comfortable with the markets we’re in. We’re in all the major demographic markets out there. We blanket the United States, we cover all four corners of the United States, we’re really happy with that. We want to grow the events within those markets.

“And literally we’re bringing in millions more people watching our television shows, which is also leading to increases in attendance, and that’s going to help all our tracks grow in the future. We’re really comfortable with our footprint across the United States because we cover, as I said, all four corners and major markets within. We’re the only major motorsport that does that. We’re very happy with the markets, so I don’t see us adding one at this point.”

Q) Compared to other motorsport series, where does the NHRA go from here?

CLIFFORD: “I wouldn’t want to compare ourselves with others (motorsport series). But I will say we’re happy with our progress. We know we still have a ways to go. It’s still a very difficult economy right now and a lot of our fans are being impacted.

“So we’re trying to do what we can to give them as much value for their dollar as possible – and let that be known to them and all the value we have to offer. We’ll continue to do that going forward.

“I think once people realize they can spend eight or nine hours, have fun and all the racing action on the track, then they can go into the open pits, get autographs, talk to drivers, talk to crew members, learn about cars and technology. We have an open locker room that no other sport has.

“As we like to say, we’re the original extreme sport – and when people come here, they can understand why.”

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