Monday, June 2, 2014

Humpy Wheeler: NASCAR looked the other way but drivers (and sponsors) did not

    Former Charlotte Motor Speedway general manager and president of Speedway Motorsports Inc., H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler offers a diagnosis of what is missing from NASCAR these days. You may be surprised to learn that he believes NASCAR itself is working hard to produce the environment necessary to build more excitement but is running into a big roadblock - the drivers, or in particular, their corporate sponsors.

   Let him explain: 

   "What is wrong with NASCAR?

   We have heard it all in the past two months -- the economy, lack of passing for the lead, high ticket prices, confusing car paint changes, the weather and everything else but the pink elephants.

   Folks, what it is … is simple. It is the lack of real rivalries and the absence of a superstar in the realm of Ali, Brady, LeBron, Namath, etc.

   Sure we have Johnson, Gordon, Tony Stewart but you can't be a great superstar without tremendous rivals. Ali had Frazier; Namath the entire NFL; etc.

   What made NASCAR? The fierce battles between Curtis Turner and Jr. Johnson; Tim Flock vs. Buck Baker; Bobby Allison against Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough; Darrell Waltrip and Rusty Wallace; Earnhardt, Sr., battling Geoff Bodine and Bill Elliot, etc. 

   Those were in the days before vast changes were made in the cars and before huge mega dollar sponsors who wanted their flying billboards to be quiet and the drivers as well behaved as Philadelphia nuns.

   Drivers sometimes didn't talk just right; dressed the way they wanted and were as tough as a Mohawk riveter. Kind of reminds us of the rodeo riders today.

   America loved these guys when they came on their stage in 1979 on CBS on a snowstorm Sunday and guess what: got into a fight on live TV! It was the Dukes of Hazzard; Andy Griffith; the Civil War on Wheels and the Friday Night Fights all rolled into one piece of technicolor drama. 

   And -- as we all know -- it took off like a Bonneville streamliner. Gutsy, clever and smart promoters saw their chance now and came up with all kinds of ways to get the media to cover it including bringing a lot of talented, fancy and not so fancy guys to come in and put on a show and did they ever from dirt tracks like the Robinwood Speedway in Gastonia, N.C. to the high banks of Charlotte and Daytona.

   In those building days cars hit one another -- rubbin' was the mild word. There were few sponsors to regulate behavior and NASCAR looked the  other way and the people loved it and there were few empty seats.

   Sometimes I remember the fights AFTER the race … the ones you didn't hear about. Those behind the rest room! One driver taking another and almost drowning him in an infield lake after he was knocked into the fence.

   Or the time Tim Richmond called David Pearson "an old man" and found himself flat on the hot concrete.

   These things just don't happen today and rivalries are quickly snuffed out by the huge disinfectant that comes into play when the boys get rowdy.

   So, with all sorts of PR people, button collared suits and enough security that we wonder if Godzilla is about to attack. No wonder drivers hurl themselves into their impenetrable tractor trailers after an incident.

   Probably the most dangerous place in the track after an incident is the track hospital where NASCAR commands all in a wreck to go and get checked out. 

   So, what happened to 'have at it boys?'

   I think NASCAR obeyed its own command but did the rest of NASCAR Town? No, because
that's the street where the sponsors live and their commandments.

   I do believe that the organization NASCAR is trying to get this whole thing back on track with rules changes and attempts at making the cars easier to pass for the lead (although we haven't seen this much). They, especially Brian France, know this whole rivalry element must
happen to get it back on track.

   But then maybe the answer is some rail-tough 20 year old from the backwoods of America whose only dream is going fast and whipping people with his determination and driving talent that ranks up there with Johnson, Foyt, Andretti, Yarborough, the Allisons and the Pettys who isn't handsome, dresses wrong, talks badly and doesn't particularly like any driver who has ever tried to beat him. He will flat put you in the fence if you cross him. He is as tough as the truck he drives and sometimes as mean as those rattlesnakes he has killed by the barn. He could pass the Secret Service rifle sniper test and sometimes disappears for days with his rod and reel. 

   He loves dirt so much his friends thought he had a vitamin deficiency. He has a girl friend but few have ever seen her and if anything gets in the way of his racing it is eliminated. He is frustrated by all the  rich kids racing who he knows won't last but keep him where he is. He dreams of the day he can get underneath their quarter panel.

   If you know this guy we need him bad!"