Tom Compton is only the third president in NHRA's 51-year history. Compton took the reigns of the company in January 2000 and has taken the sport of drag racing to a new level. Compton has led the way in securing landmark agreements in television...
Tom Compton is only the third president in NHRA's 51-year history. Compton took the reigns of the company in January 2000 and has taken the sport of drag racing to a new level. Compton has led the way in securing landmark agreements in television and sponsorship for NHRA. The 2003 season will mark the third year in a five-year, exclusive agreement with ESPN and its networks that will bring more than 200 hours of quarter-mile action to fans everywhere. It is also the second year with POWERade as the series sponsor. Coca-Cola's sport drink became just the second series sponsor in NHRA history prior to the 2002 season. In this Q&A session, Compton talks about what the NHRA has done well, what needs to be done and why the NHRA continues to grow.
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Q: What do you want to accomplish next?
Compton: Going forward, we still have to work on the awareness with The Coca-Cola Company and our other partners. One of the things we are going to do is work with our partners on what they can do with their NHRA affiliation, not only to help them sell more product, but also promote the NHRA. We need to use the NHRA association more effectively to help their businesses, which will, in turn, help the awareness of the NHRA. We can't do this ourselves.
We know a very high percentage of new people that come out to our events for the first time are blown away and enjoy the spectacle and want to come back. So the challenge is to get people to come out for the first time. We are going to work with our partners to run programs that get that message out and make the relationship with the NHRA even more productive. That is one of our greatest opportunities and a primary focus going forward.
Q: What do you think about having the 90-year-old founder, Wally Parks, as one of your resources?
Compton: We have a living legend right here. If you want to know why something is the way it is, why he organized NHRA the way he did, or what our mission is, he can tell you directly. He's a tremendous resource. I look up to Wally and it is really rewarding to see the man who created the sport over 50 years ago tell our team that we are going in the right direction, that he supports what we are trying to do. It is an honor to work for him. I really can't put into words how much it means to be able to work with a person like Wally, someone I respect so much. I don't know of many people who have had the opportunity to work for someone who really cares about what they are doing and cares so much that they are still doing it at 90 years old! Most people have been retired for 30 years at that point. It's his absolute passion.
Q: What are the chances of NHRA expanding its schedule?
Compton: As I mentioned earlier, we are, by far, the most geographically dispersed motorsport out there. Given the way Wally started the company with the Safety Safari helping to organize car clubs and working with local law enforcement to combat illegal street racing all across the country, we were national from the start. We are currently in most of the major markets in the country. With that said, we are not looking to expand the schedule anytime soon because we want the economics of racing to stay within reach of as many race teams as possible. I was told 10 years ago that 18 was the limit and the next year we added a 19th race. Now here we are at 23. We might go to 24 if the right situation came about, but we are not really in a hurry to increase the number of national events.
Q: The Summit Sport Compact Series is expanding rapidly. How important is that series for the NHRA?
Compton: It is very important. It represents a new wave of young drag racers. Wally would tell you it is very similar to what was going on in the late '40s and early '50s when he created the NHRA. That is what we are about, grassroots racing. We are about providing a safer, organized, competitive place for people to enjoy this great sport. There are a growing number of people that really enjoy the sport compact cars. These types of cars make up a significant percentage of what is on the road today. These young drivers are just as passionate about what they do as the hot rodders were in the '50s. This is just the next stage. It is here to stay and will continue to grow. There is a tremendous amount of sponsor interest out there. We were fortunate enough to be able to put together a great TV package for the sport compact drivers to help with crucial exposure for the sponsors. We think NHRA ultimately will be known as the premier sport compact drag racing sanctioning body as we are with all other forms of drag racing.
Q: The 2003 season will feature some added racing elements. Why does the NHRA feel the need to add more features to the national events?
Compton: We are always trying to put on the best show possible. We want our fans to walk away saying, 'That was the best motorsports show I have ever seen in my life.' But, having said that, each of the new features are a little different. The Extreme Rush (Chicago 1, Dallas) is an opportunity for the sport compact racers to compete and showcase what they do, their sponsors and the series at an NHRA POWERade drag racing event. It is a natural way to expose the series and this unique type of racing to the masses. We would be remiss if we didn't take advantage of that opportunity. Understand, however, we are not planning to combine these two series. They are distinctly different.
The Nitro Harley situation is really completely different. The Nitro Harleys are exciting. Harley-Davidson came to us and asked us what we would be willing to do with the Nitro Harleys. Our Pro Stock Bike category is one of the four premier POWERade categories and always will be. But we thought, for added entertainment, at some of the venues where the Pro Stock Bikes aren't competing, we'd showcase the Nitro Harleys at three events. We are not creating a new series with the Harleys.
Q: Will there be any expansion into new categories in the future?
Compton: To some extent, the national events are a collection of just about everything in drag racing. But when it comes to whether we are going to expand the POWERade series at the professional level beyond the four categories, the answer is absolutely not. Everyone is vying for television exposure and you can divide up the pie only so many ways. That doesn't mean we won't have other types of vehicles racing at national events in the future, like the Pro Mod exhibition series. We have a separate television show on ESPN2 for the Pro Mods, so they are not diluting the television exposure that the POWERade teams share. For the professional teams to secure adequate sponsorship, they need exposure. Our plan is to keep the four POWERade categories the way they are. Those will be the focus of our national event race shows on ESPN. For other things that we do, to the extent that it is warranted, we will have additional ESPN television coverage, like the NHRA Summit Sport Compact Series, like the NHRA Lucas Oil Sportsman Series, like the NHRA AMS Pro Mod exhibition, or the NHRA Extreme Rush.
Q: Kenny Bernstein retired in November and Shirley Muldowney is running her farewell tour in 2003. What do you think about the two losses?
Compton: It's true Kenny Bernstein won't be behind the wheel and certainly he was one of the most successful drivers in NHRA history. But he is not going away. His son Brandon will be in the race car and Kenny will be out there at each and every race promoting the Budweiser Top Fuel dragster and the NHRA. I'm real happy about that. I think Brandon is going to be a great star too. He's a wonderful young man, he is an excellent driver, he has a lot of personality and I think he'll do very, very well. I don't think we are losing anyone, I think we are gaining Brandon. When it comes to Shirley, she is still an icon. We are thrilled when she competes at an NHRA national event because fans line up outside her pit to get her autograph and it's longer than any other line out there. Simply put, the fans love her. I have a feeling, however, she will find a way to continue to be part of the sport as well.
Q: Is the NHRA worried about losing stars and experiencing a lack of talent to fill the gap?
Compton: I love it when someone says, 'Isn't NHRA getting old?' Because the answer is 'not at all.' If you look at our demographics, we are younger than ever before and getting younger every day. We have a strong contingent of personable and talented young drivers. They are very exciting to watch on and off the race track. In fact, we probably have the best group of younger drivers than at anytime in modern history. NHRA's fan base is also getting younger, which is another very attractive part of the sport. When sponsors see the demographics of our fans and drivers, they see an unparalleled mix of gender, ethnicity and age. This sport is getting more popular, it is growing and the competition is getting tougher and tougher. Our Pro Stock class has photo-finish races every week and the top 16 qualifiers out of an average field of nearly 40 cars are separated by a couple hundredths-of-a-second. This sport is as healthy as it has ever been and I guarantee that you are going to hear more and more about NHRA drag racing as we continue to be discovered as the most incredible and unique form of motorsports on the planet.
Q: Do you have additional goals for yourself as the president of the NHRA?
Compton: Of course. I have already mentioned some of the business goals. One of the things you have to do in my position, however, is establish credibility. People have to believe that you are giving them the straight scoop and then you have to back it up with actual performance. We have been fortunate enough to do both. Each year, as time goes on, there will be new challenges that will be facing us that we are going to have to deal with. The only way you can have confidence that you are going to be able to successfully tackle these challenges is to know that you have a great team. At NHRA, we have a great group of people. We have about 230 full-time employees that are very dedicated and love what they do. We have more than 3,000 part-time workers that help us run our events around the country. We are fortunate to have such dedicated and talented people. I don't think anyone can compete with the talent we have in terms of putting on great racing and great shows. We are a dynamic organization that is always looking for ways to improve upon our great product and we are not afraid to try new things. The future has never been brighter.