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.
He traced the sport’s struggles in part to Dale Earnhardt’s death.
“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.”
He 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 criticized corporate sponsors with “fancy people working for them that did not know what racing was all about.”
“They tried to change it. 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.”
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.