MKhead12Sometimes, old sayings have the advantage of actually being true.

Here’s one:

“You only have one chance to make a good first impression.”

I’m pretty sure Dallas Gardner and Peter Clifford have heard it. I’m absolutely sure they don’t understand it.

Here’s how it came down on the July 1 national media teleconference convened so NHRA Chairman Gardner could make Clifford’s promotion to president official after Tom Compton’s 15-year reign ended in “retirement” -- arguably the sanction’s biggest news announcement since going to 1,000-foot nitro race distances in 2008:

Compton got Gardner’s thanks. Clifford got Gardner’s congratulations. The journalists who bothered to dial-in got insulted.

I know because that’s how I felt. I know because I was one of the very few reporters who cared enough to participate. I know because I’ve been on either the media or series/team/sponsor public relations/marketing side of the motorsports industry since the early 1970s.

Given Compton’s months-long unexplained absence from the Glendora headquarters, tough-but-legitimate questions were in order. And to be expected. Yet Gardner would have not only the media, but by extension fans and other constituency groups, believe everything had happened just that morning. (Which Clifford essentially contradicted by admitting to “planning.”) Clifford punted regarding the other proverbial elephant in the room: The 2016 TV network and delivery platform, refusing to say if ESPN will have any role.

One more performance like that one and Clifford’s nickname will instantly become “Stonewall.”

They must think we’re all stupid.

Please spare me the excuse that Clifford, who has been with the company since 1997, isn’t new to the media. This was different -- his first stage appearance as leader. Clifford tried the old PR tactic of getting reporters off their game-plan by listing six “initiatives” that will result in “a series of announcements hopefully that come out over the coming weeks and months.”

He repeatedly said how all of this will be “exciting.”

Yeah. “Hopefully.”
Not that anything on the list demonstrated management insight: TV will be “improved.” Sportsman class participation will be “increased.” Sponsorships will be “expanded.” NHRA will get the media coverage it “deserves.” Competition at national events will be “improved.” NHRA is going to “add fans.”

All of this better come true or else it will go down as the biggest hype job since ObamaCare.  

I could write a column on each issue. But, hey, let’s be honest: We’ve all heard it all before. Pomona has more concrete on its launch pad than anything Clifford offered.

Clifford wanting “to make sure we get the coverage that we deserve as the No. 2 motorsports property in the country” was especially galling under the circumstances. Considering that only a handful of drag racing regulars -- including Jon Asher and Susan Wade of CompetitionPlus.com -- were on the line should have made Mr. President more considerate of us and our time.

USA Today didn’t call-in. Ditto the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times or any Indianapolis media, home to NHRA’s most important race. The appropriate ESPN.com reporter was busy writing about an upcoming Rolling Stones concert at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

I would say Clifford is very presumptuous in assuming that, after jacking us around this way, we’ll be enthusiastic about joining in for his next bit of “exciting” news. Would Gardner or Clifford be “excited” to show up for another meeting with a business constituent after being treated so disrespectfully?

Sounds to me like more of the same-old NHRA arrogance.

Despite that, Mr. Chairman and Mr. President, in the spirit of goodwill, I will respectfully put forth a suggestion that “hopefully” would have real meaning.

I take it, Dallas, since you emphasized that Tom is “retired,” you have a vacant board of directors seat. I was one who cheered the December 2010 appointment of two “outside” directors, lawyer Michael C. Cohen and NASCAR veteran Ken Clapp, because NHRA oh-so-needs voices from beyond its self-constructed echo-chamber. That’s how Glendora has been for decades: A place where seldom is heard a discouraging word.

I’m terribly disappointed that Cohen and especially Clapp, who I know, apparently approved of what has all the  appearance of a shocking cover-up. For whatever privacy Compton is entitled to, the Board’s higher duty is the integrity of the enterprise as a whole, not any one individual.

What do you say, Dallas, to giving this another try?

I offer for nomination a baker’s dozen potential candidates (and I encourage readers to propose other names by adding a comment to the end of this column):

Kenny Bernstein, Joe Amato, Bill Bader Jr., Forrest Lucas, Mike Lewis, Dave Densmore and Jon Asher all well known to you. While there are potential conflicts-of-interest to consider and resolve, each has skills which would strengthen your organization.  

(Speaking of Bernstein, and since Clifford put a focus on new marketing partnerships, let’s recall NHRA hasn’t had an official beer sponsor in six years. That’s one of the most traditional and activation-important categories in any sports entity and one for which the drag racing demographic is near-ideal. This Grand Canyon-esque hole continues as an outright embarrassment for the NHRA sales department.)

Real “outsiders?” Former ABC Sports President Howard Katz. Former CART and SCCA executive and race organizer Jim Melvin. Former Anheuser-Busch sports marketer Mike Hargrave (now Richard Petty Motorsports’ chief marketing officer.) Former Valvoline sports marketing director Barry Bronson. Retired Toyota Racing Development President Lee White. I know and value them all.

Or, Dallas, how about throwing a Hail Mary? Pick up the phone and ask Roger Penske.

Now that really would be “exciting.”

And leave one hell of an impression.


Follow Michael Knight on Twitter: @SpinDoctor500