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National Hot Rod Association Media Conference

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Drag Racing Topics:  NHRA

National Hot Rod Association Media Conference

Bill Bader, Jr.
Tom Compton
Gary Darcy
Graham Light
August 30, 2006

THE MODERATOR: We have some very special announcements. I'm sure many of you have received press releases today regarding the 2007 NHRA POWERade Countdown to the Championship as well as the 2007 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series schedule.
I'd like to make sure you guys know who we have with us here today to address your questions to. We're joined by the NHRA president, Tom Compton; we're joined by the NHRA senior vice president of racing operations, Graham Light; we're also joined by the NHRA senior vice president of marketing and sales, Gary Darcy; and we're also joined by Bill Bader, Jr., the president of Norwalk Raceway Park.
Just a quick recap, if any of you didn't see the press releases today, we've announced the Countdown to the Championship. It's a multitiered playoff format that's going to bring a lot of excitement to the NHRA POWERade series next season in all four categories, and also the 2007 NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series schedule, which starts in Pomona and ends in Pomona. There's several changes on the schedule, including Atlanta, St. Louis, Bristol, Topeka, Reading, Memphis, and of course the date for the new national event at Norwalk Raceway Park has been added.

Q. Tom, were any tracks other than NHRA-owned tracks, were team owners consulted about your new Chase for the Championship?
TOM COMPTON: We consulted with a number of people in the racing community; it wasn't just internally at NHRA. We reached out to some people that we value their opinions and trust their confidence to run different scenarios by them, and I think the end result is what we have today and we're very excited about it.

Q. One other question for Tom. Why was the Las Vegas date moved? It had been -- Friday of the October race had been on Nevada Day, which is a local holiday. Why was that moved?
TOM COMPTON: It's been on both the last few years as you know. It was moved primarily to provide the continuity that we talked about when we announced our schedule to minimize the number of days off between races.
Last year we had three occasions where we had two weeks off in between races. This year there's only one, and that's between Phoenix and Gainesville. That was the biggest reason. The other part is with the NHRA POWERade Countdown being announced today, we didn't want to have a lag in the season. We wanted to keep things moving and go right into the finals, which begin in Las Vegas, by the way, without necessary downtime to keep the excitement going.

Q. One question for Graham. Looking at your Countdown, when you're in Vegas in October for the first of the two Countdown races for the two finalists, I'm assuming, and maybe I shouldn't, that the Big Bud Shootout will also be run that weekend in '07?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Yes, that's correct.

Q. So have you guys considered how a team, if they are one of the top two and they're not in the field yet for that event, how they might maybe have to decide if they're going to give up on the Big Bud Shootout or worry more about getting in the field than winning the round?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, going into Vegas, we take the top four teams after the Virginia event and readjust their points, so we've got four in the Countdown to the Championship for the last two races, first one starting in Vegas.
As you well know, the Bud Shootout is conducted during qualifying for the ACDelco Nationals. So I'm not sure that any team is going to try and change their strategy in any way. They're going out to run as quick as they can in qualifying, to get the qualifying position for the race on Sunday, and at the same time they're running in the Bud Shootout.

Q. Right, but we're talking the Bud Shootout in the October race, but if a team, let's say they're not in the 16-car field yet after Friday's qualifying. As you know, there are times where a team might just play it safe, not really trying to run as quick as they can, just trying to run quick enough to get up into the field to where they might be saying, gosh, do we try to win the round for the Championship or do we just make sure we're in the show to get in the Championship or do we try to win the round for the Shootout. Do you see where that could be a problem?
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, that's the team's call. I do believe that the top teams, and that's what you're going to have in the Final Four going into the Countdown, those are going to be the higher caliber teams. As a rule, if they're not in the show, they try and go for it. We've seen cases, John Force comes to mind many years ago, qualifying going into the last session, and qualified in the No. 1 spot and set a track record.
When I questioned them about that gutsy call, he said they found it easier to run big numbers as opposed to just barely backing it off to get into the field. Again, I think that's a strategy the team will have to decide upon, but we don't see it as being a significant issue.

Q. Thank you very much for coming on today. This is very exciting stuff. How much was your decision influenced by NASCAR's Chase for the Cup in creating this Countdown?
TOM COMPTON: As I mentioned at the announcement today, playoffs have been around for a long time. We've kicked around ideas to kind of spice it up towards the end of the season for quite some time and just weren't able to come up with a format we were comfortable with or wanted to throw out there and risk trying.
NASCAR's system, which I probably couldn't articulate to you, is completely different from what I understand. What we tried to do is come up with something very simple and something that was really reflective of our sport, and that is sudden death eliminations.
We think that this formula with eight, Countdown to Eight, Countdown to Four, Countdown to One, is very simple and reflects what happens on our Sunday events, Sunday eliminations, where you win or you're eliminated.
We're excited about it. We think this playoff system works well for us. Playoffs have been around in Major League Baseball, football for many years, more recently NASCAR and golf have implemented systems, but this is the first time NHRA has done something like this.

Q. What's been the response from the teams so far?
TOM COMPTON: Given this is probably the best-kept secret in NHRA history, initially I think they were stunned. At lunch just about every driver that was at the press conference that I had an opportunity to talk to thought it was very exciting, including Doug Kalitta, who's leading in the points by quite a bit right now in the Top Fuel category.

Q. Michael and Tom, I haven't seen the press release yet, so I don't really exactly know what's going on, but it was mentioned that Topeka was involved or changed in some way. Could you fill me in on that?
TOM COMPTON: That had to do with the schedule. As you know, for the last so many years we've been running the race there, the O'Reilly Nationals there on Memorial Day weekend. We've moved it one week off to the first week of June, hopefully to get some more attention there.
It's a great race. There's just a lot of racing that weekend, and given some of the changes we made in the rest of the schedule, we thought it was best to move it one week forward to the first weekend in June. That's really the only change on Topeka.

Q. Will that weekend then stay vacant?
TOM COMPTON: Memorial Day will be vacant as far as NHRA POWERade is concerned, yes.

Q. And that's perhaps a concession to everything else that's going on on Memorial Day weekend?
TOM COMPTON: Yes, it's that and the way we tried to put our schedule together with the days off and how they came together. The biggest reason was to move on and have more attention paid to that race at the beginning of June. There's a lot going on with the Coca-Cola 600 and the Indy 500, and we think this will be different.

Q. This question is for Tom. Is the new playoff format you have, is this the first step in trying to draw in the sort of more average fan to the NHRA and sort of grow the sport that way by using a playoff system that's very familiar to people?
TOM COMPTON: I think it works both ways. Certainly we hope that it brings in what I'll call the casual fan, the new fan into NHRA by creating a new buzz and new excitement around the sport, but I also believe it's going to be very exciting to our current fans. I can tell you, looking at the stands last November in Pomona when we had three Funny Cars vying for the Championship, Ron Capps, Gary Scelzi and John Force, and seeing them stand on their feet the entire session, I think it's going to be good for everyone involved.

Q. And also, obviously the move of the Memphis date is partially weather related, but is part of that also because the Memphis fans have come through and come out and in a way you're trying to reward them with a better date in moving the date back on the calendar?
TOM COMPTON: Certainly it's going to create more attention on the O'Reilly Memphis National event. At the same time, we've had difficulty with weather in Reading in September, and we're hoping that the August 8 will work better for them, as well.
So it's accommodations. Like I said, when putting together a schedule, it's almost like an unsolvable econometric formula with more variables than you could possibly think of to solve it. We're excited to bring the Countdown to Memphis, the Countdown to Four at that point. It'll be the second race following Indy, and I hope the fans in Memphis come out and show their support.

Q. This question is for Tom. You guys discussed in the release on Tuesday about moving the NHRA Nationals from National Trail up to Norwalk. You talked about reaching the Detroit, Cleveland and Toledo markets. What other factors went into your decision about taking the race from somewhere it's been for a long time?
TOM COMPTON: That was the primary reason to be honest with you. We've always wanted to be up in the Detroit area. We've looked at race tracks there since I've been with the company and have never been able to make anything work. We think with Norwalk being equidistant between Columbus and Detroit, we'll draw from Columbus and Detroit. It's also approximately the same distance from Pittsburgh, where, believe it or not, we draw 9 to 10 percent of the fans, and then again it's also closer to Cleveland and Toledo. Looking at the long run, trying to expose the sport to as many people as possible, we thought that was the best move.
On top of that, as you probably already know, Norwalk is committed to some very extensive, significant improvements we think will bring that track up to state-of-the-art status, and we're really excited to go there.

Q. With so many manufacturers being from the Detroit area, was that one the biggest -- had you guys wanted to get to that Detroit market for a while?
TOM COMPTON: Yeah, that's what I was just saying. I have personally looked at a number of proposed sites, situations where people talk about building race tracks. We would love to have had a race track there; up to this point that hasn't happened. The opportunity to go to Norwalk allows us to really reach the Detroit market for the first time. Yes, that was a major consideration.

Q. And for Bill, as well, can you talk about what this does for Norwalk? Obviously you guys have been having a lot of successful races for a long time. What does this do now, landing this race, as far as the impact you guys will have across the region?
BILL BADER, JR.: Certainly this is something that we have wanted to be a part of for a long time. We have worked for a number of years to get the facility to where it needed to be. So for the Bader family, for Norwalk Raceway Park, it's huge. We are thrilled to be part of the NHRA family, and I think the area -- we are a tourism area. If you look at the Lake Erie Islands and obviously Cedar Point, there's a tremendous amount of tourism. We're geared that way. There is an incredible infrastructure with hotels, restaurants, convenience stores, so it really makes a lot of sense.
And the area is very densely populated. There are a lot of people there. Approximately 80 percent of the population in the United States is within an eight-hour drive of Norwalk Raceway Park. So this is huge.

Q. And for Tom, I guess my final question would be you mentioned all the factors about moving up north. How much pain in your decision was there to leave a track like National Trail that you guys own and have been at for a long time?
TOM COMPTON: First let me say we're not leaving. We do own the facility and plan to have that track ongoing and plan on make it a major sporting facility. Every type of racing that we have will be offered there, including the Northern Jeg's Sports Nationals, which is a national sporting event we've created. There's only three in the country, Lucas Oil event, Summit, the O'Reilly Junior program, Street Legal Presented by AAA. The list goes on.
We will be offering that track on a very active basis, and we don't plan on leaving at all. We're not going to. We just moved the POWERade event where we thought it could reach more people in southern Michigan without compromising some of the fans we have.
Certainly it's not something we take lightly and it's something that's always a difficult decision, but I can tell you we really believe it's the right strategic move in the long run or we wouldn't have done it because we do own the facility, as you just mentioned.

Q. What can you tell us about the extravaganza that you're going to be holding there?
TOM COMPTON: Well, if Bill doesn't mind, Bill has a very successful event called the Night of Fire up in Norwalk. We have one in Columbus, but we plan to make it even better and really put on a show for the fans in Columbus that will involve some of the NHRA Pro drivers.

Q. Tom, I apologize, I missed your opening remarks, but my question is I guess when you were talking about the race last year, the Funny Car race in particular and how close that was and the excitement that generated, it seems like the old system was working, and I guess the big question is why would you fix something that isn't broke when you've had those races in the past?
TOM COMPTON: I would say what you saw in Pomona last November was actually the exception and not the rule, and that's why we're making the changes. That unfortunately didn't happen very often, but when it did you saw the results, and we're going to try to create that all the time.

Q. Is there any room to revisit this or to revise it maybe within a year or two?
TOM COMPTON: Well, with any sport, you look at baseball put the designated hitter in, football moved the goal posts back, there's rule changes. This is a work in progress. NHRA Power Drag Racing is dynamic. This is a formula that a lot of thought went into, a lot of consultation, and we feel this formula makes a lot of sense. As time goes on, if we see ways to improve it or if we see mistakes that we think need to be amended, absolutely we'll make those changes.

Q. Tom, I have a question. Is there a plan at the NHRA to perhaps extend the season, perhaps add races? Is that a focus say in the next five-year plan or something like that?
TOM COMPTON: Absolutely. When I came to NHRA way back in '93, I was told 18 races was the max. That's what we had at the time. I learned never to say that. 23 is working well. If the right market opened up, would we go to 24, possibly to 25, the answer is absolutely. But it depends on opportunities and things.
But certainly I think the teams can handle that. We don't have any plans right now to add a 24th event, but if the opportunity arose, we would absolutely consider that, yes.

Q. As far as the popularity, the rise in popularity of NHRA has been kind of dramatic I would say in the last say three or four or five years. Do you expect those same kind of numbers now with this new format also helping you out?
TOM COMPTON: We're hoping it gets a lot better obviously. I think until we get to next year, people are not going to be able to really understand the excitement that this is going to generate, not just in the last six races but throughout the season, especially going into the summer when people are vying for those eight spots in the standings. We're excited about it, and I think the fans are going to love it.

Q. I guess for Graham, looking at every aspect of changing the points system, was there any provision that was made for a lucky dog or a past champions provisional?
GRAHAM LIGHT: We considered all those sort of things, and we did go back about five years and looked at every category and played it up with different scenarios as to what best fits our formula and so on. The bottom line is the decision we came to is that drag racing by its pure nature is a very brutal sport. It's a sport that you can lose or win in a thousandth of a second. There's no second chance. It's not like other forms of motorsports possibly where you can make a mistake and come back in a few hundred miles and win the race.
So this format ties right into what we do. It's eliminations, it's brutal. It's those that run the best are going to get into the Final Eight and the Final Four and win the Championship.
To answer your question, yes, we did consider it. Looking at what we feel makes the best package and formula, we feel that hopefully what we've come up with serves that need.

Q. On some of the marginal race tracks that we have on the tour where everybody seems to have a problem with one lane or another, that might be a good place to consider some sort of lucky dog for a first round loser.
GRAHAM LIGHT: Well, I guess over the 23-race season, you're going to have some good weather conditions, you're going to have oil downs, there's a number of factors that go into first the 17 races of the regular season, and then there's factors that come into play in the playoffs. I think that's true in any form of sport. Baseball can get into playoffs and play in rain, they can play in high altitude in Denver possibly, a number of different things. And we're no different than anybody else. I think those factors exist, and they're a reality, whether it's a 23-race season and points at all events or whether it's the Countdown format that we've developed.

Q. Was Pro consulted on this before a final decision was made?
TOM COMPTON: We consulted with a number of trusted confidants in the community, and I'll just leave it at that. We consulted a number of people out there, people that we respect their opinion, people that we trust their comments obviously. This is the best kept secret, I believe, in a very long time. We'll just leave it at that.

Q. Why can't you say if Pro had a voice?
TOM COMPTON: If the question is is there someone from Pro that we talked to about this, the answer is yes.

Q. You had said that you weren't that familiar with NASCAR's Chase for the Championship.

Q. My question is how could you not study that before seeing how successful or not successful that's been before coming out with this system?
TOM COMPTON: Let me explain. When I said that, I was talking about me personally in terms of how the exact points are calculated and structured. Graham is very familiar with all that. When it comes to whether it's working or not, depends on who you talk to. We talked to a lot of people about what they thought about the NASCAR program.

Q. So you really don't understand -- I believe you said this, you really don't understand how the Chase for the Championship works in NASCAR?
TOM COMPTON: I said when it comes to the details of how the exact points are calculated, Graham Light at NHRA worked on that aspect of it. When it came to more of the subjective nature of is the Chase working, we talked to a lot of people, and most think it is. But the jury might still be out on it.

Q. Do you think it's working?

Q. I was wondering, Tom, how much consultation was done with your television partners about this, and have you gotten an education from them on past years that viewership had fallen off toward the end of the season?
TOM COMPTON: Well, we did this primarily to generate interest with the current NHRA fan as well as hopefully new fans. ESPN, those that are familiar with this, are very excited about it and are possibly planning a show in between Vegas and Pomona to talk about it. They're thrilled with it. The Coca-Cola Company is thrilled with the idea, especially the format.
What I'd like to go back to is the format we came up with for our sport, not worrying about other sports, but our sport, the sudden death nature that we think fits very, very well, will be extremely exciting.

Q. As a follow-up, will ESPN really hype it the way they're hyping the coverage for NASCAR next season?
TOM COMPTON: Well, we're just getting started with this announcement today, but I think they're definitely going to get behind it. That's what the indications are now. As I mentioned, they even considered doing some things in between Las Vegas and Pomona to promote it, but it's all premature, and we're just in the beginning stages of that right now.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you for joining us on the teleconference. There will be a transcript of this conference available.

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