With a new president at the helm, a look at NHRA's uncertain future

Will Peter Clifford 'save' the NHRA?

The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) put on a great Mello Yello Drag Racing Series race last weekend at Norwalk, Ohio. The results featured an all-woman final showdown in Pro Stock Motorcycle between winner Karen Stoffer and three-time champ Angelle Sampey. In Pro Stock, Greg Anderson continued his return to form after 2014 heart surgery. Jack Beckman triumphed in a Don Schumacher Racing Dodge Charger R/T Funny Car with sponsorship from Infinite Hero Foundation (courtesy of Terry Chandler) and the #KalittaStrong mosh pit returned when Doug Kalitta hit the stripe first in Top Fuel.

Change in management

Still, all of this joy was tempered by the goings-on at NHRA’s Glendora, Calif. headquarters, where a change of management has occurred. 15-year president Tom Compton “retired” last week after being AWOL from the series for at least the past three months, to be replaced by Peter Clifford, yet another bland faceless human that no one is close to. Clifford was seen at the track over the race meeting and did the appropriate photo opportunities with mega-star John Force and with starter Mark Lyle. He may even have pressed a few palms with fans.

Although I’m somewhat of a newbie to professional and sportsman drag racing, I’ve been in the motor sport business for nearly half a century and have a fair clue of how to conduct this business. And as the estimable Dave Densmore so aptly said on www.competitionplus.com, “NHRA is about as transparent as a block of granite.” By refusing to answer questions about why Compton retired, by blocking journalists from asking questions about the future of the sport, NHRA is shooting itself in the proverbial foot.

A new direction

And the way Mr Clifford addressed his pending programs was so bland, it’s tough to get interested at all. Sure, we’d all like to see better television, but aside from bringing production in-house, how will this happen? “Announcements and press releases will be coming soon,” Mr Clifford stated. And he kept repeating that mantra throughout his press conference. He wants to see more [Lucas Oil] Sportsman participation in the amateur classes that are NHRA’s foundation. He wants to expand coverage of the sport and expose more people to drag racing. And he wants to see more relevance in categories like Pro Stock, which desperately needs direction.

How is this all going to transpire? We’ll have to wait for those announcements and press releases to see.

What NHRA needs

What NHRA - and every sanctioning body for that matter - needs is someone at the top with passion. Passion for their sport, an awareness of what it takes to compete in their sport and desire for success of their sport, beyond counting beans. Beans don’t make racing great; people who are happy to work in the business and people that regularly enjoy the competition make racing great. It’s all about the passion.

And Peter Clifford is, or came to NHRA, as a bean counter. He was the sanctioning body’s chief financial officer before taking on the role of a vice president and general manager. That doesn’t connote passion. And it also doesn’t connote an understanding of the lifeblood of NHRA drag racing. While it’s said that founder Wally Parks never drove the quarter-mile, he did participate in land-speed racing and understood the ideology of competition. Have Dallas Gardner, Tom Compton or now Peter Clifford, his successors, done the same thing?

At least NASCAR’s Brian France was born into a racing family and understands the concept; I’m afraid that the current head of NHRA drag racing doesn’t have that appreciation and understanding and that, in part, is what is stopping this exhilarating sport from becoming the most watched and enjoyed in the United States.

That and the lack of transparency in discussing issues that are important to its stakeholders is what stops NHRA from moving forward. Can Peter Clifford dig deep with his constituents, get his hands dirty and move this behemoth forward? If Clifford doesn’t move quickly, the honeymoon will be over before he knows it

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