Q&A: Peter Clifford Discusses The NHRA’s Direction At Mid-Season

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Peter Clifford has added some corporate muscle power since he stepped up to the role of NHRA President early last July. With Tyler Schulze replacing him as vice-president and chief financial officer and Brad Gerber joining the company as vice-president of sales and chief development officer, he has some reinforcements as the sanctioning body tries to activate some fresh business initiatives.

Sometimes, as with DragZine’s recent Q&A exchange, Clifford’s vision for “growth opportunities and expansive partnerships” collides with the common fan’s perception that NHRA drag racing has areas for improvement. Clifford doesn’t deny that, but he and his Glendora, Calif.-headquartered colleagues maintain that changes simply don’t come wholesale and overnight and that the NHRA is making creditable progress.

See how Clifford, game to communicate the NHRA’s message despite Dragzine’s non-traditional one-year-in report-card exercise, responded to a host of concerns in the new FOX-TV era,including the state of the Pro Stock and Pro Modified classes, its relationship with the street-racing community and “Street Outlaws” cable-TV program, and how the sanctioning body plans to navigate the trends in moving forward with its efforts to grow the sport.153-JasonLine-Friday-Englishtown
Dragzine (DZ): While it might be too early to make a clear proclamation, the Pro Stock “experiment” is not netting the expected results. If it continues down this path, what’s the next step to keep the class alive?

Peter Clifford (PC): It’s definitely too early to make additional changes. Entering this season, we did what we felt was needed to improve the class and make it more relevant for the manufacturers with electronic fuel injection and eliminating the hood scoops. We had 18 Pro Stock cars at Norwalk and feel that’s a very encouraging sign. We will evaluate it at the end of the season.

DZ: Do you believe that the cost of competing in the professional categories has exceeded what our economy can support (resulting in painfully obvious reduced car counts)? If so, what steps does the NHRA have in mind to bring those costs down to produce a sport more viable for the years ahead?

We feel confident that our nitro rosters will grow as our TV audience grows and additional sponsors begin to participate.

PC: We’re always looking at ways to reduce costs for competitors. It’s an ongoing process. We also have taken steps to help the lower-budgets teams by reducing the fines for oil downs, since so many of our teams have diligently worked with us to control the issue. We have found that car counts in Top Fuel and Funny Car tend to be cyclical in nature and often a reflection of the overall economy. There are many individuals out there either building nitro cars or looking for funding to race the cars they already own. We feel confident that our nitro rosters will grow as our TV audience grows and additional sponsors begin to participate.

DZ: Leah Pritchett, at age 28, is the youngest regular competitor in the NHRA’s marquee class. Part-timer Blake Alexander is the youngest in the 50-year-old Funny Car class. What can/should the NHRA do to attract younger drivers? How concerned are you that the current field racers will have less and less appeal to the crowd you need to grow and continue the sport? With the so-called car culture in America seeing drastic shifts with today’s twenty-somethings and costs becoming more and more prohibitive, how can you attract younger drivers (and a younger crowd)?

September 16, 2015: Courtney and Brittany Force participate in a NHRA Countdown media event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, NV.

September 16, 2015: Courtney and Brittany Force participate in a NHRA Countdown media event at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, NV.

PC: We are very pleased with the diversity of our current roster of competitors. We have a great group of drivers that represent the sport extremely well. We feel we have a bright future with all the competitors in our Junior Dragster programs and will continue to see some of these young racers progress through the ranks and reach the professional level. And almost 50 percent of our juniors are female, which continues the diversity of which we are so proud. We are aggressively using social media and other means to bring more young people to our events. We are already seeing many JRDL graduates have success at the pro level, including Shawn Langdon, J.R. Todd, and Erica Enders to name a few, and we expect to see more success stories like that in the future.

Our TV ratings are up 70 percent in total viewers. I’d say people are getting the message.

DZ: Do you see a need to market (on a grand, Madison Avenue scale) this sport as an extreme sport? Americans love extreme, and this is the most extreme sport on Earth, really. So why haven’t danger-loving, extreme-loving audiences come to the NHRA in droves?

PC: We’ve taken enormous steps to supplement our leadership team with people who have the skills needed to grow the sport. This is the original extreme sport and we are proud of that fact. We are seeing bigger gains in attendance across the board this season. We’ve also taken steps in-house this year to address our marketing needs. We feel we now have the leadership team in place to get the message out about all the great things that are going on and how it is having a positive effect on the sport. Our TV ratings are up 70 percent in total viewers. I’d say people are getting the message.

DZ: Pro Modified has been a part of the NHRA for 15 years now but has always been kept at arm’s length. Many continue to wonder why it hasn’t been awarded status as an official class in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series. What’s the reason? Do the class’ participants prefer to race for Wally trophies in their own separate-but-equal operation? How much of a role does the Pro Stock Truck disaster play?

PC: No one is being kept at arm’s length. Expanding to 24 races isn’t something the teams in that class are looking to do. Pro Mod racers really enjoy their current 10-race schedule and they race for official NHRA Wally trophies. They provide exciting racing at the events where they are scheduled. They have television coverage on FOX Sports 1 and 2. We have worked closely with the Pro Mod group since we added the class and we will continue to monitor the class during its natural progression.

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DZ: It has been a year since the NHRA lit up the Internet by issuing letters to the stars/participants of Discovery’s Street Outlaws. We know about “Big Chief’s” public-service announcement, which is a step in the direction of cooperation. But has the NHRA’s stance regarding the show and its stern warning regarding future licenses/participation changed any since then?

PC: We continue to stress our original goal of racing legally in a controlled environment. We want all the followers of the show and the competitors to know we welcome them to become part of the NHRA as a fan or competitor, which was the purpose of Justin’s PSA.

DZ: Rumor has it that behind the scenes, the NHRA reached out to the Street Outlaws cast last year and attempted to, at the very least, ensure that their cars and their equipment were safe for racing. Is there any truth to this, and if so, what was the purpose?

PC: We want everyone to race safely and legally, but we haven’t worked with the show about how they produce it. We did meet with the Pilgrim Studio executives, who produce the show and came to an agreement on Justin’s PSA.

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DZ: A fundamental change has taken place regarding where the eyeballs and the interest in this sport are going: away from organized class racing, which has been the NHRA’s bread and butter for more than 60 years, to more simple grassroots formats with vehicles the average fan can relate to. How (and how much) can the NHRA align itself with the “new” drag racing while maintaining its heritage?

PC: Our NHRA Division Directors work directly with every NHRA member track to provide programs and racing opportunities for every NHRA member. NHRA values the grassroots racers and provides many different formats and events in each NHRA Division throughout the year, as well as on the NHRA national event stage. The message hasn’t changed, regardless of the cars involved.

DZ: As a follow-up  . . . A growing market seems to be developing for (and popularity seems to be growing for) drag-racing events conducted legally on closed public roads overseen by law enforcement. Are such events, despite their safety precautions, in defiance of the NHRA’s mission statement? Does the organization have any interest in condoning or perhaps even partaking, in regards to chassis and safety inspections, in such events?

For now, we are extremely happy with the on-track results and competition, racing to 1,000 feet in the nitro classes.

PC: No, that’s not part of the NHRA’s mission. We want drivers to race in a controlled environment at an NHRA member track.

DZ: According to many observers, the NHRA has been known to exercise its power as a sanctioning organization to eliminate competition, most recently laying down strict rules on nitromethane use by alternative organizations. Some see this as the NHRA impeding the growth and popularity of the sport by not allowing other organizations to have vehicles that may draw the NHRA’s crowd away. Moving forward, can the NHRA look after itself and at the same time play a role in the betterment of the sport across all platforms?

PC: NHRA wants to continue to grow the sport and improve. We want to push our sport forward for everyone.

DZ: Is a return to quarter-mile nitro racing on the NHRA’s radar at this time?

PC: As we’ve said many times, we continue to look at this every year to determine what is in the best interest of the sport. For now, we are extremely happy with the on-track results and competition, racing to 1,000 feet in the nitro classes. For example, we had the closest finish ever in the Top Fuel final earlier this season in Atlanta when Doug Kalitta edged J.R. Todd by less than one 10-thousandth of a second.

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DZ: Is an increase in professional-class purses on the NHRA’s radar at this time? And if not, why not?

PC: It’s another area we always look at to see what’s best for the sport.

DZ: The NHRA has seen an increase in attendance at national events, yet the majority of the crowd usually exits by the semifinals. Is the NHRA concerned that its customers don’t stay for the full show? If so, how can the NHRA improve that? If not, why does the NHRA not care about that, as – among other consequences – it detracts from the image that the live-TV effort is trying to establish?

PC: Many sports have fans who leave early for various reasons – time, weather, other commitments, etc. People often want to beat traffic out of a venue. Our goal is to make sure all our fans enjoy the experience however long they are there.

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DZ: No-prep-style racing (which is intended to mimic street racing) has become increasingly popular, with jam-packed events scattered all across the country nearly every weekend. While it’s inherently dangerous, it serves as a legitimate opportunity to take racers off the streets, offering a middle-ground with the sanctioning bodies, if you will. What is the NHRA’s take on this form of racing, and do you think the NHRA should be involved, as a matter of carrying out its mission to eliminate street racing?

PC: As I said earlier, our mission is the same. We want to bring in potential racers to NHRA member tracks to race legally.

About the author

Susan Wade

Celebrating her 45th year in sports journalism, Susan Wade has emerged as one of the leading drag-racing writers with 20 seasons at the racetrack. She was the first non-NASCAR recipient of the prestigious Russ Catlin Award and has covered the sport for the Chicago Tribune, Newark Star-Ledger, St. Petersburg Times, and Seattle Times. Growing up in Indianapolis, motorsports is part of her DNA. She contributes to Power Automedia as a freelancer writer.
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