Crain News Service report
DETROIT (June 16, 2014) — For 35 years, Humpy Wheeler was racing's best salesman and track operator.
He was a creative and fearless risk taker, willing to stick his head in a tiger's mouth to publicize races at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He and track owner Bruton Smith made each other fabulously wealthy before Mr. Wheeler abruptly “retired” after a serious argument with Mr. Smith in 2008.
Even though his Speedway Benefits company now works exclusively with short tracks around the country that hold weekly races, Mr. Wheeler still keeps a close eye on NASCAR.
Autoweek magazine recently had an opportunity to talk with Mr. Wheeler about the state of NASCAR. Here's what he sees:
Autoweek (AW): “You're optimistic that NASCAR will soon make major changes to improve its show. What do you foresee?”
Humpy Wheeler (HW): “Some really strong moves have been made lately to make it better. The new qualifying system [for the Chase for the Championship] is really good, but the most exciting thing is the move to slow the cars.
“You can't really race when you're more than 200 mph on an intermediate track. They should slow ‘em by at least 10 mph. And they need to attack the dreaded “aero push” problem. They haven't done it yet, but they're starting to look at it. Downforce is creating aero push, so they have to figure that out.”
AW: “What is Sprint Cup missing?”
HW: “The most important thing is the repass—when the leader gets passed and within 20 laps he comes back to pass the new leader. That's where rubbing comes in, and you've got to have some rubbing. Nobody except TV gets excited about rubbing for seventh, so you need rubbing up front.
“And you need a superhero like Tiger Woods or Joe Namath, somebody like that. Walt Disney told his people to draw in a villain within the first 90 seconds. We need something like that. We need villains, but, instead, we have too many pretty boys. There just aren't any personalities.”
AW: “Even though things have changed, does racing still get its fair shake?”
HW: “The media is doing a great job, but the publicity isn't as great as it was because the flower isn't blooming like it was. It was that way with the PGA and the NBA and Major League Baseball at some points.
“Racing is at a plateau right now like so many other sports have been at plateaus. It's a normal thing because you just can't have these 10- or 15-year periods of percentage growth like we did. I think it's about to turn the corner.”
AW: “We're guessing you would have promoted and hyped Danica Patrick unlike anything we've ever seen….”
HW: “Danica has sold a lot of tickets, just like Janet Guthrie did [in May 1976]. When Janet qualified here [for the Coca-Cola 600] it was the biggest day we ever had. Danica is good for racing because she gives girls—notice I didn't say women, I said girls—someone to pull for. They can relate to her because she's a little-bitty thing who looks like a high school kid.
“When she was in IndyCar, it was like a ballet; over here, it's more like a square dance. She's good for NASCAR, no doubt about it.”
AW: “You knew and watched Big Bill France and Bill France Jr. when they ran the sport, and now you get to watch NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France. What do you think?”
HW: “I've never said this, but Brian has made very good decisions lately; he's doing fine. He's got better advisors than he used to, people who understand they almost let this thing go too damned far. They came very close to losing the common person, the people they need the most.
“The new Chase format gets rid of points days, and nobody's ever bought a ticket to see a points race. No more bleeping around and talking about how finishing sixth was a great points day.”
This report appeared on the website of Autoweek magazine, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.