I asked Tom Compton if he wanted to take a victory lap.

“No. It's about a lot of people,” NHRA’s president answered.

But June 16-23 was a good -- very good -- week for the sanction. So, in a business where the leader deserves to take credit for the positives and is going to take blame for the negatives, it was fair enough for Compton to take his due.







I asked Tom Compton if he wanted to take a victory lap.

“No. It's about a lot of people,” NHRA’s president answered.

But June 16-23 was a good -- very good -- week for the sanction. So, in a business where the leader deserves to take credit for the positives and is going to take blame for the negatives, it was fair enough for Compton to take his due.

It began with John Force’s return to the winner’s circle at Bristol Dragway, besting daughter Courtney in the first round on Father’s Day. That wasn’t in Compton’s control, of course, but it certainly was useful in generating headlines. Then it was on to Epping, N.H., for the ultra-successful debut of the Auto-Plus Nationals and the opening of the New England market for the series’ sponsors, marketers and publicists. There was a media event in Boston and Force the Blonde was among the drivers who visited ESPN’s HQ. Courtney beat dad in the final round and that was BIG enough news to merit time on that evening’s (shock!) SportsCenter.

Along the way came official word that Firebird International Raceway now has a new name -- Wild Horse Motorsports Park -- and new management -- Copper Train Development Partners LLC -- and a signed five-year agreement to continue the Arizona Nationals. Given the size and demographic diversity of the Phoenix market, that was huge for NHRA’s Business of Racing credibility. Indeed, Compton admitted to me getting a new deal with the post-Charlie Allen management and Gila River Indian Community entity Sun Valley Marina Corp. was his “No. 1” priority, with the New England launch second on his list.

“If we weren't in Phoenix it would be a disaster,” said Compton, who had used the PA system before last February’s race to assure fans NHRA would be back. “It reflects our fan base very well.”

When we talked, Compton made a point to credit Allen -- several times -- for keeping “the right to race” in Phoenix for 30 years. I accept that. But the truth as known from my 19 years in Scottsdale is this change could be good.

Valley of the Sun fans sure are hopeful. And not just race-goers at the drag strip, but also those who enjoy the Lucas Oil Off-Road and Drag Boat events contested at the 458-acre facility, and users of its two in-need-of-repair road courses.

Allen’s lease agreement with Gila River kept the races going but proved over time to be a disincentive to keeping the facility at acceptable modern standards for competitors, spectators, media and corporate hospitality guests. Not to be unpleasant, but let’s just say it: The public restrooms have been a disgrace for years. So -- please excuse the expression -- it was a breath of fresh air when Copper Train Managing Partner Paul Clayton said -- several times -- that “clean bathrooms” are a must. He also emphasized the need to improve “the fan experience.”

Physical fixes will take time, of course. But there is no question but that the business fundamentals are very different. In the past, Gila River collected its lease payments from Allen. Now, the Community has hired Copper Train to manage motorsports on its behalf, meaning GRIC has a much greater financial incentive to attract customers and invest in making the events more popular and successful. Both Compton and Clayton said they are confident that will happen.

“Sun Valley got a racetrack,” Wild Horse President Dick Hahne told me. “I asked them, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ At the end of the day, they own the land.”

But improvements and growth will be accomplished not just by clean bathrooms. Allen’s group did precious little in the way of relationship-building with the Valley racing community and media. The fact that Clayton and Hahne already have started that process is a point in their favor. 

Yes, there are skeptics. The fact is these are two guys with no experience in promoting races, selling tickets or actually staging events. So fans deserve to know more about them.

Clayton has several businesses in California, including aviation services, a luxury motorcoach RV resort and The Thermal Club, a private motorsports country club where members store and drive their own high-performance vehicles. His commitment to Wild Horse is such that he’s relocating his wife and two young daughters to the Valley from Palm Desert, Calif.

I asked Clayton to tell me about himself. He freely admitted he has no previous racing events experience, which is where Hahne comes in.

“I have a degree from the University of Montana and a degree from Cal State-San Bernardino in finance,” said Clayton. “I managed about 70 boutique clients in wealth management and then got into development. Thermal was my first all-in development project.

“I'm a renaissance man, entrepreneur, deal-maker. The only talent I really have is going all-in on a project and figuring out what the site needs, what the project needs. I'm all about relationships.”
Hahne described his boss as “a visionary. He flies at 30,000 feet. It takes people like Paul's vision, with their ideas, to stimulate those of us on the ground.”
Hahne learned from Bill France Sr. and Jr. over 20 years at Daytona International Speedway, eventually as operations vice president. He left Daytona in 2009 and went to Musco lighting as global director of operations, traveling to exotic locales such as Singapore, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar on golf, Formula One and MotoGP projects.  

“Dick Hahne-Paul Clayton is a good fit,” said Clayton.
Hahne came to the Phoenix-area from Ohio and found the track’s office building, well, not what he was used to at Daytona.
“I'm a little embarrassed by it, but it humbles you,” he admitted.

Another thing he has to overcome is the perception that Wild Horse is only focused on its Mello Yello series national event.

“That’s one of the things I’m hearing,” Hahne said. “We're going to be a grassroots track.”
“I was raised in Montana, so what Dick said about grassroots is meaningful to me,” added Clayton. “With Speedworld (in Wittmann, Az.) closing, we see a huge void in the state. We want to listen to what the fans say, upgrade the fan experience to be first class. We want to be grassroots on one end and we want the NHRA event to be a tier one event.

“We're all about listening to people and we’ll pay attention to social media. We want to make the experience better for everyone. We're the community motorsports outlet. We want to reach out and be there for people to have a safe outlet for motorsports.”
Welcome to drag racing, Paul Clayton and Dick Hahne.

And, as Compton and I admitted during our talk, we’re all going to have to get into the habit of saying “Wild Horse” instead of “Firebird.”

Let’s get started.

Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500