Stan Voit: Humpy Wheeler wants changes in NASCAR, and he knows the business
There are a few things I know I’ll never attend with my wife: a professional wrestling match, a trip to China and a NASCAR race. That’s OK. Not all southerners like wrestling and stock car racing. But seeing the Great Wall together would be nice.
My feelings about NASCAR were always ambivalent. It was something to pay attention to when your favorite sports were not being played. I knew the names of some of the racers growing up, people like Fireball Roberts and Richard Petty and the Allisons from my home state of Alabama. But I didn’t follow it.
These days you are either a huge fan or an indifferent one. I remember when we were housing hunting eight years ago and visited a home in Seymour. In the basement was a virtual shrine to Jeff Gordon, the NASCAR star. It had everything but burning candles under his photo. That’s a fan.
I just read Humpy Wheeler’s autobiography — an interesting read. “Growing Up NASCAR” tells his story of being around racing from the time he was a teenager until he became president of Charlotte Motor Speedway, a position he held until five years ago.
This man was there when racing was mostly on flat dirt tracks and when winning drivers got paid in the hundreds of dollars, not millions. He was there before numbers became associated with the drivers — the 24 car, the 48 car, the 3 car. For the uninitiated, that’s Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt.
Besides relating interesting, often funny and poignant stories about the greats of stock car racing, Wheeler also gives his thoughts on how to jack up the sport. It is suffering from dwindling attendance and a certain sameness, a malaise about the whole thing. Years ago fans got excited watching the Bobby Allison-Darrell Waltrip feud, or Petty and Bobby Allison hooking up. Drivers banged each other and sometimes fought each other, and fans loved it.
These days drivers sometimes don’t even try to win. They try to finish high enough to gain points for the so-called Chase in the fall, when the top drivers based on points over the year compete for millions in prize money. So much money is at stake in races that drivers are more careful not to hurt others. In fact there has not been a NASCAR race casualty since Earnhardt’s in 2000.
Wheeler is concerned and suggests the following as remedies for what he calls in his book “the corporatization oif the sport”:
n Eliminate sponsors. This discourages rivalries because drivers don’t want to do something that offends their money backers.
n Bring the sport to the big markets. So many races are in small areas such as Martinsville and Bristol. It’s still thought of as a rural, southern sport. This means cultivating drivers from big cities like New York, where interest can be developed and even races held. A gifted Hispanic driver would be a boost in areas like Texas and California, he reasons.
n Make the track experience more comfortable for the fans. Bleacher seating with little butt space may have been enough 20 years ago, but not now when races are shown on TV in high definition. Tracks should reduce the number of seats and make them more comfortable.
n Take steps to make tracks less susceptible to bad weather. Fans hate it when races are postponed after they have fought traffic to get there. Tracks can be treated with something called hyperlon, a fabric that is used at airports to make runways safe in rain. That means changing the way tires are made as well.
n If fans have a more pleasant, home-like experience at the track, they’ll come back. Why not a little TV at their seats so they can see replays and huge TV screens at the track the way baseball and football stadiums are?
n Make it easier to get to the track. True fans know how bad traffic is. More fans attend the Talladega 500 than the Tennessee-Florida or Alabama-Auburn game. You know how traffic is for major football games. Double it for a popular NASCAR race. Wheeler suggests high-speed rail service and express bus lanes.
n Shorter races. A 600-mile race at Charlotte with no breaks is an endurance test for fans as well as drivers. Shorter races will be more fun and compress the excitement and drama. Remember, he says, the attention span has become shorter thanks to video games and television.
n Take NASCAR international, with races in Europe, Japan, Australia and even China. He notes the popularity of the World Cup, and the growing U.S. market share of foreign car makers.
n Pay per view. He sees this as a coming thing. It has boosted wrestling, boxing and ultimate-fighting revenues. A reasonable fee to watch a race at home with special camera angles and even an interactive feature, will be popular.
Wheeler knows of what he speaks. His ideas may seem radical. But think about this: Who envisioned dirt track racing for purses of a few hundred dollars would ever evolve into the multimillion dollar sport NASCAR is today? Wheeler provides fuel for thought.
— Stan Voit is editor of The Mountain Press. Email to firstname.lastname@example.org, call 428-0748, ext. 217, or Twitter @stanvoit.