Humpy Wheeler: Mayhem matters
I didn't like NASCAR much growing up. Oh, I was a huge race fan, all right -- but of the "outlaw" short tracks with their lightning-action, 10-lap heats and 30-lap features on half-mile tracks. Wham, bam, in 10 to 15 minutes, flag to flag, you had a winner.
Each race was a sprint, not a marathon. The beginning and the end came back-to-back. No middle stages.
NASCAR's 400- and 500-milers dragged on for hours, for reasons not at all clear to me, except just to be able to say they'd run a long way.
Well, I grew up and learned you could get paid for writing about those long races, but not the electrifying short races. NASCAR was an acquired taste.
Daytona and Talladega were thrilling because the cars stayed bunched in the draft, shuffling kaleidoscopically on the banking. And Cup races on the handful of short tracks were fine.
But on the intermediate-size tracks, where cars tend to get strung out -- well, I must admit to yawning from time to time. Appreciation of the art of pit strategy goes only so far.
Meanwhile, the outlaw tracks withered and died under NASCAR's marketing onslaught, and the weeds and pine saplings grew up through the cracks in the abandoned asphalt all across America.
Over the decades I came to accept all that.
But now, 40 years on, I think I've come full circle. I'd like to see the lightning action back. What's more, there is reason to suspect that the American public, with its ever-dwindling attention span, is right here with me now.
Most of all the younger demographics, so coveted by advertisers, seem to want everything to be wham-bam-see-you-bye-bye.
That's why TV highlight shows are so popular. You get only the best parts of any event.
All this occurred to me the other day in conversation with H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, long considered the master promoter in NASCAR, first as president of Charlotte Motor Speedway and then as president of the Speedway Motorsports Inc. track-owning conglomerate.
Just because he is four years retired from SMI, and is now more focused on promoting a proposed Formula One race in New Jersey, doesn't mean that Wheeler ever stops thinking about how to improve the shows in stock car racing.
He has this way of finding the essence of any problem -- the problem at hand being the general malaise among the public, mainly toward the predominant intermediate tracks on the Cup tour. Fans often yawn through the tedious "middle stages" that separate dramatic beginning from dramatic end.
Often the cars just get too strung out. At those stages NASCAR loses its distinction from Indy cars and F1.
"Anywhere the cars were crowded, NASCAR worked," Wheeler said. "Gave the fans what they wanted.
"Cars are crowded at Daytona and Talladega," he continued. "When they got un-crowded with the two-car drafting, NASCAR went in and did something about it.
"And they returned to the mayhem. And that's what people want. They want the mayhem," he said.
"At the intermediate tracks, you don't have the mayhem."
And that is the essence of a complex problem. Even by the narrowest definition of "intermediates" -- tracks of 1.3 to 2 miles -- such venues host 15 of the 36 Cup races and five of the 10 Chase races. Throw in all the tracks of 1 mile to 2.5 miles with low banking, which have most of the characteristics of intermediates, and you have 24 races, two-thirds of the schedule.
Two 1.5-mile venues are at hand, Texas this weekend and Kansas the next. So consider Wheeler's points as you watch the middle stages of those races. Consider the "mayhem," or lack of it.
"So what do you do?" Wheeler continued. "Well, maybe it's time we changed formats. You'd cause upheaval with a lot of people by changing the format."
That would depend on who could understand, and how soon, that you're "changing the format to get the cars crowded," as he put it.
I perceive two factions within NASCAR Nation now: those who came up through the old outlaw Saturday night short tracks, and those who were attracted by watching Cup races on television.
The former will grasp Wheeler's idea right away. The latter will guffaw until they get an explanation, but then may become the truest believers of all.
"How do you get the cars crowded on a mile-and-a-half track?" Wheeler asked. "You run heat races, you run a ‘'B Main,' and you run a '‘Main.'"
In other outlaw-track terminology, you would run heats, a semi-feature and a feature. High finishers would advance, or "transfer," as they say in sprint car racing.
So rather than running one long race, you'd run four or five races at the same track on the same day.
"And the cars are gonna get crowded," Wheeler said. "You're gonna jam 'em up and have some fun."
Keep on with the hundreds and hundreds of miles, and "you're gonna have this drone time between the first 20 percent of the race and the last 20 percent of the race."
NASCAR has of course halfway dipped its toes into short-race formats with the All-Star race and Bud Shootout. But those are exhibitions, not even points races, and their formats keep changing.
This year's All-Star event has drifted closer to heats-and-feature format, but not close enough. Four heats are 20 laps each, the final segment only 10. By true short-track tradition, heats are shorter than the feature.
Wheeler, himself an outlaw-track promoter in his youth, would adopt the heats-and-features format for points races at the intermediates and their like. (I would even add consolation races for those who don't qualify for the features or "mains," because some of the best racing I've ever seen was among the equally have-nots in the "consies" on the little tracks.)
"If certain tracks can't deliver close, tight racing and avoid that long two-thirds of dullness," Wheeler said, "people are going to continue to not go, and then watch the highlights on TV on Sunday nights. People say, 'Yeah, I saw the race -- pretty good.' Well, the only things they saw were the parts people like -- the start, the crashes and the ending."
We've certainly looked at different formats when it comes to 'non-points' events, but for points events that determine who is going to be champion, we believe a consistent format works best.” -- NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp
Then it hit me: The outlaw-track heats and features of my youth were live highlights -- beginning, crashes, finish, right there before your eyes -- no need for editing video. Both sides of the NASCAR Nation dichotomy, the short-track initiates and the TV initiates, share the same complaint: The boredom with the droning-on of races on the intermediates and the other largely dull tracks, Indianapolis itself being arguably the worst.
Both sides yearn for answers, solutions. The old guard will recognize immediately how Wheeler's formatting would work. The new wave should understand that this would cure the attention-span issues and at the same time go back to stock car racing's deepest roots.
Will it happen?
Probably not. At least in the foreseeable future. It's just too radical a departure for a league built on long races.
Indeed, "What's worked for NASCAR over the years has been consistency in the format of our events, whether it be at an intermediate track, superspeedway, short track or road course," Kerry Tharp, NASCAR senior director of competition communications, responded in an email. "That consistency has been a part of determining the series championship."
And this is key: "It's what the fans and those involved in the sport expect on a week-in and week-out basis," Tharp continued.
I had a college roommate who was a NASCAR fan.
"How," I asked him, "can you sit through Talladega or Atlanta until you get calluses on your butt?"
"If you were a true NASCAR fan, you'd be willing to stick with it all afternoon," he said.
For decades I saw legions bear him out.
Now I wonder how many like him are left.
"We've certainly looked at different formats when it comes to 'non-points' events," Tharp said, citing the All-Star race and the Shootout, "but for points events that determine who is going to be champion, we believe a consistent format works best."
Forty years on, I think I was ahead of my time. Looks like even now, the conversation Wheeler and I had went another 40 years too far.