Humpy Wheeler Both Right And Wrong About Today's NASCAR
Humpy Wheeler, former NASCAR promoter for the Charlotte Motor Speedway, posted a video on YouTube earlier this week that's drawn a great deal of support from NASCAR fans. Wheeler notes that NASCAR got “too fancy” and left its fans behind in the process. His comments resonate with a large portion of NASCAR's fanbase, particularly those old school fans who haven't felt the same commitment to the sport over the last decade. And in many ways his comments are dead on the money. NASCAR isn't the same sport it once was and the changes aren't all for the better. But some of those changes were inevitable and the challenge now is work within the world of today while not ignoring the things that got NASCAR there in the first place.
If you're a NASCAR fan and you haven't yet watched the video, I cannot encourage you strongly enough to do so. It's 18 minutes of your life that you'll believe is well spent and he makes several strong points over the course of the video.
Full Video from Wheeler on NASCAR's Decline
Dale Sr. Merchandise Still A Big Seller
The Performance and the Popularity
Wheeler believes that the primary reason NASCAR has declined over the last ten years centers around the sport distancing itself from what made it popular in the first place. Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt Sr., arguably the two biggest stars in the history of the sport, were both people that the common man could identify with. Since Dale Earnhardt's passing, no one has picked up the torch that he dropped and built the same kind of identity with the Everyman. He's absolutely correct there. NASCAR has not found anyone with the same combination of on-track success and off-track mass appeal to match Earnhardt or Petty.
Therein lies an issue that Wheeler does not address. The appeal of Petty and Earnhardt was not solely because of their personalities. In fact, Earnhardt was hated by a good portion of NASCAR's fanbase prior to his death (as Wheeler noted). Nor was it strictly the fact that they were elite drivers during their heyday. It was the combination of those two factors that made them successful and expanded NASCAR's appeal. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon have won a combined nine series titles but their public personalities are tightly controlled. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick have broad appeal to the general public at large but neither has found the on-track success needed to reach that next level. Put Junior's personality with Johnson's results or Patrick's broad appeal with Gordon's championships; that's the kind of combination that Petty and Senior represented.
Every Level Costs Money
Wheeler also noted that today's NASCAR lacks the very best drivers because of the costs involved, particularly at the lower levels. Those that are able to race are forced to become corporately inclined because of the costs involved. Yet the costs of running a go-kart program are not something NASCAR has any ability to influence. Those rising costs are also tied in large part to the safety advances made over the last 20 years. Safety isn't cheap. Moreover, racing is all about finding speed where your competition cannot. Speed at every level costs money and unless the young driver comes from a wealthy family they need sponsorship. Those sponsors are usually corporations themselves and they want a driver representing them appropriately. The last thing even a small business needs is to spend its precious advertising budget on a driver who goes out and ends up wrecking half the field.
So the impact of corporations is felt from the very lowest levels of racing right up to the Sprint Cup level. Wheeler, along with many old school NASCAR fans, detests this. “They put us into this,” he noted of corporations. “They didn't know what racing was all about (and) They tried to change it.” He's correct that the large corporations who sponsor NASCAR teams worked hard to change the sport. At the same time, NASCAR itself tried to change its image to attract those high dollar corporations. The reason why was very simple; the kinds of dollar amounts required to fund a Sprint Cup team cannot be paid by smaller businesses. Hog Father BBQ (which has fantastic food, by the way; if you're in State College, PA be sure to check them out!) isn't going to spend $20M to sponsor a Sprint Cup team. But Proctor and Gamble has before and may yet again. To attract those kinds of sponsors a team and driver has to act in a way consistent with the company itself. P&G isn't spending those kinds of dollars on a loose cannon.
Different Sports, Different Revenue Models
The only real option to eliminate the impact of corporations in NASCAR would be a revenue-sharing system similar to that in place in the NFL or MLB. If the teams had a guaranteed source of income from NASCAR they would be more inclined to employ controversial characters behind the wheel. However, that isn't in the cards. Ask the France family if they'd like to give up their billions from the upcoming TV deal- and while you're doing so, ask for the moon as well. Neither will happen any time soon. Sponsorship is the life blood of NASCAR and sponsorship comes from corporations. There really is no other way.
Wheeler spends the second half of the video identifying the other reason why fans have left the sport, a lack of excitement. “We had bad races, very poor races with no passing for the lead,” he noted. “We had no rivalries... no fender rubbing over the last few laps.” That part of his analysis could not be more accurate. Part of that stems from Jimmie Johnson's dominance. His five consecutive title runs had an air of inevitability about them. Other drivers might win the occasional race but the championship was Johnson's to lose. Where's the excitement in that?
Perhaps NASCAR's Most Legendary Feud
A Hollywood Ending
The other half, the lack of rivalries, is a bit more complicated. NASCAR has thrived on rivalries over the years. The legendary fight between Cale Yarborough and the Allisons at the 1979 Daytona 500 is looked at as a launching pad for NASCAR's success in the 80's. The feud between Geoff Bodine and Dale Earnhardt became a barely-fictionalized plot point in Days of Thunder. NASCAR clearly recognized this with the, “Boys, have at it,” policy put into place in 2010. And the “boys” have responded with a host of on-track “corrections” and off-track confrontations that have made the highlight reel since then. Why do the rivalries today not have the same power as the rivalries from yesterday?
Wheeler doesn't get into this in the video but its over-arching message certainly does; fan identification with the driver. Fans on both sides cared about what happened in the past because they were emotionally invested in the drivers involved. They cared passionately about their driver and were equally passionate when someone else wrecked that driver. No driver today stirs the same level of passion in their fanbase. We're entertained by Clint Bowyer doing a 100 yard dash to Jeff Gordon's trailer but that's the end of it. It's entertainment and nothing more. You didn't hear a legion of Bowyer fans calling for Gordon's neck. There was no army of Gordon supporters talking about how Bowyer deserved it and maybe more. More than anything else, that lack of passion is why NASCAR's remains a second-class citizen in the American sports landscape.
A Fantastic Moment, But One Quickly Forgotten (Bowyer vs. Gordon)
Can NASCAR Fill These Stands Again?
Restoring that passion will not be easy. Wheeler notes in the video that the reason people come to the race in person is for the passing, the excitement of the live experience. But with modern HD technology, the in-home viewing experience is as good as its ever been. And awarding points for passes or leading mid-race is merely a band-aid for what ails NASCAR. If you can earn points for passing, then why not tank qualifying and earn 10-15 cheap passes at the beginning of the race? If leading laps gets you points, where's the reward in consistency (something passionate NASCAR fans say already disappeared with the advent of the Chase). Treating fans right at the racetrack is important- it's why other sports have built facilities designed to provide a host of on-site amenities never dreamed of a generation ago. But those amenities cost real money, money that has to come from somewhere.
Despite no longer being a part of NASCAR in the strictest sense, Wheeler clearly still has that passion. He's still a race promoter at heart. He has a decades-long track record of knowing what sells tickets to NASCAR fans, particularly those in the Charlotte area. So what he says is real and it's a perspective that NASCAR and International Speedway Corp. ignore at their own peril. Can NASCAR take a piece of that old school passion and find a way to embed it in the corporate world that's a reality today? That's the challenge facing the current occupants of One Daytona Boulevard in Daytona Beach, Florida.