Never mind the Pro Stock Motorcycle storm clouds gathering.
Forget layoffs at Glendora, Calif., headquarters in the past few years.
Ignore less-than-ideal program placement on television for race coverage.
Disregard that a few tracks need upgrades.
Overlook perceptions the average fan has a membership number in single digits or Roman numerals.
National Hot Rod Association President Tom Compton took the offensive this week and delivered an exceptionally optimistic State of the Corporation address.
He acknowledged he knows some realities need to change, but Compton boldly said this week on WFO Radio that the drag-racing sanctioning body is "in a much better place than people realize, and we're definitely going to utilize that to the fullest extent." He said he constantly asks, "What can we do right now to keep this going and keep this alive so we can parlay some of these opportunities [into success]?"
Surviving the economic sucker-punch America received four years ago and emerging stronger from it, Compton said, is NHRA's mission. He pointed to the marketing partnership with the Coca-Cola company and connection to its Mello Yello rebranding as one major force.
Said Compton, "For the past three or four years, we've been focused on how we get through this and come out on the other side in a strong position. That has been Job One."
What gave him confidence, he indicated, were contract extensions with such loyal partners as Lucas Oil (through 2015), ESPN (through 2016), and Summit and series sponsor Coca-Cola (both through 2018).
"We have a solid foundation to work from in a tough economy," he said. "The return on our product is second to none. The absolute cost of getting involved is lower than in other sports."
Compton said he believes NHRA will appeal to companies who haven't been involved in drag racing before: "NHRA is going to emerge as an option that maybe wasn't on the list in the past."
Other positive indicators, he said, are feedback from families regarding the NHRA's "12 and under free" program, the return to the St. Louis market this weekend, the acquisition of the New England market beginning in 2013, and the high profile of talented and winning female and minority drivers.
"Look at [the] Seattle [race]. Most motorsports would love to have one woman champion. We had two in one race," he said. The NHRA actually had a third that August day, in Super Street winner Megan Ellingson, of Seattle. Erica Enders and Courtney Force were top qualifiers at the U.S. Nationals, which females have won in Top Fuel (Shirley Muldowney), Funny Car (Ashley Force Hood), and Pro Stock Motorcycle (Angelle Sampey Savoie Drago).
Compton said, "We have a solid fan base still and we haven't taken the hits percentage-wise that maybe some other sports have." Even compared to NASCAR, he said, "The NHRA has many, many more hard-core fans." He said NASCAR has been "very successful in getting the casual fan out [to the races]. They have a lot of fans who maybe aren't hard-core motorsports fans but certainly enjoy going to the big event." The difference, he said, is that in this economic downturn, "they've struggled to keep those casual fans."
The NHRA, Compton said, is keeping fans engaged long after the tour has left their cities by hyping the Countdown to the Championship six-race playoff and by an active social-media presence. And he insists it isn't true that the average NHRA fan is texting such messages as "LMDO" (Laughing My Dentures Out") or "LOLW" (Loving Old Lawrence Welk).
He said he has one big desire: "Dispel the thought that NHRA fans are getting a lot older." Said Compton, "That's not really the case. We have for the 18-to-49 [-year-old] demo [research demographic] for makes . . . We are the No. 1 sport of all sports. We have the highest percentage of fan base in that demographic. Also, when it comes to the average age of the fan, we're the third youngest [behind only] the NBA and NHL. Not that we shouldn't continue to work on bringing young people out to our events, but we're a lot younger than most people think. And we need to take advantage of that, because that's what's going to grow any business."
Compton acknowledged that the NHRA needs to improve in some areas. For example, he said, "We have some facilities that could use some work. That's going to come from money, and money comes from growth and stability.
"We want to be like the NFL, OK? But let's be realistic," he said. "I would like to have every person in the country know who we are and at least have an idea of what kind of an entertainment option we have out there. Right now there are people who have not been exposed to us. That needs to change."
He said, "It's like a puzzle: television, major sponsors, nice facilities. We serve so many different masters: professional teams, sportsman teams, sponsors, tracks, fans. Trying to make it work for all the stakeholders in the sport is the real challenge, a puzzle that you're putting together each day."
But each day Compton's puzzle is looking a lot less challenging, and that's because of Coca-Cola's Mello Yello lemon-lime soft-drink brand that got a marketing rejuvenation and in turn hopes to give NHRA marketing a pleasant jolt.
"Mello Yello has a history in motorsports," Compton said, mentioning that Coca-Cola archivists found a vintage television commercial featuring "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and the late Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins. Coca-Cola's consumers have said, 'You really need to get back to motorsports. Mello Yello's a motorsports brand. That's its heritage, and we'd like to see that happen.' So this is Mello Yello's return to motorsports, not its debut."
With Mello Yello product staked to a strong foothold in Midwest and Southeast markets and a West Coast distribution push in 2010, Compton said the soft drink brand's presence in large stores (and not simply at convenience stores, where current series sponsor Full Throttle has been limited, for the most part) is a huge plus.
He said Sharon Byers, senior vice-president of sports and entertainment marketing partnerships for Coca-Cola, and her team "are very very interested in putting together promotions in non-race markets, places that we don’t bring [the national tour]. I think that's an important start."
Compton said he and a team of officials will travel to Atlanta in a few weeks to fashion some marketing and promotional plans, looking for "possibilities and ways [Coca-Cola and Mello Yello] can touch our fans."
Some positive results indeed would be a nice touch.
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