The National Hot Rod Association has long called this past weekend’s Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in suburban Indianapolis its biggest race of the year.
It’s so big that it runs the longest of any race (six days), draws the most drivers (over 1,100 competitors), the most fans (including a sellout this past Saturday), and is to the NHRA what the Daytona 500 is to NASCAR.
But for 40 drivers and riders – 10 each in Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle – the biggest races of the year are yet to come.
With the U.S. Nationals now in the rearview mirror, all attention going forward will be on the NHRA’s six-race playoff known as the Countdown to the Championship.
The 10th anniversary of the Countdown begins next weekend in Charlotte (Sept. 16-18), followed by St. Louis (Sept. 23-25), Reading (Pa., Sept. 29-Oct. 2), Dallas (Oct. 13-16), Las Vegas (Oct. 27-30) and wraps up with the season-ending – and championship-deciding – Auto Club Finals in Pomona, California (Nov. 10-13).
NBCSports.com had a chance to sit down with NHRA President Peter Clifford during the U.S. Nationals and he talked about the upcoming Countdown.
Here are some excerpts of that conversation:
Q) This is shaping up to be perhaps the best Countdown we’ve since the format was first implemented in 2007. How excited are you to see it get underway?
CLIFFORD: “We are so excited about the Countdown because going into it we have such great battles, like the one here at Indianapolis between Leah Pritchett and Terry McMillen in Top Fuel and who would get into it (Pritchett eventually made it into the Countdown, McMillen didn’t). Plus there are so many storylines going into the Countdown.
“The competition between Top Fuel and Funny Car this year has been fantastic with so many different winners across both classes. So, anybody can win the championship.
“Plus, we have six female drivers in the Countdown: two in Top Fuel with Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force, two others in Funny Car with Courtney Force and Alexis DeJoria, and one each in Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle with Erica Enders and Angelle Sampey.
“Any of those people can win the championship. That’s why we’re so thrilled. Plus, this could be the year that Ron Capps (Funny Car) and Doug Kalitta (Top Fuel) finally win their respective first championships. They’ve won so many races and are great champions for the sport, so this could be their year.
“There’s so many potential opportunities in the Countdown so I think that’s what is going to make it so exciting for our fans.”
Q) What has been the biggest or most pleasant surprise thus far this year?
CLIFFORD: “The biggest change is how quickly television changed things. We’ve picked up year-to-date so far this year more than 12 million more viewers on television. We never envisioned that would happen. It’s been a big surprise.
“We thought we do well and Fox cautioned us on that because whenever you switch networks (from ESPN to Fox this season), you have to be careful (about expectations). But to have 12 million more viewers, to be up more than 40 percent on our Sunday shows alone (when the final rounds are aired live), and up close to 80 percent with re-airs and so forth, we never envisioned that would happen.
“It’s really changing everything out here. It’s changing the whole sport. It’s impacting sponsorship for the teams and it’s also impacting attendance. We’ve had sellouts at four events and this weekend in Indianapolis it has been just an absolute home run. It’s impacted things so much.”
Q) You’re very big on getting feedback. What is the reaction from fans when they speak with you?
CLIFFORD: “Fans are the ultimate feedback. They’re who we have to listen to the most. We have the Fan Council plus we talk to a lot of fans at every single event to find out what they’re thinking.
“And the feedback we’re getting has been great. Number one, they love Fox. We hear that over and over. They love the broadcast, the consistency and the time slots; everything about it.
“And number two, they’re thrilled with the racing this year. It’s so good that it gets better and better every single week. That’s what this sport is all about: these guys push it, the teams, to try and get a little faster every single week. And with all the different winners this year, it’s made for some very exciting racing.”
Q) Coming into the U.S. Nationals, there seems to be a more positive and excited vibe going into this year’s Countdown than in previous years from fans and especially the teams. Is that due to the number of different winners, the closeness of competition and the uptick of interest and excitement from fans and teams?
CLIFFORD: “It definitely is. It’s picking up from last year’s Countdown, like how (Funny Car driver) Del Worsham didn’t win any races in the 18-race regular season and then went out and won four of the six Countdown races and ultimately the championship, becoming only the third driver in history to win championships in both Top Fuel and Funny Car.
“That’s where I think teams in this year’s Countdown are looking back at last year and see that it’s anybody’s chance to win, and that’s the whole idea of the Countdown, that’s what you want, you don’t want to peak too early, you want to peak at the right point of the season, just like any other major league sport in the playoffs. For us, it’s the Countdown and it’s so, so important.
“That’s why the teams are excited because it’s anybody’s game out there right now going into the Countdown. That’s what makes it fun. Otherwise, if it was predictable, it would be no difference. They’re all working hard, trying to out-do each other and trying to make it fun for the fans.”