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.
Part 1 of 2
Q: What is the most exciting thing about the 2003 season?
Tom Compton: Well, it's POWERade and Coca-Cola's second year with NHRA. We signed the deal with them in December 2001 and in many respects last year was a learning year. We were introducing our sport to The Coca-Cola Company and the bottling group, Coca-Cola Enterprises all around the country and in all of our race markets. I think one of the most exciting things about 2003 is the fact is that they are now very aware of NHRA and they are excited and enthusiastic about what the NHRA is doing and what they can do to help sell more POWERade and Coke. I think you are really going to know we're in town this year more than ever through their market activation program. This program includes in-store displays, hang tags on bottles, etc. It's a very exciting time because we have never had that kind of support before.
Q: What did you think about the first year of POWERade's involvement and what do you expect from them in 2003?
Compton: Obviously you couldn't pick a company that would be higher on our wish list of companies to partner with than Coca-Cola. It was almost a dream come true to partner with a brand like Coca-Cola. It was the first time Coca-Cola has taken one of its products and made it the series sponsor of any sport in the history of the company. The fact that they believed in NHRA drag racing enough to enter as the series sponsor for the first time in the company's history is tremendous. It was rewarding and exciting to travel around the country with various people from The Coca-Cola Company, put them on the starting line, take them into John Force's pit or Kenny Bernstein or Don Prudhomme's pit areas. It was great to see them light up and understand the connection, excitement and unique nature of our sport. We could see them get hooked. The fact that they like it, the fact that they see the opportunity points to good things in the future in terms of a long-term relationship. We have the most loyal fans and our fans will support our sponsors.
Q: How do you think ESPN and its networks are doing as television partners?
Compton: There is the ESPN broadcast agreement and then there is the ESPN Regional Television (ERT) production agreement and both are part of ESPN. Starting with the production quality (ERT), the actual show itself, I don't think anyone could argue that last year produced the best shows ever. From all the new technology they brought to the party, the number of cameras, to the story lines, to the pit interviews, everything they did was much more compelling. It was interesting to watch because people that aren't familiar with the sport can connect with it as well as people who are very familiar with the sport. I give ERT incredibly high marks. They have made great strides in improving how our sport is conveyed on television and they have done a tremendous job. On the broadcast side, we are obviously thrilled. We can't think of a better situation than to be exclusively on the world's greatest sports network with four to five hours of NHRA POWERade drag racing programming every weekend. Both ESPN and NHRA are so happy with the relationship that we are in the process of talking about going beyond the initial five-year term.
Q: What would you change, if anything?
Compton: There is room for improvement. We were pre-empted a number of times last year due to other delayed live programming that preceded our shows. That is the reality of live versus same-day television. We feel that given the nature of our sport, same-day is better for us than going live. We will from time to time be pre-empted for live programming but that needs to be kept to a minimum. They have agreed to work with us on that and I believe they are serious. For instance, at the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals in 2003, the show leading up to our U.S. Nationals finals show on Monday will be a baseball game. But the baseball game will be either in California where it doesn't rain in the summer or in a dome stadium. These are the types of things they are willing to work on with us. We are confident and comfortable that we are going to be able to minimize unfortunate circumstances. We are also looking to ESPN to promote us more. We are on SportsCenter sometimes, which we never were before. We are on RPM 2Night all the time now, versus infrequently in the past. We've also seen those 'Tomorrow on ESPN' ads where it shows they will have a baseball game, etc., and then they will have the 'We've got NHRA POWERade drag racing on at 5 p.m.' They do that now to some extent but we are looking for more. We want more presence on SportsCenter, more promo spots talking about the upcoming races and the fact that they have the NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series exclusively on ESPN networks. We are real happy with the success of our weekly magazine show, NHRA 2Day. In 2001, our viewership ratings were up 147 percent. We were up an additional 40 percent in 2002. The inventory for the shows is essentially sold out for the second year in a row. That shows a lot of strength.
Q: Why are fans taking a bigger interest in motorsports in general, and specifically the NHRA?
Compton: There are a number of factors that are impacting that. First of all, motorsports is now extremely popular in the United States and NASCAR has led the way. That has been a good thing. It has brought motorsports into the mainstream. NASCAR has been covered just like baseball, football and basketball. However, all of motorsports gets more attention because of it. Secondly, within motorsports, we have the most unique form of racing for two reasons. We have the most unbelievable machines and the fastest cars on the planet. The power and the speed on the track are unparalleled and it just blows you away. We also have the pit pass where every race ticket includes total access to the professional and sportsman pits. You can get up close to the stars and cars of the sport and you can't do that anywhere else. It is equally important as watching the race itself. The way you experience our events is completely different. Few sit in the stands for three hours and go home. It is a whole day, it is interesting, it is never boring and you can do things that you can't do anywhere else and see things that you can't see anywhere else. We also are enjoying more exposure than any other time in our history. We have a great television package and now we have a great series sponsor.
Q: You introduced a three-year plan when you first took the job. Have you accomplished all of those goals?
Compton: We've accomplished probably more than I thought we would. Anytime you put a plan like that together it is directional and is there to provide focus to make sure you are working on the right things. You need to avoid any attempt to be all things to all people because that is a bad strategy. You have to focus on a few things and get them right.
I think one of our biggest accomplishments was letting the race community, meaning the race teams, the tracks, our sponsors, and everyone else involved, know that we were all in this together and that we wanted to work with them, not against them. We all have a stake in the growth of the sport. I think that more than ever, the racing community and the NHRA are working very closely and the results are obvious. We have been tremendously successful. I can attribute most of that success to the fact that we are more on the same page than ever before, we support each other, we understand the big picture. That is a major change from how things have sometimes been perceived to have operated in the past.
We had an awareness problem, and we still do to some extent, but we have made great strides to start to go down a path to correct it. We have consolidated our TV and gone from a system that was very fragmented to an exclusive agreement with ESPN. We have a new series sponsor now that is about as mainstream as you can get, which obviously helps awareness. We've refocused on our grassroots and sportsman programs and member tracks and all of the people that make drag racing possible around the country. One of the biggest strengths of our company and NHRA drag racing is the incredible grassroots programs as well as the presence we have at approximately 140 member tracks around the country. The programs allow people to enjoy the sport of drag racing on a national basis. We are more geographically dispersed than any other form of motorsports, from Seattle to Florida; New York to LA; and everywhere in between, and that is a tremendous strength. We have hundreds of thousands of people who race at some level, at NHRA member tracks all around the country each year. That is something we can never lose sight of because we wouldn't have the success at the national event level if it weren't for the strength of our sportsman and grassroots programs and our member track network. Wally Parks created the NHRA more than 50 years ago to combat illegal street racing and provide a safer, controlled, organized, and competitive place for people to race. We can never lose sight of that.