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New Boss At NHRA Talks About 2016 And Beyond

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 10 2016
The 2016 NHRA Mello Yello drag racing series fires up this weekend at the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. And it does so with change mixing with tire smoke in the air.

The 2016 NHRA Mello Yello drag racing series fires up this weekend at the Winternationals in Pomona, Calif. And it does so with change mixing with tire smoke in the air.

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Year 1.5 of the Peter Clifford era of the Mello Yello NHRA drag racing series begins this weekend with the 56th running of the Circle K Winternationals at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, Calif. If Year 1 proves as significant as Year .5,  North American drag racing fans will be in for an interesting season.

bugqaClifford, the former chief financial officer of the series, took over as president of the NHRA after Tom Compton announced his retirement in July 1st of 2015.

It didn’t take him long to start instituting changes. Significant changes. The kind of changes that render the internal mantra of  “Shifting Gears Into a New Era” from sloganeering into descriptive narrative.

The changes will affect both those racing and those watching.

Probably the centerpiece of the package of changes announced by Clifford was reaching a deal with a new broadcast partner. Gone is ESPN, who many feel insulted fans and competitors alike by treating drag racing with less respect that it did high school cheerleading.

Arrived is Fox Sports and a promise to treat drag racing as a true partner. The NHRA/Fox package
includes live telecasts of 17 of the 24 races on the 2016 schedule.

“Committing to 1t live events, including four on the FOX broadcast network, certainly demonstrates the commitment and excitement level we have for the National Hot Rod Association,” Jamie Horowitz,

The Peter Clifford era of the NHRA is already producing significant changes.

The Peter Clifford era of the NHRA is already producing significant changes.

President of FOX Sports National Networks, said in announcing the last summer.

Other announcements from the Clifford regime include:

– 500 hours of coverage compared to 125 previously on ESPN

– Virtual graphics at every race from SportsVision (the same company used by the NFL) for virtual start and finish line and in-lane driver stats.

– An eight-person broadcast team, including SoCal native and two-time Funny car champion Tony Pedregon as our new color analyst.

– New car design in Pro Stock to add fuel injection and make the look of the cars more in line with production models (no hood scoops).

– Elimination of the back-up rule on national records. A top speed or best elapsed time in a record now without having to back it up within 1 percent of that run.

– A celebration of the 50-year history of Funny Car, with legendary drivers and classic championship cars at each event.

– A newly designed website with enhanced video presentations.

On Tuesday, Clifford talked with RacinToday.com about his philosophy and plans for the NHRA.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of that interview:

RacinToday.com – You’re take over a major auto racing series at a time when virtually all racing series are facing challenges in terms of both economics and fan interest. Was there any hesitancy about taking the job?

Peter Clifford – No. Not at all. I’ve been with the company for years. I started with the company as a CFO (chief financial officer) and over the last 18 years took on more and more responsibility. In 2002, I believe it was, I took on the role of general manager where I was responsible for the day-to-day

The NHRA's move to a new television partner next season is expected to be a good one for fans.

The NHRA’s move to a new television partner next season is expected to be a good one for fans.

operations of the company so I have very good background on all aspects of the business. I was very comfortable going into the role this last July.

After (his promotion) was announced, I announced six initiatitives to grow this sport. We wrote those out in July and it has been well-received since then. We have plan to grow the sport as we move forward.

RacinToday.com: You’re background is in finance. Does this say anything about the direction the NHRA is taking, and will take, in the coming years?

Peter Clifford: My background is in business, primarily, and I think I have a very, very good understanding of the NHRA of all aspects of the business. I was responsible not just for the administrative functions, but I was also responsible for our race tracks, our publications, all of our national event operations. So, I think I know the business very well. The company is a large business and we need to run it as a business. We have a great team in place and we all compliment each other very well and we bring different experiences to the company and we have a good team in place to grow the company going forward. That’s what it means. I think I knew what we needed to do going forward.

RacinToday.com: Take us back. You were promoted in July. You walk into your new office on your first day, you sit down at your desk. What was the first thing you thought about?

Peter Clifford: My first thoughts are, ‘How do we continue to grow the business?” That’s where we developed the plan to help move us forward. Those were my first thoughts. How do we move forward? We need to get out there, meet with as many of our constituents as possible. That includes racers, our sponsors and as well, listen to our fans to help develop the plan. Those were my first thoughts. Meet with the employees, too, so they understand the plan and buy into it and stress we will move together to grow the sport. And that’s what we’ve been doing the last six months or so.

RacinToday.com: Would you describe your approach to moving forward as evolutionary or revolutionary?

Peter Clifford: I would certainly say it is evolutionary change. The company has been around 60 plus years and we have an incredible product. A credible business on the track. I like to say we are the original extreme sport. And our goal is to just make more and more people aware of the sport. We knew we needed to make some changes. We needed to make them quickly and we did that.

First and foremost was the introducing improved television and we negotiated an incredible package

NHRA president Peter Clifford says his series already has big stars – like John Force – in its cars.

NHRA president Peter Clifford says his series already has big stars – like John Force – in its cars.

with Fox, which starts this year, where we moved from less than a handful of live races to 17 out of our 24 races will be live on FS1. Plus, four of those live events will be live on Fox Network. That’s a big, big change for our sport. We are going to be going from 120 hours of programming (with ESPN as the broadcast partner last year) to 512 hours on Fox, which is so good for the sport. Every time you turn on Fox, you will see NHRA and we’re thrilled about that. That’s going to be a total game-changer for our sport.

A couple of other things on television is we made a determination to take production in-house because we knew we could tell our story better than anybody else. We brought in first-class people, led by Ken Adelson, who was the senior vice president of production for the NBA for 20 years and he is heading up our television crew. Our whole goal is to build more stars out there and tell more stories about the sport and educate our fans and tell new fans about NHRA drag racing. We knew we could do that better than anybody else.

We’ve established bureaus in Indianapolis and Los Angeles with an anchor in each of those and camera men in each. They will work all week long, going into the shops and meeting with drivers and telling their stories and going to their homes telling their stories so our fans at home get to know our drivers even better. We’re kind of taking a lesson from the Olympics with what they did and doing the same thing at NHRA. We’re using that content on-line, sharing with our partners digital and social and we are also using it in our television shows. Our show is going to look very, very different. It’s going to be a lot more entertaining and I think our fans will enjoy that.

RacinToday.com: You have what a lot of people consider the best product in pro racing. It features constant action and multiple big moments every session. It’s visceral as well as cerebral. How do you expose it to more people?

Peter Clifford: First and foremost is social media. We’re investing a lot more resources in social media and as you said, we believe we have the best form of racing in all of motorsports. It is the most entertaining. There is no question about that. If you think about it, it’s made for social media. It’s nice, short content. Very entertaining, very quick and it’s great on social media. We expanding that. And the other way we’re doing it is we’re going onto Fox where, as I said, we will have a lot more coverage and a lot more exposure. Fox has been a great partner already, promoting our sport on other sports, having our drivers come in as guests on other sporting events they cover.

The biggest thing, is telling their stories. Fans relate to people. Our drivers are some of the best stories

NHRA Pro Stock champion Erica Enders has become a top NHRA storyline. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

NHRA Pro Stock champion Erica Enders has become a top NHRA storyline. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Garry Eller)

out there. They are very entertaining and they’ve embraced this and they get it. We want the drivers to spend more time on social media so new fans get to know them and root for them. They all have different stories and that brings in different fans.

We also have video on demand, live streaming of our events that we will be rolling out at our Gainesville event so every event, Friday through Sunday, we’re going to stream (for those who can’t get the TV of the event) and we are absolutely thrilled about that. We know that once they see it, they’ll love it.

RacinToday.com: You wasted no time in announcing some significant changes, such as with going with fuel injection in Pro Stock and scraping the system of backing up national records.  Are there more competition-oriented changes to come and can you hint at a couple areas you might be targeting?

Peter Clifford: One of the things you will be seeing, we will be focusing on – and we’ve talked about it a little bit with the teams and they support this – is no more oil. We want oil-downs to be reduced to a minimum. So we are working with the crew chiefs and the owners and they get it. So the teams are working behind the scenes to minimize oil. We know there are going to be explosions, that’s part of sport, but we want to minimize the oil that gets down on the track. That changes the event experience not only on site because people don’t want to see people cleaning up oil, and it also changes the experience at home. With more and more live television, we know we have to reduce oil.

We’re doing everything from improving the ballistic blankets that go around the engine, making them better. We’re also going to be implementing some things that worked well in the last year or so with some of the teams. Some of the teams experimented with an automatic shut-off device when the pan pressure gets to high, it shuts off the engines.

We’re going to mandate that for all the fuel teams. We’re also going to be announcing later this week that

The NHRA has no plans to go NASCAR and tinker with its playoff system.

The NHRA has no plans to go NASCAR and tinker with its playoff system.

we are looking to bringing a crew chief onto our payroll to work with us on these types of issues. We’re adding more resources on our staff to work with the teams to make this a top priority with them. If we can minimize oil, that is a game-changer for the sport. It’s very doable.

On our side, we are purchasing all new cleanup equipment to get out to the cleanup quick and do it better. One of the things our guys are seeing so far is hot water cleans up oil quicker so we added to the power scrubbers, hot water heaters.

RacinToday.com: A major problem, perhaps the major problem, facing all racing series is the cost to compete. How do you keep the smaller teams in business and at the same time, keep the larger teams happy?

Peter Clifford: The way we looked at it, and it is definitely part of our plan, is we need to have in our rule book procedures about no new parts and pieces unless it’s for safety improvement. As you know, teams will spend money to go faster. That’s what the crew chiefs are paid to do. Our job is to make sure they don’t continue to spend more and more so that it makes it too expensive for the smaller teams to compete. So, we have policies in place about no new parts and pieces. All that does is escalate the cost of racing and doesn’t benefit anybody. The cars are going plenty fast right now. We want as many people participating as possible. That’s really, really important for us.

RacinToday.com: How happy are you with the schedule right now? Are there too many races, too few and do you like the way they are spread out over the season?

Peter Clifford: Our schedule is absolutely perfect. We have 24 events. They go from the middle of February through the middle of November. We are the only motorsport that covers the whole country, including the Northwest and other parts of the country where other motorsports do not go. We have no plans to add any events at this point so we’re very, very pleased with the schedule.

RacinToday.com: NASCAR is continually changing up it’s Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship playoff format. Do you have plans to tweak your Countdown to the Championship playoff system or are you happy with it as is?

Peter Clifford: We think the Countdown to the Championship brings some excitement and we are very, very happy with it. There are no plans right now to make any changes to the Countdown. It’s the right number of events, it provides competition and based on what we’ve seen the last couple of years, in a couple of instances, the championship wasn’t awarded to the very last event. It’s very exciting. I think our fans like it and understand it and we certainly don’t want to complicate it anymore so there are no plans at this point to change it.

RacinToday.com: Racing has become as much about the stars than the cars. Do you think the NHRA needs to develop a Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Michael Jordan to be the face of the sport and become a crossover star?

Peter Clifford: I think we have a number of stars. Our whole plan is to build more and more stars. That’s the whole idea with our television package. We have the best personalities out there. We have the most diverse form of motorsport out there by far. We’re very inclusive. Our current (Top Fuel) champions, Antron Brown is a phenomenal ambassador for the sport. He is amazing. John Force is entertaining no matter who you are. He’s a 16-time (Funny Car) champion and is a wonderful ambassador for the sport. Erica Enders in Pro Stock is a two-time champion in a male-dominated category and she is phenomenal. So many examples. I don’t think any sport wants to rely on just one driver and we need to continue to promote all of them and make them all stars. That’s the plan.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Wednesday, February 10 2016
3 Comments

3 Comments »

  • Haz says:

    What happened to announcer Tom Dunn ?

    • John Sturbin says:

      Haz: Mike Dunn parted company with ESPN at the end of last season, when the TV rights went to FOX Sports. Mike was appointed president of the rival IHRA last week…a story you can find on RacinToday.com.

  • jim "Krappy" krafjack says:

    To whom, Thank you for the coming changes, I’m stoked, with that, I would ask please, that you asked the fans for more opinions and ideas, if the fans feel like they have a stake they will be the most loyal of fans, like NASCAR used to do !
    keep the price low, the hype high, and fun by the car load,
    My very best of luck to you all,
    If so interested I have a great idea that I would love to share on a stronger involvement from corporate America, it how ever would require a phone call or something of that nature, much more involved
    -Krappy-