The National Hot Rod Association began the 2018 season in this past weekend’s Lucas Oil NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California.
It also marked the first national event as president of the NHRA for Glen Cromwell, who assumed office of the NHRA on January 1. A 21-year veteran of the NHRA, Cromwell becomes only the fifth president of the NHRA in its 67-year existence.
Cromwell succeeds Peter Clifford, who served as NHRA president for the last 2 ½ years. Clifford has moved up to become the NHRA’s first-ever CEO, dealing more with long-term projects and innovation measures, while Cromwell handles more of the day-to-day operation of the sanctioning body, particularly the national event Mello Yello Drag Racing Series.
NBC Sports spoke exclusively to Cromwell recently about assuming his new role, his thoughts about the direction and future of the sanctioning body and sport, and several other subjects.
Here are some select excerpts of that interview:
NBC Sports: What does it mean to become only the fifth president in NHRA history?
Cromwell: “It’s a great honor. It’s something that’s a privilege, it’s something I don’t take for granted. To carry the mission of what Wally Parks started in 1951 is an honor and opportunity for me to carry the sport forward. There are a lot of great things that have been happening with NHRA recently, including our TV package with Fox. We’ve got great momentum.”
NBC Sports: Peter Clifford was only president for 2 ½ years before becoming the NHRA’s first-ever CEO late last year. How did the change come about?
Cromwell: “Peter’s been here for 20 years. He was our Chief Financial Officer and General Manager really for his first 17 years. He took over when Tom Compton left. His goal and from day one was to help fix TV. We had our challenges with ESPN, the industry and the business. He knows, to be effective, it’s hard to be here for 25 or 30 years. You have to bring in fresh, new ideas, someone who can travel, can work the day-to-day operations and keep the company young. I think he looked at it from his view that he needed to put together a good succession plan together. We talked (for the first time about making the change) about a year ago. It gives him the opportunity to take his business knowledge on the financial side, which is a big part of it, because that’s one part that I have worked around, I’m great with budgets, but it’s the one area of the business that I haven’t worked with as closely as he has. It was important for him to stay around as CEO for me to learn. Peter’s still here, he’s still healthy. He had some health issues a while back that some thought that was the crux of (his decision to move to CEO) and it’s not. It’s Peter looking to the future of the sport and making a smart decision of putting together a team that’s been here for 8 to 10 years, maybe a tad bit longer. I have the same philosophy as he has: I hope I’m not a 70-year-old president. I want to come in here, give everything I’ve got, all the knowledge I have to help grow the sport at all levels, and then bring in good people underneath me that are going to carry the sport forward.”
NBC Sports: For the record, since you don’t want to be a 70-year-old president of NHRA, how old are you?
Cromwell: “I’m 22 (he said with a big laugh). No, I’m really 52.”
NBC Sports: What do you consider the No. 1 thing you have to do as NHRA president, and is it a minor or major change?
Cromwell: “Every one (of his past predecessors as NHRA president) came in and made changes, and Peter the most recently with the TV change. That was one that will stick with him (as one of his top achievements). I think for me, it’s about more eyeballs on our sport. We have a great fan base and a very hardcore fan base in the NHRA. But a lot of the question is what’s the future? What’s this younger generation of millennials, teens, kids, how do we get them involved with NHRA? That’s one thing we’re looking at. We spend a lot of time with our youth program … we want to get them over to the drag strip and have them enjoy their time and feel welcome to come race with us. I’ve talked to some of them and they’ve said, ‘We don’t think NHRA even wants us around.’ I tell them that’s not true, that we want them here, to be safe. We understand there’s kind of an outlaw mentality that we can work together in a safe manner and get them to enjoy racing at the drag strip and hopefully become fans of maybe Top Fuel, Funny Car, the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. I think there’s a lot of areas of (demographics) that we need to hit and we’re touching on that. That’s the beginning of it and one that we’ll work very hard to grow.”
NBC Sports: One big thing about today’s society is there isn’t as much emphasis on the “car culture” that many of us grew up with as Baby Boomers and other generations. But with millennials and young people today, we don’t have that same kind of car culture for their own cars. Does that make the attraction of young fans a little bit harder because they’re not as hot rod savvy as older fans were when they were growing up?
Cromwell: “I believe NHRA is best-equipped for the future of sports and the way people consume sports – and that’s all ages, primarily the millennials and the teens in the sense that they want instant gratification and we provide that: we have a new race every 60 to 90 seconds, a new winner, you never know what’s going to happen, it’s exciting and for people who want to multi-task, we’re not asking you and come and sit in the seats for four to six hours. You can come watch racing and then go down to the (product) midway or the nitro pits where you can meet drivers, get autographs and see people work on the cars, or be part of an interactive display with companies like Mello Yello or the U.S. Army. Or if you’re interested in car parts, we have the manufacturer’s midway, where we have our contingency partners who are a very important part of what we do.”
NBC Sports: You want to attract more young fans, but at the same time, you also still have a very large fan base that is in its 50s, 60s or 70s that have followed drag racing their whole life. You can’t forget about them, right?
Cromwell: “People will say the NHRA is great, you have your 50s, 60s and 70 year olds and the 1960s and 1970s when hot rods were part of your personality. And there’s truth to that, I get it and we market to that. We’re going to have a Legends Tour this year leading into Gainesville (Florida) in 2019, celebrating our 50th year there, that’s a big anniversary. That generation that was tied to Mongoose (Tom McEwen) and (Don) Garlits and Shirley (Muldowney) and (Kenny) Bernstein, we need to cater to them, but we also have to make sure we’re doing things for the millennials, the teens, the females, Hispanics, African-Americans. All that is very important for the NHRA.”
NBC Sports: A little over a month ago, I wrote a column that spoke to where NHRA goes once your biggest star, John Force, who turns 69 in May, ultimately retires. That could be in a couple years; it could be in another five years. You have a lot of veteran drivers out there like Ron Capps and Antron Brown, and you also have a lot of promising young drivers, too, like Brittany and Courtney Force. But John Force has been the face of the sport for such a long time. What do you do when John says, ‘That’s it, I’m done’”?
Cromwell: “You don’t replace John Force. He’s been incredible and I hope he stays here for another 10 years. But the reality is there will be a day that John is no longer here. He may be a team owner, but he won’t be driving anymore. We spend a lot of time talking about how we are promoting and building our stars, creating storylines on TV and through social media and content. I have a high level confidence we have drivers that will step up when John does decide to retire and come out of the seat. It’s proof through other sports. I was in Chicago when Michael Jordan was playing, and I said back then that there was no way the NBA would be what it was back then from 1990-1998. Then Kobe Bryant came in, Shaquille O’Neal, LeBron James, that stepped up. Baseball has grown, hockey has grown. I said there’s no way anyone could replace Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin shows up. I have a high level of confidence that we have drivers like Antron Brown, Leah Pritchett, the Force girls, Matt Hagan, Jack Beckman, Ron Capps, Steve Torrence, Robert Hight, and they are personalities. These are athletes. I want our drivers to show emotion. When people said they wanted to see compelling story lines, that’s what we want to provide them and show emotions, because it’s a big deal, like Steve Torrence showed emotion at the end of last season. When you race in NHRA, you don’t get second chances. You win or you go home. That’s what makes this high stakes of racing and it is very emotional. There’ll only be one John Force and I would never use the comment of replacing him, but we will move into a new era and we will have other stars that show up.”
NBC Sports: The NHRA is not just a 24-race national event schedule for professional drag racers. It also is an organization that has tens of thousands of members, many who are sportsman racers in the grassroots level. Can you talk more about that?
Cromwell: “In my first two and a half years with NHRA, I was Pacific Division director. I learned all about and the importance of grassroots racing, sportsman racing, ET racers, junior drag racing and that really gave me the passion and vision that Wally (Parks) saw in the sense that they’re all our customers. Racing is important to them. I call it the NHRA pyramid: you’ve got the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series at the top of the pyramid, and that’s an important piece, as that part drives revenue for the business, but at the bottom of the pyramid is all of our grassroots. You need to continue to keep that very strong forever, because you know what will happen if that gets weak down there at the bottom.”
NBC Sports: A month ago, you were blindsided by a bombshell when the Napp family, owners of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, New Jersey, abruptly announced they were cancelling all drag racing at the legendary facility, effective immediately. That included the 49th NHRA Summernationals, one of the biggest races on the NHRA schedule. Fortunately, you have since been able to replace Englishtown with an event on the same originally scheduled weekend at Virginia Motorsports Park. Can you talk about how important Englishtown was to NHRA and what its loss means to the sport?
Cromwell: “When we first found out about Englishtown (ending drag racing), there were varied emotions, from unhappy to sad to mad to disappointed, to everything you can imagine. We were going to celebrate 50 years at that facility in 2019. … We were very disappointed, but even more disappointed for our racers and our customers, for our fans and our sportsman racers, who have been going to that track for years and supported that track. That’s an important piece, which goes back to the pyramid I mentioned, that we want to make sure they have a place to race. In the days after we first heard of it, we had a lot of member tracks and other tracks that called and offered opportunities to the NHRA, which is great to know. They wanted to help both our sportsman racers, as well as host a national event.”
NBC Sports: Any closing thoughts or comments?
Cromwell: “One thing I’d say is we have great momentum, and I think it’s also important for me to recognize Peter’s (Clifford) for the efforts he’s made, not just the 20 years he’s been with the NHRA, but really the last 2 ½ years in negotiating the Fox TV deal. All our key metrics are pointing up. That’s impressive, whether it’s attendance, TV, digital, social, print, all the things we do are really going well. In relatively speaking to other (sports) properties out there that may have some challenges, I think NHRA is in a great position. I think we’re well-suited for 2018 and beyond and I’m excited, I really am.”