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Humpy Wheeler Believes Globalization is Cure for NASCAR’s Woes
- Updated: January 20, 2017
By Jerry Jordan, Editor
CHARLOTTE, N.C. – While some say there is nothing seriously wrong with NASCAR, H.A. ‘Humpy’ Wheeler is one of the people who believes wholesale changes are needed to make the sport more attractive to younger audiences while retaining the older fan base. The former Charlotte Motor Speedway track president and ex-racer thinks the sanctioning body should take the entertainment industry’s approach and treat auto racing the way TV shows are treated when they aren’t a hit in the ratings.
“There are major reasons why people aren’t coming to races and one of the things we all have to look at is the way we run races. When things aren’t going right, you need to change,” Wheeler told Kickin’ the Tires on Tuesday, following a motorsports symposium at Belmont Abbey College. “We are in the entertainment business and if Hollywood owned us they would have made changes a long time ago because when things start slipping in Hollywood, and the sitcoms start going down in ratings, they are going to come up with reality TV or somebody jumping off The Empire State Building without a parachute. So, I think we have to look at that because we are in a model that literally started back in 1911 with the first Indianapolis 500 and it is time to change the model.
“I think people today are interested in total entertainment – the NFL has proven that. The NFL playoffs have all been great and there is as much action in the second quarter as sometimes in the fourth quarter. Our second quarters are lousy.”
Wheeler said drivers ride around the track lap after lap and don’t take chances, which leads to less interesting races, in his view. He also believes the entire show could be done in a single day and teams should be forced to truly qualify for their spot in each race rather than being “locked-in” because of the new charter system.
“I know it’s got sponsor implications but that is too bad, sometimes you have to look at the entertainment aspect of it,” he said. “Here I am a guy that promoted 35 600s and I am saying no more 600s or 500s. Races average about 3 hours to 3 hours and 15 minutes, so you give people the 3 hours but you do it in a different format like qualify, then you run two 20-lap heat races and the Top 10 cars in the heat races start in the Top 20 of the main event. Then you have another race that is 100 miles and the Top 20 cars in that 100-miler qualify in the back 20 for the big race. But the big race is 150 miles.”
Wheeler also has a new idea for how points are awarded, which he said, would increase competition on the track and all but force drivers to try and pass one another for the lead. The concept would award drivers with a point if they are leading, get passed and then retake the lead within the next 10 laps.
“We award a driver one point towards the national championship if he makes a repass and that is what we are missing right now,” Wheeler said. “I know people will say that teammates will get up there and go back and forth but that is okay, they are still passing. With that one point, people are going to start trying to take the lead.
“If you are 250 miles into a 500-mile race and you are running second there is no real reason for you to run first. You can sit there and know that sooner or later you can make a run for it. So, you put the action in the whole three hours and you’ve got people racing like the dickens because they have to and that one point for a repass will make all the difference in the world. I used to drive race cars and I would be running second place and the guy in front of me was just about the same speed I am and I think, ‘well, I can pass him but I might wreck because he is going to be tough to pass.’ So, I wait until two laps to go and then try to do something. We have to do something to put action during the entire race and that is what has made the NFL, the NFL. We have to put people on the edge of their seats for the entire three hours.”
Wheeler said he has presented his ideas to NASCAR and has had “different reactions” because the plan is such a radical change from the norm. Still, he said NASCAR officials and others in the sport “know we have got to do something.”
Earlier in the day, Wheeler talked about his ideas for changing NASCAR and pontificated that a wholesale ownership change for NASCAR, International Speedway Corp and Speedway Motorsports Incorporated could be easily achieved by a Wall Street investment group and “event entertainment company.” When asked later to go more in-depth on the topic, he said he believes such a massive buyout is not only possible but may be the only way to take NASCAR to an international level, where it could bring in massive revenue.
“The first thing they would do is change the whole concept,” Wheeler said. “The future of the sport, as I see, is simple, just like John Malone bought F1. He is going to come up and do a lot of different things that are interesting. But since I had a deal with Wall Street when I was at the speedway and I still have connections and do some work for some Wall Street firms. We couldn’t go by without somebody calling me and saying. ‘Hey, call Jim France and see if he is ready to sell.’ You know, there is so much money available for something that’s got a future to it like this.
“It wouldn’t be hard to get, my God, how much money are you talking about? A billion dollars? That’s no problem. You buy SMI, you buy ISC and you buy NASCAR all in one fell swoop. That is not a lot of money on Wall Street.”
Wheeler said he knows his idea may sound crazy to some but he believes his track record speaks for itself – having made predictions about the sports 10, 15 and 25 years ago, which many have come to pass. He said having a single owner with deep pockets and an international plan would take NASCAR worldwide and build a fan base that could rival F1.
“Then, I think the sport becomes NASCAR International, where you have 16 national races in the U.S. and then you have 14 or 15 in Dubai, Beijing and some of those other terrific tracks,” he said. “Charlotte and Daytona used to be the best tracks in the world, they aren’t anymore Dubai is. I mean that place is unbelievable, they spent close to a billion dollars and they have everything there.”
Wheeler said putting NASCAR on a global scale would open it up to foreign TV money, which would bring in huge amounts of money. He said that is the only “new money” available the sport and while most of the NASCAR cash comes from domestic TV rights, in F1 the money comes in from all over the world.
That, he said, puts F1 in front of more people than NASCAR could ever hope for the in the U.S.
“If we had NASCAR International, then Mercedes, BMW, etc. comes in and we are going to end up with drivers from all over the world, we will have a worldwide TV audience and we will triple the amount of TV money coming in and we will be up there with F1 and we will be a better show than they are.”
He said the reason NASCAR would be more entertaining than F1 is because road courses and stock cars aren’t such a bad idea as long as fans are watching the action on TV and not trying to see it in person at the track where there is limited visibility. Americans don’t want to wait to see who is in the lead, they want to see what is happening on the track. Additionally, Wheeler believes splitting up races at tracks like Daytona and Charlotte whereby one of the races is considered an “international event” and the other is consider part of a “North American” tour will allow drivers from across the world to compete to determine who is truly the best stock car racer on the planet. It would also pit countryman against countryman as BMW, Mercedes, GM, Ford, Toyota and other manufacturers could gain support from their respective home countries.
“If you’re at Le Mans and there is an hour to go, all of a sudden the Englishmen are cheering for the Aston-Martins, the Italians are cheering for the Ferraris, the Germans are cheering for the Mercedes but we don’t have that here. Yet, there are no domestic cars anymore. You say, Ford or Chevrolet, no they are sold all over the world and the guy that runs those companies, when he wakes up in the morning he isn’t thinking about the United States he is thinking about the whole world. So, we have to be thinking about the whole world.
“That’s where it is headed because that is where the money is. I made some predictions 25 years ago that absolutely came true … I am just putting my head together and looking at known facts, that half the people aren’t coming to races anymore, our TV ratings are lousy and we have to change something.”