It’s been a tough last few seasons for the National Hot Rod Association.
TV ratings from telecasts on ESPN or its affiliates were less than ideal (as were airing times), car counts at several races were low, several big-name sponsors pulled their support from either the sport or individual teams, at-track attendance dipped at several locations and Tom Compton suddenly retired after 15 years as the sanctioning body’s president.
That’s just for starters.
But now NHRA is potentially poised for a significant resurgence, perhaps the biggest comeback it has ever enjoyed in its 60-year-plus existence.
With the best national TV contract it has ever had (Fox Sports and Fox Sports 1 begin coverage in 2016 with a minimum of 17 events being carried live), NHRA is hoping to not only attract new fans to the sport, but also to bring back older fans that may have lost interest over the years.
There will be a number of rule changes in the sport, most notably in Pro Stock. Plus, the sanctioning body has made a number of new hires to bolster its overall operation.
But will all that be enough?
I admit I’ve always been very bullish on the NHRA, even over the last few seasons when things have been less than ideal at times.
I would like nothing more than to have new NHRA president Peter Clifford bring the series back to where it once was in terms of notoriety and popularity – rather than what it has evolved to over the last few years: as somewhat of a niche sport (and believe me, I hate to use that phrase).
Unfortunately during the last decade, the NHRA has had to deal with the poor economy, a number of its biggest stars have retired and too many new attractions and entertainment distractions have stolen away fans and viewers.
And it’s not just been the NHRA. NASCAR has struggled, IndyCar has struggled (although it is starting to climb back in attention and notoriety), as well as pretty much every other form of motorsport on four or two wheels.
Let’s face it, the glory days of auto racing are likely never to return to the level they once were in the 1980s and 1990s – and that includes the NHRA.
While the Fox Sports deal appears very promising and is leaving many team owners, drivers, fans and media optimistic that it will help turn around NHRA’s fortunes (both financially and popularity), I keep asking myself will that be enough to turn the recent downward tide back upward.
Instead of looking at Fox Sports as a savior, NHRA should look at it instead as a start to a significant comeback. But the sanctioning body can’t stop there. It has to start listening to the fans and what they want.
Fans want Top Fuel and Funny Car to go back to 1,320 feet racing, not 1,000 feet. I understand why NHRA dropped the length – in the name of safety – after the tragic death of Scott Kalitta at Englishtown, N.J., several years ago.
But there are ways to reduce speed, horsepower and most importantly, engine size, to allow the nitro cars to return to full 1,320 foot racing.
Fans also want to see more unique distinction in terms of cars and motorcycles. They want to see more Top Fuel Harley bikes, the elevation to a major class for Pro Modifieds (which are as trick and even more outlandish at times than Funny Cars), and a significant way to cut costs so that we won’t continue seeing team after team falling by the wayside because they can’t continue affording the costs of racing.
Just ask Top Fuel team owner Alan Johnson about that. After several championships and countless wins over the years, Alan Johnson Racing could not even make it through the full 2015 season because it lost its sponsor just prior to the start of the campaign.
Even worse, AJR will not return in 2016 – or anytime soon, if ever again.
Like I said earlier, I’m bullish on NHRA making a big comeback and bringing back old fans and attracting a whole new generation of fans. I like what I see from Clifford and his leadership style thus far.
But there’s still so much more that must be done, rather than just put all of NHRA’s eggs into just one basket, namely its new TV deal, and hope that will solve all that has ailed NHRA in recent years.
It’s a start, but let’s hope it’s not looked upon as the end-all and be-all. Let’s face it, NHRA can’t afford to lose any more fans, and no matter how glitzy or glamorous its TV coverage may be going forward, flash can only go so far.
I’m pulling for you, NHRA, and keeping my fingers crossed that you get better and bigger. It won’t be easy and it’ll take time, but if you built the sport to such great heights before, here’s hoping you can do it again.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski