Media Rights, Politics & Governance, Motorsport, North America

Leaders in Motorsport: NHRA’s Brad Gerber on its commercial health and embracing digital

Brad Gerber, National Hot Rod Association vice president of sales and chief development officer, lifts the lid on how the series has grown commercially and its plans for the future.

by Michael Long
Leaders in Motorsport: NHRA’s Brad Gerber on its commercial health and embracing digital

The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has enjoyed a stellar couple of years, growing its reach and revenue at a pace its own drivers would envy.

A switch in domestic broadcaster and a new digital approach have taken the drag racing series to new heights and since chief executive Peter Clifford decided to "shake things up" in 2016, the NHRA has seen double-digit growth in its commercial revenue.

Black Book caught up with Brad Gerber, the NHRA's vice president of sales and chief development officer, to find out how they did it and what this year has in store.

How would you assess the popularity, profile and commercial health of the NHRA, its teams and the sport of drag racing today?

As it stands today we are definitely on an upswing, and I would say that in a number of different ways. It all started with our new partnership with Fox Sports, really. We went from having 120 hours of programming on TV to over 550 hours of programming on TV. So that alone provided us with a tremendous amount of organic growth.

Along with that, at the same time that we switched from ESPN to Fox Sports, we also went in and completely redesigned our website, NHRA.com. We launched a brand new site, completely mobile-friendly, responsive. As I always say, every buzzword that you can imagine in digital, we did it. I have a digital background so we followed a lot of things there.

In addition to our TV and our ratings, our viewership was up 72 per cent - amazing viewership numbers - in 2016. And then we followed that again in 2017, up another 10.1 per cent. That really helped us out - that’s our total viewership that we have.

All 24 of our races are on either Fox national broadcast or on Fox Sports 1. Four are on Fox national broadcast and 20 are on Fox Sports 1. We had an issue with our previous partner where they say we’re going to be at two o’clock on a Sunday, we’re going to air, then all of a sudden we got bumped for something else. Now, we have locked-in times with Fox Sports, so people know that when they turn on or set their DVR or something, it’s there.

We have guaranteed original airings and then we have guaranteed re-airings within our Fox partnership. At the same time we switched to Fox Sports two years ago, we also made a strategic decision to bring all of our production of our television show in-house. Where we contracted with a third-party prior, we brought everything in-house, so that means that we hired our own producers, directors, on-air talent, camera people - built out that entire staff.

Now we are on our third year of doing that and it’s working extremely well. What that allows us to do is organically work with our partners to put them in the show in an entertaining, educational way that meets their needs as well as our needs. What that also allows us to do, since we control the cameras and we edit everything ourselves and produce the show and give it to Fox, is it allows us to re-use all of that for social and digital aspects. Now what we can do is, where our clients are in need of good social content, we can actually provide that for them through our partnerships.

When we brought all of our production in-house, we positioned it as what we call ‘a content factory’. That content is just built for everything that we do, whether it’s for TV, digital, social, however we may use it. We’re able to utilise that content in lots of different ways, for both ourselves at the NHRA and our partners that work with us.

Every buzzword that you can imagine in digital, we did it

Has that progress you've made in the media space translated into an uptick in commercial revenues?

Yes it has. It has definitely. I shouldn't give specific numbers but we are at double-digits in our commercial revenue growth and also in our attendance as well, which is great. We’re up in every metric that you look at, from TV to attendance to viewership to social media fan growth. By every metric that we measure ourselves by, we’re up. It starts with our TV package and then it’s the entertainment that we provide in-venue.

I’ve been involved with the automotive industry for 26 years now. I was previously publisher of the brand Hot Rod and Automobile Magazine and that brand, automobile.com, etc, and then I was also CMO of that media company, a men’s enthusiast media company that owned everything from Motor Trend to Surfer, Surfing, Skateboarder, Snowboarder, to off-road brands and stuff.

Anyway, I’ve been involved in this business for 26 years and I’m still amazed today that these vehicles do what they do. They’re purpose-built dragsters and funny cars that run 339mph in 1,000 feet, not even a quarter-mile anymore. It’s almost a whole football field shorter than a quarter-mile and they run it in just over three seconds and 330-plus miles per hour. The fastest is 339mph and the quickest dragster ran 3.62 seconds. It’s pretty amazing.

We always call it the sixth sense because you can’t describe it until you’re there. You just don’t know what it feels like. You feel it in your body. It’s like a 2.0 earthquake that happens at every single race that goes on. It is phenomenal.

This will be my third year [at the NHRA]. At Hot Rod, I used to sponsor cars within the NHRA, some Top Fuel dragsters and funny cars, so I’ve been running parallel with them for a long time. That’s how I transitioned into it.

What revenue-generating initiatives have you personally implemented since you arrived at the series?

Since I came on board, we had a multitude of new people who have come on. Really it’s just looking at things a little bit differently from an automotive perspective. In terms of new things, it felt like we were a little bit behind the times when I stepped in here. We had a dated website, we had a way that we were selling that wasn’t fully integrated. Digital was kind of an afterthought and I came in and said, ‘ok, we can leverage digital, leverage social’.

It’s all the things that seem like they’re pretty basic these days, to be honest with you, but we just weren't quite doing it. It was in our contracts and stuff but everything was just a bit dated. It really started with Peter Clifford, who is our CEO. He said, ‘hey, we’re going to really shake this up and step into 2016’.

Really it’s about going out and telling our story of why people should be involved, you know. We have great demographics, we have a great story to tell. The perception is that this industry and the fans are getting older; I challenge that. Seven years ago we started a programme that kids 12-and-under come in free, so you buy one ticket and you’re allowed to bring in four kids under the age of 12 free.

That has been absolutely phenomenal. You come to our tracks and every last person that comes out right now says ‘I didn’t realise; I just thought it was totally different’. It doesn't matter how many times we tell people that in a presentation where we talk about it, it’s really pushing that. It’s how we position the NHRA, most importantly, in addition to the new things that we’re doing.

When we took on the production of the show, that allowed us a lot more opportunities. It allowed us to ask the question to our partners of what’s important to you? And what do you need? How do you define success? Really listen to them so we can then craft our programme and our agreement around what they really need and want.

I’m 100 per cent confident that our NHRA programmes are at least as efficient, or more efficient, than anybody out there. Why is that? Because we own all of our commercial inventory. We can package in 30-second commercials. You don’t have to buy a sponsorship with NHRA and then buy your commercials separately - it’s all integrated into one deal. The you don’t have to go out and say, ‘how do I get the rights to do this socially?’ We control it so I can put all that in there and we’re already shooting it.

According to Brad Gerber, the NHRA is growing in almost every metric available

When they say, ‘yeah, we’re really a technical company, we really want technical content that we can use’. Okay, let’s figure out a way to do Tech Talk Tuesdays then. We’ll create a social programme with that, you’ll be the partner on it, and we’ll go out and build it, we’ll develop it. If they went to a third-party to do that, that could be as expensive as the entire agreement that we did and which includes everything: commercials, sponsorships, entitlements, the entire deal.

We can become very, very efficient based on how we’re set up right now - because we own the production and we own the cameras and we own the commercial inventory and we have all these assets - digitally, socially, TV-wise, and then touching people. People don’t understand this with the NHRA as much as they should. That’s why I always say, ‘come out, look at it, and you’ll understand’.

When you go to traditional sports, leagues, things of that nature, you walk in and you may stroll around for 30 minutes or an hour before the event starts, looking at whatever may be there. Then you go in and watch the programme, and then you leave. What happens at the NHRA is it’s an all-day affair; we’re racing for six or seven hours. So what happens is people come in and we have multiple rounds of qualifying, multiple rounds of eliminations, so our stars are racing multiple times a day. People come in, they stroll around, every last ticket you buy is an open pit pass, so you buy a general admission ticket and you walk in and you can walk right up and touch the cars. That does not happen in any other sport.

It’s really amazing that you have this access where everybody gets to go into the pits. But then what happens is first thing in the morning when they get there, they stroll around and go to the midway, they can touch our clients like Mello Yello or The Coca-Cola Company. They can go in and sample that then they go up to the grandstand and watch a race. Then they go back into the midway so our sponsors are able to touch them again, then they go back and watch another race, then back out, so there’s three different touch points for all of our partners.

Now, all of a sudden, our partners like Mello Yello, Lucas Oil, Army, Chevrolet, Toyota - all these partners are able to touch people instead of one time, three different times throughout the day. Now they get more people signing up or more people sampling their products, and it becomes very, very efficient for them on-site.

I bring in the on-site part because we have the commercial inventory on TV, the digital inventory, the social capabilities, now go into on-site, displaying, what that’s like for customers. We have the whole package depending on what someone really needs.

You mention your demographics - what does a typical drag racing fan look like?

Traditionally our fans are male, definitely, but what we are very, very proud of is we are both ethnically and gender diverse. If you look at our pro drivers, we have every ethnicity that you can imagine is represented. We have female drivers that are not only winning in the pro ranks but they are champions. We just had our first female champion in 35 years last year in Top Fuel dragsters, Brittany Force. She’s our reigning champion coming into 2018.

We have Leah Pritchett, who is a multi-winner last year. We have Antron Brown, came over from motocross racing motorcycles, drag racing motorcycles, and then to Top Fuel dragsters. Cruz Pedregon. It just goes on and on in terms of ethnicity and gender diversity. We’re very proud of that.

That continues to expand on our diversity as well, in terms of our attendance. If you look at Hispanic fans, NHRA are 16 per cent more likely to be Hispanic than other major competitors like Nascar. We have more Hispanic fans and more African-American fans than both Nascar and the Indycar Series. I don’t like to bag on that but it shows that we are diverse and that’s really the story that we’re trying to tell.

Our interests outside of the NHRA are things like hunting, fishing, camping, boating, things of that nature. We can look at the average age and our per cent demographic: in terms of males 25 to 54, we index versus the US population at 131. What that means is that fans of NHRA are 131 per cent more likely than the US population to be between 25 and 54. That’s how we index according to Scarborough Research, which is part of Nielsen.

For males aged 18 to 24, we index at 135 versus Nascar. That’s a young demo. Why is that? We believe it’s because seven years ago we started this 12-and-under free programme, so those people are now 19 and 20. Now they’re at that age where they’re starting to buy cars. That’s good.

Our fans' interests outside of the NHRA are things like hunting, fishing, camping, boating, things of that nature

What is the NHRA’s international reach and footprint like today? Do you harbour the same overseas growth ambitions as other major motorsports series given drag racing has been traditionally so US-centric?

We have NHRA Worldwide. We have tracks in the Middle East that are NHRA member tracks. We have tracks in the UK. What that means is, if you’re an NHRA member track, the NHRA is there to support, provide guidance, the marketing and the branding, obviously, in terms of safety and how we do it here.

We were just over in the Middle East with three different tracks there, walking them through the latest safety that we go through, how to perform a tech inspection, what to look for, things of that nature. We send over our safety safari team and also our tech team as well, to provide guidance.

Here, within the US, the NHRA is divided into seven distinct divisions. Each of these divisions have divisional and regional races. When you earn points at those divisional and regional races, it allows you to compete on a national race. We have 24 national races and we have thousands of divisional races. We have 7,000 days of drag racing. From that, everyone of these people has to be an NHRA-licensed drag racer. They come in and they’re licensed through us. It means that they’ve passed the certification, passed the tests, that we have.

We are the largest sanctioning body in terms of licensed racers in the world. It’s somewhere in the neighbourhood of 40,000-plus licences. That’s good. We also do something very unique on Friday mornings during the school year. We invited kids out to our race and do the NHRA YES programme, which stands for Youth and Education Services programme.

It’s a STEM-based programme. We go out and talk to mechanic shops, mechanic classes, trade schools, high schools, we invite them out on Friday mornings for a field trip, sponsored by the US Army. They go through team building exercises for 45 minutes to an hour, and it really talks about all the different opportunities within our marketplace, within drag racing, within the NHRA, the US Army. Ford and Chevrolet come out because they’re looking for people to become mechanics, so it shows these kids all the different opportunities.

Also, once they go through that programme, we give them a complimentary ticket to go to the race for that day. That continues our 12-and-under free programme, as we’re then talking to these high school students in each market as well to introduce them to drag racing and the NHRA.

The NHRA have switched its focus to creating ‘Olympic-style storytelling’ to grow its stars

How are you creating stars and household names of your drivers?

When we brought our production in-house, we made a concerted effort to do what we call ‘Olympic-style storytelling’. What that means is bringing the drivers to the forefront and really getting to know these drivers - who they are, what they like to do outside of drag racing - and doing more features since we have more hours on TV.

You see a lot more of us going to these drivers’ homes or places of business. We do what we call ‘Walk a thousand feet’. What we do is we actually get on the track and we ask them eight to 12 questions as they’re walking down the track. It takes three to five minutes, maybe, and it’s just casual. We find ways for people to connect with them instead of just going down the track at 330 miles an hour.

I went to a conference recently and they said when you’re talking to Generation Z, you have to capture them in eight seconds. Eight seconds! I talk about this all the time. The NHRA is made for social. Why is that? We can run two races in eight seconds. These Gen Z’s can watch two races in eight seconds so we should be able to get them!

The NHRA is made for social and made for our younger generation. You have to be 18 in order to drive in our pro ranks. We have two 18-year-olds driving right now. It is amazing that these people do what they do on the track.

Finally, what are your top priorities for 2018?

We have a couple of 50th anniversaries coming up. We’re focused on our 50th anniversary going into 2019 for our Gatornationals, which take place in Gainsville, Florida, so we’ll have some our legends coming out at every race in 2018.

It’s really about getting out there and seeing people face to face. We have so much opportunity here. It’s up to us to come up with things but we’re really focused on the 50th and the legends tour in terms of marketing.