Humpy Wheeler warms up for the Tour de France (Photo: Harold Hinson/Lowes Motor Speedway)
By Mike Mulhern
Einstein’s brain may have nothing on what’s inside Humpy Wheeler’s head, and the legendary NASCAR promoter, who is finding life after running Charlotte’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway to be just fine, thank you, is – Gasp! – now writing a book.
This one ought to knock your socks off: Wheeler is an insider’s insider, who not only knows where the bodies are buried but probably laid a few to rest himself over his amazing career.
“It will be, ah, interesting,” Wheeler says, in uncharacteristic understatement.
He’s also doing some TV work for SPEED and forming The Wheeler Company to represent some drivers “and to sell some ideas.”
Wheeler has never been at a loss for ideas, which is one reason he’s the best promoter in the business.
Wheeler of course is nothing about understatement. His career has been based on redefining over-the-top.
While others were promoting motorcycle jumps, Wheeler went one-up and promoted Jimmy the Flying Greek, making his jumps in a school bus. At Bristol even.
We’re going to race what? School buses? Only Humpy Wheeler….(Photo: Harold Hinson/Lowes Motor Speedway)
One of his most, er, notorious promotions was with Willy T. Ribbs, the star African-American road racer who Wheeler brought over to NASCAR for what turned out to be an outrageously humorous – and historic – stint, all too brief, for various reasons.
Wheeler was doing ‘diversity’ before it was quite so catchy.
Janet Guthrie too. Some 30 years ago.
And at the moment diversity is a hot topic in NASCAR, with Danica Patrick winning in Indy-cars, with Ashley Force winning in the NHRA, with Juan Pablo Montoya winning in NASCAR, and with Lewis Hamilton winning in Formula One. And with that $225 million lawsuit hanging over CEO Brian France’s head.
Humpy Wheeler has come up with some wacky promotions over the years…(Photo: Harold Hinson/Lowes Motor Speedway)
NASCAR is a fast-paced sport, yes, but is it moving fast enough with diversity? That’s part of the current debate.
Actually NASCAR has been moving pretty darned fast on this issue, for several years now. Maybe not fast enough to suit some, but no one can accuse NASCAR of dragging its feet.
One problem, though, is that NASCAR, perhaps surprisingly, isn’t doing enough to promote what it is doing, so there may be a perception in some quarters that is 10 years out of date.
Rah-rah-rah! Every stock car team needs good cheerleaders…..another Wheeler brainstorm (Photo: Harold Hinson/Lowes Motor Speedway)
Wheeler is just back from Detroit’s Motorsports Hall of Fame banquet, where among the stars inducted Wednesday night, along with well-known men like Buddy Baker, Paul Goldsmith, Michael Andretti and John Force, was Betty Skelton. “She was the forerunner of all women drivers, though she was basically a stunt pilot,” Wheeler said. “And she raced NASCAR….speed runs, when Bill France held those on the beach.
“If they’d held this thing 10 years ago, there’d probably been nobody there. So some progress has been made (in diversifying motorsports), but you don’t really see the progress until you get down in the lower levels, with the Bandoleros and Legends cars. You see a lot more diversity there.”
Creating a more diverse NASCAR face, Wheeler says, “is going to be solved by slow evolution.
“These kids who are racing right now in the lower levels, some of them will be good enough to move up.
Ever see $14 million? Just ask Humpy (Photo: Harold Hinson for Lowe’s Motor Speedway)
“The biggest progress we’re seeing in diversity is among Hispanics. There are some really good Hispanic drivers coming up. And in certain markets, where we have second and third generation Hispanics, with the wherewithal to support a racing program, that’s where you see the first real diversity breakthrough.
“Juan Montoya is an example for them.
“However I think the female and the African-American breakthroughs will come much, much later.
“Janet Guthrie was 30 years ago…and how much has really changed? Not much.
“Germán Quiroga has so much talent it’s incredible. (Quiroga is one of Mexico’s top NASCAR racers, winner last month at San Luis Potosi.)
Bruton Smith’s new NHRA Bellagio of dragstrips, just across U.S. 29. Was this the trigger for the Bruton Smith-Humpy Wheeler split? (Photo: Harold Hinson/Lowes Motor Speedway)
“But we may have to face the fact that we may never see women racing in NASCAR in big numbers. That will probably not happen in the next 10 or 15 years. There just aren’t that many racing at the lower levels, not in the same numbers as Hispanics and African-Americans.”
However NASCAR’s decision to abandon Mexico City certainly doesn’t look like a good PR move in Hispanic circles.
But Wheeler looks at Mexico City from a promoter’s point of view: “The Mexico City race was very expensive for the track operator to do. And would it be better for NASCAR to have its own series in Mexico, which it now has? To see if this Corona series can grow and prosper on its own, without NASCAR having to bring its own stars in?
Is this the next surprising NASCAR star? German Quiroga is hotstuff at the wheel (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“The Nationwide tour (Mexico City was part of that series) is not at the level of the Cup series. If Mexico City were a Cup deal, then we’d all go…and if we’re going to grow the TV market, that’s the way we’ll have to go.
“But that’s down the road…unless the networks can convince NASCAR they want to expand into a more global type of racing.
“To take the next step, we’ll have to look at the global picture. And the global picture starts in this hemisphere.
“The two sports that take in the most TV dollars are F1 and soccer…and that’s because they take in the world market.
“And to go global, that means road courses in some places, and that means learning how to race in the rain.”
While NASCAR’s Hispanic initiatives are catching hold, the sport is still fighting an uphill battle on the African-American front.
NASCAR needs Adrian Fernandez…but Fernandez has so far shrugged it off (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
But if Ribbs had made it in NASCAR, when he was here in the 1980s—and he had the talent—things might be quite different today, Wheeler says.
“Willy was just way ahead of his time, that was the problem,” Wheeler says. “If he’d come in and won a lot, he could have been a Lewis Hamilton.”
Hamilton, 23, is tearing up the Formula One world, as F1’s Tiger Wood. But his ‘overnight’ success has come after 10 years of careful nurturing by Team McLaren and Mercedes-Benz.
Detroit car makers have yet to take that determined an approach in NASCAR, though Toyota may be getting ready to shake it all up.
“Lewis Hamilton is changing everyone’s minds,” Wheeler says.
“But the Lewis Hamilton model worked because McLaren helped bring him along. McLaren really began helping Lewis Hamilton out significantly when he was 12.
Mr. Popularity, for his many innovations (Photo:Harold Hinson for Lowe’s Motor Speedway)
“And the deal is right now Detroit is in tough shape. It is really, really brutal. I just have to imagine that racing is pretty far from everyone’s minds up there. They just want to get through these days of poor car sales.
“What the auto industry is really looking at right now is selling cars. If they had a fairly sizeable, fuel efficient car, sales would be improving significantly.
“Okay, we’ve got all this stuff going on in racing, but answer the marketing question Detroit is trying to answer – where is the car that gets 50 mpg?”
Well, to begin with, NASCAR could get Detroit to provide high mpg pace cars, for a touch of ‘green’ in this gas-guzzling sport.
And NASCAR started the Truck series some 12 years ago because Detroit wanted to use truck racing to sell trucks. So why not create a new racing series – maybe like the old Baby Grands – that focuses on fuel efficiency?
Humpy Wheeler made Charlotte’s Lowe’s Motor Speedway the NASCAR powerhouse it is today (Photo: Harold Hinson/Lowes Motor Speedway)
Wheeler says “There is talk within the racing industry about ‘Do we really need 358 cubic inch engines? Why can’t we run 250 cubic inch engines?’
“So the auto racing industry isn’t really in sync with what Detroit is thinking right now.
“The consumers are demanding better economy…and that means changing the car as we see it significantly.
“And where does the diversity thing fit into all this? I don’t think it does.
“Yes, they have to sell to Hispanics, and Hispanics want good fuel mileage as much as Anglos do.
Humpy Wheeler’s book could be a sizzler (Photo:Streeter Lecka/Getty Images for NASCAR)
“But we’re in a bit of a quandary about where to go. I don’t think auto racing has any conception about what to do about ‘going green.’
“You talk about ‘green’ and they get this bewildered look on their face.”
But then it took NASCAR 30 years to get unleaded fuel.
“What we need to be focusing on right now is getting in sync with what Detroit wants to do….once Detroit figures out what it wants to do,” Wheeler says.
“Look back at where NASCAR came from back in the 1960s and 1970s, with those 4,000-pound, 427 c.i. behemoths…we’re still in that same mold.
“We’re just not in sync with Detroit right now.
“That’s why I think the diversity program is taking a backseat mentally. People are still promoting it, but I think it’s taking a backseat.”
Agree? Disagree? Don’t just brood. Express yourself here, and make your voice heard clearly in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona and Charlotte and in NASCAR race shops throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
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