U.S. President Donald Trump gives an annual “State of the Union” address. Governors of most every state in the union have annual “State of the State” speeches.
NHRA president Glen Cromwell recently gave a “state of the NHRA” interview to NBCSports.com, and like the U.S. President and most governors, Cromwell is quite bullish on where the drag racing organization is presently and where it’s headed.
NBC Sports spoke with Cromwell in advance of the third race of the 24-race NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series season, the 51st annual Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida, from March 12-15.
The event is considered one of the four “majors” on the NHRA tour, the others being the season-opening Winternationals (held last month in Pomona, Calif.), the U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend and the season-ending World Finals (also at Pomona).
The Gatornationals – or simply “the Gators” or “GatorNats” as many people refer to it – is arguably the second-largest race on the NHRA schedule, behind only the U.S. Nationals.
Here are excerpts from NBC Sports’ interview with Cromwell:
NBC SPORTS: How would you describe the ‘State of the NHRA’ today?
Cromwell: “The State of the NHRA is still very strong. We have a lot of momentum that kind of goes back to 2016. From then to 2020, really, we’ve seen all our key performance indicators going up.
“The only thing that slowed us down last year was we had 15 events that were impacted by weather. You take those out of the mix, and you’d be saying the State of the NHRA is tremendous momentum. The only thing you’ve seen at Pomona and Phoenix (the first two races that have been held thus far this season) is the continued great upward momentum with the sport over the last four years.”
NBC SPORTS: What are the challenges that NHRA still faces?
Cromwell: “This is a challenge for all motorsports series, and I’ll just sum it up with two words: ‘economic balance.’ Whether it’s the guys in NASCAR, F1, IndyCar, they’ll all tell you the same thing, they’re trying to find the balance of healthy race teams, healthy racetracks, healthy properties and of course doing that and keeping the entertainment level for our fans at the highest level. When you find that balance, you know you’ve got it going in the right direction. Are we there yet? No. Everybody’s got their challenges, but I like where we sit as a property/sanctioning body. I think there’s a lot of good things happening, but obviously there’s always a lot of work ahead to make things better. So we will never settle for where we are over the last four years. We are pushing forward on many levels.”
NBC SPORTS: There has been talk about IndyCar and NASCAR perhaps holding races together on the same weekend at select tracks where both series race. Could you potentially run a weekend series with another sanctioning body? For example, Bristol Dragway is right across the street from Bristol Motor Speedway. Likewise for Route 66 Raceway and Chicagoland Speedway, or The Strip and Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Could NHRA do combination weekends with another series?
Cromwell: “We’ve talked about it. It’s been discussed internally. Are the conversations deep into the final (stage)? No, it’s not there. Obviously, all properties are looking at would that be a great opportunity for fans of all motorsports, because at the end of the day, we’re all part of the same family and we all have to grow together. If that opportunity came to the NHRA, and it made sense, would we be open to it? Yeah, we would.”
NBC SPORTS: Could you see a possibility of joint race weekends with other sanctioning bodies in, say, the next three to five years?
Cromwell: “Just discussions are happening. Are we open to it? We’re open to explore the idea. I’d leave it at that.”
NBC SPORTS: One of the biggest challenges all motorsports series face is attracting new fans. What are some of the things NHRA is doing?
Cromwell: “It’s really all about setting up programs for new fans that have never been to our event before because it is a little intimidating at first. We want to make it more welcoming for fans when they buy that ticket and walk into that gate and make sure they have all the information they need.
“One of the things is we plan to start an influencer (social media) program for next year. That touches new people, new eyeballs. We focus heavily on youth, particularly our Youth In Education program (young teens through first two years of college). We’re bringing in about 22 to 25 percent increases on the number of people we’re bringing in through the youth program.
“We’ve also started an exciting new job listing platform, ‘NHRA Launch’ with (former multitime Pro Stock Motorcycle champ) Terry Vance.
“We are also giving private tours for new fans, plus we still have the greatest access for fans in motorsports, where they can walk through the pits and meet and talk to drivers and also get their autographs.”
NBC SPORTS: Attracting new fans is obviously good, but what about older drag racing fans? How do you bring them back out to the tracks or re-attract them and their interest in the sport?
Cromwell: “We will continue programs like the ‘Unfinished Business’ program we had last year at Gainesville, where fans that have been with us since the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, they’ll once again see folks like Don ‘Snake’ Prudhomme, Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Warren Johnson, Ed ‘Ace’ McCulloch and other legends in the sports. … It makes fans want to come back. We have such a strong history and we don’t want to forget that history. We hope to have two legend drivers at many races next year, and that’s very important because we will be celebrating 70 years of the NHRA being in existence next year, as well.”
NBC SPORTS: NASCAR is expected to make significant changes to its schedule starting in 2021, with some races that traditionally are run at one point of the year potentially being moved to a different time of the season. Has NHRA considered moving some of its races at traditional points in the season to other times?
Cromwell: “It’s again the economic balance. At the end of the day, we’re going to look at making adjustments that put the sport in a very strong, bullish position of economic balance, and we’ll look at things.”
NBC SPORTS: Are there any plans to expand the schedule or move into other markets that the NHRA is not currently in?
Cromwell: “We’ve always looked at different markets, but I think right now we like where we sit today. But obviously we’re evaluating our schedule, and we’ll see how NASCAR changes theirs, and we may have to adjust if they make drastic changes to theirs and locations and things like that.”
NBC SPORTS: A number of current NHRA stars are getting up in age, like John Force (70 years old), Doug Kalitta (55) and Ron Capps (54). Can you discuss how NHRA is building its next crop of stars with folks such as Steve Torrence (36), Austin Prock (24), Leah Pritchett (31), Matt Hagan (37) and others?
Cromwell: “We’re going to promote these younger drivers and make stars of them. We’ll balance between John Force and a lot of our stars but also focus a lot on these younger drivers that are up and coming.
“Among the things we’re doing include programs where we’re putting them out in the public’s eye, social media is a big deal and more My Journey’s (2-4 minute behind the scenes videos). As I’ve always said, these drivers that have been with us for a long time, there will be a day when they leave the sport, and I’m very confident we have new, young stars who will come in and fill those gaps, will do a wonderful job and will become stars within themselves.
“It’s like hockey, when Wayne Gretzky retired, people said hockey was done. Then there was Mario Lemieux and then Sidney Crosby came in and Alex Ovechkin. You have stars that will come in and fill those voids.”
NBC SPORTS: What are some of the other things that are encouraging about the sport going forward?
Cromwell: “In addition to new young full-time drivers like (Top Fuel driver) Austin Prock and others, we’re also encouraged that there are more part-time drivers who are coming on the scene, and those who have been part-time for several years are even competing in more races than they typically do.
“We also are very happy with our partnership with Fox and FS1 (the current agreement runs through the end of the 2021 season).
“Really, overall, the sport is extremely healthy, and the momentum is continuing where it has been the last four years.”