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Humpy Wheeler Offers Up Some Cures

| , RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 11 2009
Humpy Wheeler still walks the garages and talks racing with reporters (in this case RacinToday's Rick Minter) and competitors. And he still has opinions.

Humpy Wheeler still walks the garages and talks racing with reporters – in this case RacinToday's Rick Minter –and competitors. And he still has lots of opinions.

By Bill Fleischman | Senior Correspondent

H. A. “Humpy” Wheeler is as far from a gloom-and-doom guy as you can find in racing. Anyone who saw his innovative promotions during his 33 years as president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway knows that Wheeler likes to have fun.

So when Wheeler sees attendance significantly off  for NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Daytona and Indianapolis last month, it upsets him. It also disturbs him when Allstate withdraws as the title sponsor for the Brickyard 400 at Indy.

While the economy is a major issue preventing thousands of fans from attending races, Wheeler also points to a problem he has been focusing on for years: better racing is necessary to bring back fans and retain sponsors. Wheeler advises NASCAR to look beyond the battered economy as a major reason for the decline in attendance.

“When a sport creates a lot of new fans, the most difficult thing to do is keep them,” he said. “What happens on the race track has more to do with it than anything. If you have dull baseball games, sooner or later people will lose interest.

“Too many guys are racing for points. I’ve never seen a fan buy a ticket to a points race. You need a points race, but you need to gear it to leading and winning.

“Double-file restarts will help, but when races run three hours you need excitement the whole time. If movies weren’t exciting or entertaining from start to finish theaters would die,:

Wheeler also says that NASCAR needs more personalities. Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya are two good examples of racers who generally say what they think. If it means standing up to NASCAR, good for them. Racing needs more drivers who are willing to speak their minds.
“Let them be themselves,” Wheeler said.

To provide more compelling racing for fans, Wheeler believes the cars must be slowed while also reducing costs for teams.

“If  you slow the cars down, particularly on the one- to two-mile tracks, you’d have closer racing and more passing,” he said. “The front-running cars, like Hendrick’s and Gibbs’, they wouldn’t like it because it would make the more independent guys more competitive. (But) the more competitive people you’ve got, the better racing you’re going to have.”

After retiring from Lowe’s Speedway, Wheeler has been active with The Wheeler Company. The Charlotte-based firm is a specialized event and motorsports management organization.

One of Wheeler’s projects is “Humpy’s Heroes.” Ten promising young racers, ages 15 to 21, pay to be trained on and off the racetrack. Working with Wheeler in the “Heroes” program are Sprint Cup driver David Ragan, former racers Buddy Baker and Andy Hillenburg and Gary Nelson, NASCAR’s ex-competition director.

Media training is one area where the young racers receive advice. Jokingly, Wheeler said in a Speed Channel interview that “We have a .357 Magnum and anybody who says `awesome’ (is shot). If you say `the boys back at the shop’ you get shot in the arm. We told them how to get their sponsors (mentioned) without saying the obvious.”

Noting the considerable number of trendy names among the young drivers, a smiling Wheeler asked “Where’s Possum Jones and Banjo Matthews when we need them?”

| , RacinToday.com Tuesday, August 11 2009