Humpy Must Have Been Reading My MindBy Ron Fleshman
It’s only mid-week and already a few big stories have hit. First there was the surprise YouTube video of Humpy Wheeler, the legendary promoter who put Charlotte Motor Speedway on the map, giving a critical analysis of what is wrong with NASCAR followed closely by Brian Vickers getting the full time ride in the No.55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota and the dismissal of Juan Pablo Montoya from the No. 42 Earnhardt-Ganassi Chevrolet. Interesting moves, no doubt, so let’s start with Wheeler’s comments.
Wheeler was regarded as the number one promoter in racing until his abrupt firing by Speedway Motorsports in 2008. He now owns a consulting company, but his comments on the sport ring true most of the time. I first heard his ideas on the health of the sport on SiriusXM satellite radio last week, but seeing them in print was a real eye opener.
When considering the lack of attendance and the diminishing TV ratings, Wheeler has many ideas on why this has happened, firstly the corpatizement, as he calls it, of the sport. This rings true. Wheeler contends that the huge sums of money collected by the sport’s teams was good, it also upped the cost of what teams could spend on their teams, leaving a gap of the haves and have-nots in the sport, as well as multi-car super teams, reducing competition. His story about Firestone asking him to help in getting Richard Petty to take diction instruction to do commercials rings true. Today’s drivers tend to be corporate darlings, easily mentioning each sponsor in rote fashion and even taking gulps of their sport’s beverage on cue. Wheeler, to his credit, refused Firestone saying a better speaking King would not be the King. It was what enamored him to his fans.
Wheeler’s ideas are legendary. Lights at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the big military shows before the Coke 600, and turning the speedway built in 1960 into the crown jewel of the sport are just a few of his accomplishments, but his other ideas may be considered radical..
Wheeler’s main points are that the sport got too fancy, didn’t emphasize winning and passing enough, and didn’t give a reason for fans to come back after a race. How would Wheeler solve this? Give points for re-passing on the track. Give extra bonuses for winning and passing in a race, and do away with some of the new rules. He didn’t mention them specifically, but one can only surmise he meant the “Luck Dog,” the wave around and the double file restart. That’s what I thought he meant anyway. Maybe Wheeler will expound on this later. One thing is certain; he feels he knows what happened to the popularity of the sport.
Since about 1990, NASCAR was in power curve that played out about 2001. It was coincidentally the same year Dale Earnhardt lost his life in the Daytona 500. Wheeler calls him the working man’s driver. From that point on, NASCAR started waning in popularity. He says that guys like Richard Petty, Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson were drivers that the working man could identify with. That is missing today, and I agree. Fans still flock to the tracks with No. 3 flags and stickers on their campers and cars. When asked who their favorite driver is, they are stumped for an answer. As Wheeler articulated so well, we do not have that driver anymore. Wheeler mentioned Clint Bowyer and then said he had been corpatized. We seem to have turned our drivers into walking and driving extensions of their sponsors, refusing to be themselves except in a moment of rage or weakness when they apologize to the sponsor and the fans for being themselves. Makes no sense. The motto is “ye must be a corporate spokesman.” Racing is secondary, and that’s the problem in Humpy’s mind. In my mind, we’ve gotten too fancy. Humpy would be proud. What will bring NASCAR back to the growth they saw in the 10-12 year growth spurt? Excitement and competition across the board and drivers people can relate to in today’s world. Let’s see if anyone is listening.
Brian Vickers is getting the full time gig in the Aaron’s Toyota in 2014, leaving Mark Martin, who only wants a part-time ride without a car to drive. Where will he go? Some say back to Roush-Fenway for a few races in the legendary No. 6, and others say the same thing in the Wood Brothers No.21. To be honest, where else could he go for a part-time ride? With drivers like Ryan Newman, Kurt Busch, and now Juan Montoya looking, pickings will be slim. If Martin could bring some sponsorship along, all bets are off, of course.
The dismissal of Montoya was a total surprise. I don’t think Montoya will accept an uncompetitive ride, so only the RCR No.29, the Phoenix Racing No. 51, and the possible 4th car at RCR seem to be in play. Then, you have to consider Newman, who will be in big demand, and what Richard Childress will do with his grandsons. It’s not much of a market out there for displaced drivers. My guess is that Montoya will go back to what he did before coming to NASCAR. I could be wrong, but I don’t see a place for him in 2014. Silly Season should be lots of fun this fall.