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Humpy Wheeler: Racing became ‘too fancy’

Humpy Wheeler, the former longtime president at Charlotte Motor Speedway, said NASCAR hurt itself by becoming “too fancy” in the 1990s.

Wheeler, in a video posted on YouTube this week, said the sport soared in the 1990s and a lot of people wanted to change it. He said that happened as racing evolved from a regional to national sport.

“They didn’t like it the way it was. They thought it was too country or unsophisticated or whatever. Those people were dead wrong,” he said in the 18-minute video.

NASCAR, which has a big footprint in the Charlotte area and was once viewed as the country’s fastest-growing pro sport, has grappled with perhaps its most troubling ongoing challenge: declining ticket sales.

Securities filings for NASCAR’s track owners for 2006 through 2011 show Charlotte’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. has lost more than a quarter of its admission revenue, falling to $130 million. NASCAR’s largest track operator, Daytona Beach-based International Speedway Corp., has lost nearly 40 percent of its ticket revenue, falling to $144 million.

Wheeler traced the sport’s struggles in part to Dale Earnhardt’s death in the 2001 Daytona 500.

“Dale Earnhardt was loved by 50 percent of the people and not particularly loved by the other 50 percent, until he died, and then everyone loved him,” he said. “Dale was the last working man’s driver that we had. He was a mechanic.”

Wheeler said cars have become too expensive, preventing grass-roots drivers from rising in the sport.

“We’re not getting all the best drivers … because they don’t talk right, they don’t look right, they may not be corporately inclined,” he said. “Corporations, to a certain extent, have put us into this.”

He mentioned Mooresville-based Lowe’s former title sponsorship of what is now Charlotte Motor Speedway. Then he criticized corporate sponsors in general with “fancy people working for them that did not know what racing was all about.”

Lowe’s spokesperson Chris Ahearn said the company won’t comment on Wheeler’s remarks, but “we respect everyone’s opinion” and right to post those opinions.

“We’ve been a supporter of NASCAR and have been for decades,” she said. “It’s a great way to communicate with our customers” who follow the sport.

Wheeler said corporate sponsors in NASCAR tried to change the sport. “By trying to change it … a lot of people left, and they left by droves,” he said. “Yeah, they kept watching it on TV some, but they didn’t come to the race track. They didn’t come where you need them.”

Wheeler said people have long been trying to change racing.

In the 1960s, he said, a sponsor told him: “ ‘I think we need to send Richard Petty to diction lessons.’ ”

“Diction lessons?” Wheeler said.

“ ‘Yeah, we get him to talk different. He’s too twangy,’ ” the sponsor said.

“My gosh. Richard Petty talking different than he does?” Wheeler said. “That makes him.”

Wheeler told the Observer on Wednesday that his granddaughter, Cannon School student Adele Marchant, 17, told him several weeks ago that he needed to be on YouTube. She then put a camera in front of him at his home on Mountain Island Lake in Huntersville and filmed four YouTube videos, including the one about the sport’s “corporatization,” he said.

Wheeler said he began thinking more about the sport’s corporate influences and the impact on attendance after hearing similar complaints from officials in other sports at the Global Sports Summit in Aspen, Colo., in August 2012.

“These sponsors want to do things their own way,” Wheeler told the Observer. “You gotta have them. But they want to purify things.”

Wheeler said he’s mentioned his concerns numerous times to Brian France, NASCAR CEO and chairman. NASCAR officials didn’t respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.

Don Miller, retired president of Mooresville-based Penske Racing South, told the Observer he hasn’t seen the video but that the sport “definitely has a problem ... There’s nobody in the grandstands.”

Miller, who chairs the Mooresville-based North Carolina Auto Racing Hall of Fame, said numerous factors likely are to blame for the attendance decline: the poor economy, the price of tickets, technical improvements to televised racing coverage, and, most especially, the 1994-95 Major League Baseball strike that sent droves of fans to racing venues.

“I think they have lost their base, which had always been the blue-collar guy,” Miller said.

Marusak: 704-987-3670; on Twitter: @ jmarusak
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