This weekend's Circle K NHRA Winternationals at Pomona will offer a fresh start for more than just the drag racers.
The National Hot Rod Assn. season opener marks the beginning of a TV partnership with Fox — a relationship that NHRA officials hope will reverse the sliding ratings they saw at ESPN. A major reason for their optimism is a new emphasis on what's normally an afterthought for most sports leagues: live TV coverage.
Since its earliest days on ABC's "Wide World of Sports," the NHRA made its way to viewers largely via tape delay. But Peter Clifford, who took the helm as NHRA president last summer, made it his top priority to change that. He reasoned that he couldn't increase fan interest, particularly on social media, if drag racing'sbiggest events were broadcast hours after the results were easily accessible online. So, he shopped around.
"The package we got from Fox," he said, "was much better than we ever imagined."
This season, Fox will broadcast 17 live NHRA events on Fox Sports 1 and 2 and on the regular Fox channel. In comparison, ESPN last year allotted five hours of live coverage for drag racing.
"We needed to fix television," said Terry Blount, NHRA's vice president of public relations. "ESPN had been a great partner for a long time, but it had reached a point where we knew we needed to move forward and do it in a different way."
The live coverage will take place almost exclusively on Sundays, during final elimination rounds. The NHRA also pushed for better time slots for recaps of qualifying races on the days prior to the finals, which Blount said was often lacking in years past.
Eventually, NHRA officials want to broadcast all 24 of their events on live TV. The concern for now is conflicting schedules with NASCAR, a ratings behemoth compared to drag racing.
There are other unresolved logistical issues with live coverage. For one, there's always a chance of delays, primarily caused by weather or engine failures that throw oil on the track. To fill any downtime, broadcasts will rely more heavily on feature profiles and show what goes on in the pits between races. The goal is to personalize drag racing for viewers.
"We want to make as many of our drivers stars as we can," Blount said. "We're going to have so many new eyeballs, so many people watching the sport for the first time, and we hope to be able to capture those people and interest them in a way that they become true fans."
The situation is also a bit of a Catch-22 for the drivers, who stand to attract better sponsorship deals from a viewership boost but will have to prepare more quickly between elimination rounds to appease their broadcast partners.
"We don't like it," legendary Funny Car driver John Force said. "We need the time. But it's not our choice what to like. We want the opportunity to tie into new sponsorships."
Along those lines, smaller teams with fewer resources could face a competitive disadvantage if they're unable to keep pace with someone such as Force. Still, the consensus is that the positives of the new TV deal outweigh any potential drawbacks.
"I was part of a smaller team for a long time and I didn't have the money or manpower, but I figured out a way to get in there and win," defending Funny Car champion Del Worsham said. "You have to be efficient and come prepared. ...I'm 100% for it, I think it's great. I cannot think of one downside to it, personally."
Blount says the NHRA studied how teams adjusted to live coverage at ESPN and that for the most part "they were able to do it." He assured that if adjustments needed to be made, they would be.
"Let's face it: We're kind of landing on the moon here," Blount said. "Things may change as we go along."
The one certainty is the NHRA won't be reverting back to tape delays any time soon.
"I think for the most part, it'll be fine," Blount said. "Will there be a time or two maybe where a team didn't get everything done that they needed to get done because of the time frame? I'm sure that will happen. But to me, that's part of the drama, the excitement of it all for the viewer."
Shultz is a Times correspondent.
Circle K NHRA Winternationals
Where: Auto Club Raceway at Pomona.
When: Friday through Sunday.
Defending winners: Shawn Langdon, Top Fuel; Matt Hagan, Funny Car; Jason Line, Pro Stock.
Race schedule: Mello Yello Series qualifying rounds begin at 12:30 p.m. and 3:30 on Friday and Saturday. Elimination rounds begin at 11 a.m. on Sunday (pre-race ceremonies at 10 a.m.).
TV: Friday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 7:30-8:30 p.m.); Saturday, qualifying (Fox Sports 1, 9-10 p.m.); Sunday, final eliminations (Fox Sports 1, 2-5 p.m.).