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 didnt 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 countrys fastest-growing pro sport, has grappled with perhaps its most troubling ongoing challenge: declining ticket sales.
Securities filings for NASCARs track owners for 2006 through 2011 show Charlottes Speedway Motorsports Inc. has lost more than a quarter of its admission revenue, falling to $130 million. NASCARs 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 sports struggles in part to Dale Earnhardts 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 mans driver that we had. He was a mechanic.
Wheeler said cars have become too expensive, preventing grass-roots drivers from rising in the sport.
Were not getting all the best drivers because they dont talk right, they dont look right, they may not be corporately inclined, he said. Corporations, to a certain extent, have put us into this.
He mentioned Mooresville-based Lowes 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.
Lowes spokesperson Chris Ahearn said the company wont comment on Wheelers remarks, but we respect everyones opinion and right to post those opinions.
Weve been a supporter of NASCAR and have been for decades, she said. Its 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 didnt come to the race track. They didnt 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. Hes 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 sports corporatization, he said.
Wheeler said he began thinking more about the sports 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 hes mentioned his concerns numerous times to Brian France, NASCAR CEO and chairman. NASCAR officials didnt respond to requests for comment on Wednesday.
Don Miller, retired president of Mooresville-based Penske Racing South, told the Observer he hasnt seen the video but that the sport definitely has a problem ... Theres 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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