Changes at NHRA Starting to Pay Off

Richie Crampton NHRA Gatornationals
Lucas Oil Top Fuel pilot Richie Crampton is looking to score and earn valuable points at the NHRA Gatornationals this weekend at Florida’s Gainesville Raceway.

I don’t know about you, but I definitely like what I’m seeing so far about the “new” NHRA. Since he took office as the sanctioning body’s president and chief leader last June, Peter Clifford has been on a whirlwind ride of change and improvement. There’s no question that now, nine months later, Clifford has significantly reworked the organization in an effort to make it a bigger, more relevant and more popular racing entity.

Clifford has made significant changes within the corporate structure, with several veteran leaders either released or have left of their own volition.  In turn, Clifford has brought in new personnel – particularly on the TV, digital and marketing sides – to bolster what had been sagging efforts to attract new fans and to retain veteran fans.  That includes folks like TV/digital VP Ken Adelson, PR VP Terry Blount and, most recently, VP of Sales/Development Brad Gerber.

There’s no question Clifford wanted his own team after replacing the now-retired Tom Compton, and he has done just that.

The results speak for themselves. Not only has NHRA forged a new relationship with Fox Sports for television broadcasts, ratings have made a 25 percent jump already, particularly in the crucial 18-49 male age group, the most important and coveted demographic.  There is a new look in Pro Stock, new technical rules and other changes that continue to keep the sanctioning body moving forward.

What’s interesting is Clifford is not new to NHRA. He’s been a loyal soldier there for two decades. He came in near the end of Dallas Gardner’s reign as president, and then became one of Compton’s most trusted confidants and, essentially, Compton’s right-hand man.

But there was only so much Clifford could do. However, now that he’s in charge, he’s made so many changes – and good changes, I might add – in less than a year that what had seemed like a rudderless NHRA the last several years is now suddenly going full steam ahead.

While it’s likely NHRA will never return to its greatest glory days in the 1980s and 1990s, that’s still not stopping Clifford and his team from making the effort to try and do so. While speed and elapsed time are the most significant aspects of NHRA on the drag strip, increasing attendance, TV ratings and attracting new, deep-pocketed sponsors is Job No. 1 for Clifford and Co.

It’s kind of a similar situation faced by NASCAR. It likely will never return to its best days in the 1990s on up to about 2006, yet that’s also not stopping Brian France, Mike Helton and the rest of the organization in its attempts to try and gain back as much ground that it has lost in the last decade.

IndyCar is also in the same boat. It’s almost as if NHRA, NASCAR and IndyCar and other smaller motorsport sanctioning bodies in the U.S. are all starting to pull from the same playbook. And that’s a good thing for race fans and teams that compete in each series.

For too long, there’s been a reluctance or hesitancy from major motorsport sanctioning bodies to listen to its fans, particularly the diehard fans that have lived and died with the sport and their favorite teams.

NHRA Gatornationals
Shane Gray and his crew have been “testing the wheels off” their sleek Valvoline/Nova Services Chevy Camaro and are more than ready to have a big showing this weekend at the Gatornationals

Also for too long, many (but not necessarily all) sanctioning bodies have had what I like to call a supremacy syndrome, that just because its officials are in their respective jobs, that makes them the most qualified to make changes both on and off the racetrack, with fan input being inconsequential.

But NHRA has bucked that trend of late. It knows that without fans, it would likely suffer further financial, attendance and viewing losses. So, Clifford has gone to the fans, asked what they liked and didn’t like, and has responded in kind.

He’s not been afraid to make changes based upon what fans have wanted. And now, the proof is in the pudding: fans are responding in kind by returning to the sport either at the track or in front of their TVs.  Some might say that it’s too early to fully believe that the increased ratings, fan attendance and attention are permanent – and potentially will continue to trend upward.

But as far as I’m concerned, all the gains NHRA has made under Clifford’s watch thus far are just the tip of the iceberg. I see even greater gains going forward.

I like Clifford’s managerial style: quiet and subtle. But don’t let that fool you. He’s also a man of action and results. When he parted company with some individuals that had been with NHRA for 20, 30 or more years, it’s because Clifford felt change was needed, change was good … and change was going to happen.  Those changes will likely continue to happen, and that’s a good and positive thing for the sport, the teams, the sanctioning body and the fans.

While I had my doubts a few years ago that NHRA would continue to suffer declines in almost every significant area, now I’m very bullish on the future.  And the reason being is kind of along the same lines: when he assumed his new role, Clifford wasted little time by taking the bull by the horns, wrestled it, roped it and showed it who was boss.

Now it’s the boss who has the horns, and he’s showing he’s a man of action – and that’s no bull.

Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski

About Jerry Bonkowski 38 Articles
Jerry Bonkowski is a veteran motorsports writer who has worked for USA Today (15 years), ESPN.com (3 1/2 years), Yahoo Sports (4 1/2 years) and is in his third year with NBCSports.com's NASCAR Talk and MotorSportsTalk. He also is a regular on-air host for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (14 years). Jerry has been married for 30 years to Cyndee, the love of his life, and they are the proud parents of three adult children (still waiting for his first grandchild!). Twitter: @JerryBonkowski
  • Krys Dean

    I like what NHRA is doing, but would like to see a little more diversity in Pro Stock. All Camaros with a Dodge or two thrown in isn’t as interesting as it could be.

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