DAVE DENSMORE SPEAKS (COMMENTARY): - HANDING OUT THE GRADES FOR THE 2016 SEASON
To become NHRA president, Peter Clifford won neither the popular vote nor the electoral vote. However, he did win the only votes that mattered -- those cast by the NHRA Board of Directors, a board that is neither elected by nor beholden to the rank-and-file membership of the world’s largest sanctioning body.
Simply stated, you and I are not really part of the process beyond that point at which we send our money to Glendora and get back our reduced-price ticket coupons, our decal, our NHRA pin and the membership number that provides on-line access to National DRAGSTER and our official NHRA rulebook.
That means that if we don’t like the job the president has done, we really don’t have any recourse beyond incessant whining. We can’t mount a recall campaign, we can’t have him impeached and, three years from now, we can’t elect someone else whose views we believe more closely mirror our own.
To be blunt, we’re stuck with what we’ve got. With that reality in mind, how did President Clifford do in his first full season?
I don’t believe I would be talking out of school if I said his inaugural year was something of a mixed bag – a couple steps forward, a couple back, but overall okay.
The thing that sticks in my craw, though, is that the previous administration was largely rubber-stamped by the same Board of Directors that provided a mandate for President Clifford. So, has anything really changed or are the High Sheriffs still disconnected from their principal constituencies: racers, track owners, the media, sponsors and fans?
Let’s try to break down the X’s and O’s.
Upon accepting the job, the President identified six initiatives: (1) improve television; (2) increase sportsman participation and support member tracks; (3) expand marketing partnerships; (4) expand media coverage; (5) improve competition; and (6) develop new fans.
How’d he do?
Well, although not everyone likes the TV package or the man who manages it, Ken Adelson, the reality is that it provides what we always said we wanted and that is live coverage that prevents the agonizing pre-emptions the sport suffered throughout its long association with ESPN.
There was more drag racing on TV in 2016 than ever before, especially more live coverage including four prime-time shots on the FOX national network. There also were Friday shows, non-existent during ESPN’s run, coverage of the J&A Service Pro Mod Series and the Lucas Oil Series and overall ratings that exceeded the expectations not only of the sanctioning body but also of the network. Grade: A.
On increasing sportsman participation, President Clifford enjoyed something of a windfall because of the struggles of the rival IHRA which, with its future clouded, chased away a boatload of its most loyal sportsman racers.
Negatively, though, there were no new proposals to integrate those immersed in today’s changing car culture into the current sportsman program, there was a rumored move to fix an NHRA contingency program no one knew was broken and, finally, there was no budget approved for the much-needed overhaul and upgrade of the aging NHRA Tech Department.
NHRA’s support for member tracks remained largely unchanged under Josh Peterson’s direction, which is to say it still is the best in motor racing due to the effectiveness of a divisional system originated by NHRA founder Wally Parks. That structure remains vibrant even though the divisional staff no longer enjoys the influence it did in the past. Still, questions persist regarding sanction and insurance fees that threaten the livelihoods of small track owners even as the organization adds new facilities to its lineup. Grade: B-.
Expanding marketing partnerships always is a work in progress. Despite the fact that the NHRA has been able to sustain long-term relationships with Lucas Oil, Coca-Cola and others, so many unsponsored events in the Mello Yello Series sends a negative message to racers and fans. Grade: C.
Media coverage grew substantially with the hire of Terry Blount. As a former member of the mainstream media, he was able to rebuild many relationships including that with USA Today, which ran in-depth features on both John Force and Angelle Sampey after largely ignoring the sport in 2015. Still, fewer and fewer media outlets choose to commit a staff writer to cover even the biggest events. Grade: A-.
As to “improving competition,” the ambiguity of the subject makes evaluation extremely difficult. At the top levels, the sport is the most competitive it ever has been and Clifford’s team has worked more closely with the PRO to try and prevent the kind of catastrophic failures that negatively impact the sport and the TV show. On the downside, there are fewer and fewer participants from Competition Eliminator up through Top Fuel. Grade: B.
The fact that the TV show and other NHRA promotions have helped develop new fans is reflected in the fact that at a time when even NASCAR is struggling at the gate, Glendora gleefully recorded five sell-outs this year, one of them on a Sunday. Moreover, the crowds at Indianapolis for the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals, the sport’s biggest race, while not up to past standards, at least were not embarrassing. Grade: B.
Of course, the devil always is in the details. Clifford was about 50-50 on his hires; some good, some bad. Moreover, his steadfast commitment to the success of the TV show, combined with an apparent lack of oversight, led to cost overruns that resulted in the layoff of a number of NHRA employees whose only crime was being one of the company’s last hires or, in one case, being the target of a resentful NHRA Vice-President.
That, coupled with the contentious labor issues raised by the TV production crew, sends the association into the winter break with morale among the company’s “worker bees” at what one of them characterized as “an all-time low.”
The President’s overall grade? Let’s give him a B- over a C+. Not bad, but not anything that would make his mom too excited, either.