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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

NHRA Interview: Tom Compton

By NHRA Communications

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.

Q: What is the most exciting thing about the 2003 season?

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.

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 is 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 is 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.

NHRA Communications

 

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