Mike Hembree, NASCAR Scene
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Wheeler’s impact on NASCAR won’t be forgotten
It’s difficult to imagine more than 30 years after the fact, but there was no ticker-tape parade or grand celebration in 1975 when Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler marched onto the grounds of what was then Charlotte Motor Speedway to take charge.
What they combined to do over the next 33 years is one of the most impressive stories in motorsports – indeed, in all of professional sport. Now Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the track steadily became a showplace. For a sport that had embarrassing facilities in more than a few locations, Smith and Wheeler stepped in and put professionalism first.
The particulars of their arrival colored their early years, however. Smith, who built the track in 1960 but later lost it to financial problems, had returned to buy enough stock to regain control, and he put Wheeler in charge of day-to-day operations. Many people both inside and outside the sport weren’t especially impressed with the situation because Smith pushed aside Richard Howard, a good ol’ boy and very respected promoter who had rescued the track from the financial dump and who had great relationships with drivers and other key players in the sport.
Wheeler, though, had a strong background in racing and a reputation as a shaker and mover.
He shook. He moved. The ground beneath the track practically trembled.
Soon, Charlotte Motor Speedway was tossing up new grandstands, moving dirt here and there, knocking over the old white farmhouse/office out front and building a gleaming new office tower and skyline restaurant.
The crowds followed. Although the track eventually overbuilt during the go-go ’90s, when it appeared that a human could be found to fill every seat everywhere, CMS (and later LMS) became one of NASCAR’s prime locations. And Wheeler, at the helm and the architect of many of the changes, became a star. All without driving a lap.
Now, with Wheeler’s long run with Smith, Speedway Motorsports and Lowe’s Motor Speedway at an end (and despite the unsettling way his retirement was handled), one can look back across this part of his career and say that he did almost everything right. He can be forgiven for his few mistakes (like overzealous public address announcers and the unfortunate and probably illegitimate birth of Lugnut, the track’s mascot).
It is not a stretch to say that the three most important people in the development of NASCAR as we know it today are Richard Petty, Bill France Jr. and Wheeler. Petty is a no-brainer. He carried the sport on his back for many years, signing autographs for all-comers and becoming racing’s all-time ace ambassador, a role he still fills. France took the clay his father gave him and molded it into a wildly popular sport with stunning potential.
Wheeler? A former dirt-track promoter with his eye on the stars, he jumped into NASCAR racing as if it would become his playground. In many ways, it did. He took risks and cashed in on almost every one.
He often said that racing was all about tickets, traffic and toilets. Like many other fans (and he considers himself one), he had been to racetracks where he was afraid to enter the restrooms, where yet-undiscovered bacteria awaited. He insisted speedway restroom facilities be accessible and neat – including the ones for men. He scheduled elaborate prerace shows, not only to entertain fans but also to coax many to arrive at the track early, thus spreading out traffic and, hopefully, making access easier.
Along the way, Wheeler became a superstar of sorts, and that’s relatively tough for a racetrack promoter. Others copied his ideas, the ultimate compliment.
Only 69, Wheeler probably has other things to accomplish. No one would deny him a place at the beach, a big stack of books, a cool drink and a hammock. But it will be surprising if his smarts aren’t put to use in some other significant endeavor.
On his desk, Wheeler kept a big notebook labeled simply “Future”. Like France Jr., he appreciated the sport’s history, but he seldom looked back. He was pointed forward – to the next challenge and the next problem to overcome.
He framed the changes he brought to racing within a vision of progress. The sport he saw when he arrived more than 30 years ago is barely recognizable as the one that exists today, and he is in large part responsible for that fact.
NASCAR clearly needs a consistent rain policy
The only thing worse than being at a race track in the rain might be living on a small rock in the middle of a flood-swollen river with Bill Belichick for company.
Rain has been an unwelcome guest at too many NASCAR races over the years. In fact, wet weather’s attraction to stock car racing seems to have increased in recent seasons. It’s something that must be dealt with; sadly, about the only way to deal with it is to sit through it, throw down a few extra beers (or, in some cases, coffees) and wait for clearing skies.
Occasionally, racetrack rain delays provide time for productive activities. Crew guys enhance their football-throwing abilities. Drivers escape to their motorhomes to play with their video games or their children or their girlfriends. My buddy Larry Woody, a journalist from Nashville who’s always looking for ways to improve himself, claims he taught himself Portuguese during an infamously long rain delay several years ago at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
This does not surprise me. If I’m remembering correctly, I broke down an intensely difficult logarithm at the same event. I also noticed several fans, protected by raingear and plastic sheeting, working on a rewrite of the federal tax code.
The recent weather fiasco at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., was NASCAR at its weather worst. As if the track hasn’t had enough trouble attracting paying customers, Mother Nature hammered it as if track officials had some sort of penance to pay.
The California weekend was bad for the track, the drivers, the teams, the team truck drivers, the on-site television networks and the journalists who waded in the mud following everybody’s progress – or lack of it. Hit hardest, though – as always – were the fans, those folks who paid too much for tickets, too much to park, too much for food and then popped through the entrance gates to meet the track’s new mascot – some guy named Noah.
Clearly (an adjective not in use in Fontana), NASCAR should involve itself in serious discussions about better ways to deal with weather difficulties. Talks could start with the premise that there are no winners – other than maybe the coffee and hot chocolate merchants – when a cold, hard rain hits a speedway and settles in for what seems like 40 days and 40 nights. The realization that the fans are the biggest losers should be at the forefront of this discussion, however, because the ones sitting in the wet at the track and the 75 million (give or take a few dozen million) watching on TV have invested their money, time and recreational interest (and, in many cases, their vacation days) in committing their attention.
That being understood, in no case should fans be subjected to the farce that occurred at Fontana on Sprint Cup race day (night). To ultimately have the race postponed to the next day after hour upon hour of waiting irritated many fans – and rightly so. It’s understandable that NASCAR wants to make every effort to complete a race on its scheduled day, but when weather problems are so pervasive, other steps should be taken much sooner.
A reasonable solution: Announce that no race will be started more than three hours after its scheduled starting time. Doesn’t matter if the speedway has lights and theoretically could put cars on the track deep into the night or even early into the next morning (in the most ridiculous case).
It’s certainly tough on people within the sport when an event is postponed until the next day. Schedules must be shuffled and plans changed. For West Coast races, in particular, hauler drivers find their lives jammed by the loss of a day.
Still, it’s best to be able to tell fans when they enter a facility that they’re going to see the start of a race by a set time or they’re going to be returning the next day. This would negatively impact fans who can’t possibly return the following day, but at least everyone would start race morning with secure knowledge of the game plan.
Who’ll stop the rain? No one, but it can be addressed with a more consistent and sensible approach.
Hey! There’s no crying in racing!
There she was, basking in the glow of a long-awaited first win, her long hair springing from her helmet, the first part of her journey finally over. Danica Patrick had won a major-league race on the Indy Racing League’s visit to Japan.
The victory’s true significance will be debated for some time, but, in that moment, there was no denying the sort of mad bliss that seems to encircle everything in the winner’s orbit. It is like opening the door and having those guys from the Publishers Clearing House walk through. Happiness to the highest power.
Then, right in the middle of the joy of it all, Patrick started crying. There were the hugs, and the tears.
I thought an Oprah episode was about to break out.
Is there crying in racing?
In recent years crying in racing has come to be associated more with moaning and whining – about rules, scheduling, bad luck or the car formerly known as the car of tomorrow – than with joy or despair.
Patrick brought the “good” cry back, at least temporarily.
I can’t remember Dale Earnhardt Sr. crying after a win. Maybe I missed it, or maybe he sobbed like a baby when he got home. I sort of doubt it, though.
Cale Yarborough? That tough guy? He didn’t even cry when a rattlesnake bit him (by the way, the snake – not Cale – died).
Junior Johnson? He would have been hooted right out of the Brushy Mountains, his coon-hunting buddies carrying the tar and feathers.
No, there’s no crying in racing.
Or is there?
There was May 29, 1994 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway when Jeff Gordon scored his first Cup win. In victory lane, after a long 600 miles, Gordon cried in the arms of Brooke, then his girlfriend, later his wife. (Brooke perhaps drove Gordon to tears much later in their relationship, but that’s quite another emotional category).
There was crying at Atlanta Motor Speedway March 11, 2001 when Kevin Harvick edged Gordon by .006 of a second to win in Cup for the first time. More importantly, Harvick was driving as the replacement for Earnhardt, who had been killed at Daytona International Speedway the previous month. The win, scored in such dramatic fashion and so soon after the loss of Earnhardt, even brought tears from tough guys like Danny “Chocolate” Myers, a long-time Childress-Earnhardt crewman and confidante.
First wins and the eye fountains seem to coincide frequently. Such was the case last year at Charlotte when Casey Mears broke into the winners circle, also in the Coca-Cola 600. Roger Mears, his dad, readily admitted to unloading the tear ducts after watching his son make the long and tough transition from open-wheel cars to winning in NASCAR.
And what of the king, Richard Petty? Certainly his cool demeanor, long march with the trappings of celebrity and his familiarity with all things great and good couldn’t be dampened by emotional tears.
Sure they could.
When Petty scored an unexpected victory in the 1981 Daytona 500, thanks to a late-race pit-strategy call by long-time crew chief Dale Inman, it was Inman, normally somewhat of a stoic in such matters, who was awash in emotion in the victory celebration. Only a few people knew it at the time, but Inman was to announce two days later that he was leaving Petty Enterprises for another job, and the reality that his long trip with the Pettys had reached a crossroads, coupled with the emotion of the sudden victory, was a little more than Inman could handle.
A decade later, when Petty’s driving career came to an end at the close of the 1992 season in the long, late-afternoon shadows of Atlanta Motor Speedway, even the King was reduced to tears.
Jerry Punch, then and now reporting for ESPN, lost it, too, while trying to describe Petty’s emotions.
On that day, for a lot of us, there was crying in racing.
Edwards deserves salute for daring, risky move
With all due respect to Jimmie Johnson and the fact that he may be barreling to a third straight NASCAR championship, let us take a moment – more than a moment, actually – to praise Carl Edwards, the guy who didn’t beat Johnson on the final lap of the Camping World RV 400.
How many times have we seen drivers in Edwards’ situation – not really a close second, or maybe third through fifth – drift along behind the leader in the closing laps and be more than satisfied – elated, even – to finish second or third or fourth or fifth?
How many times have we heard drivers jump out of second-place cars and sound almost thrilled, counting all those “valuable Sprint Cup points” in their heads?
How many times have we heard drivers embrace The Big Picture, worrying so much about saving points that they won’t give serious thought to making a last-lap, potentially winning move that could go wrong and cost them 15 positions (and the corresponding number of points)?
How many? Too many.
So, with bland memories of all those races – How many? Too many – we’ve seen end with a parade of fast drivers crossing the line in a row and rushing to the point bank to collect those valuable Sprint Cup points, let us stop to praise Edwards, a guy who threw all that stuff to the wind in a noble attempt to win a stock car race.
As long afternoon shadows were moving across Kansas Speedway Sunday and fans were about to head home after watching a not-so-competitive race, Edwards suddenly turned the final two laps into two of the most exciting of the season. For Pete’s sake, against all odds a stock car race broke out.
As the race entered the final 10 laps, Edwards seemed destined to finish no better than second. Johnson had built a comfortable lead, and Edwards made tiny gains on him as the laps wound down. With three laps to go, Edwards had moved within shouting distance, but it was clear that Johnson had the better car and was going to be almost impossible to pass.
With two to go, Edwards poured on the coal. He approached Johnson’s bumper, but Johnson’s strength and lapped traffic made the thought of a bold pass difficult.
Leaving the second turn on the last lap, Johnson still had a lead that most observers would consider big enough to make victory virtually certain.
Then, out of the blue, Edwards began driving like Ayrton Senna or somebody. As the two cars approached the third turn, Edwards dove to the inside with a supercharged bolt of speed and passed Johnson. This was Edwards’ only shot at winning, and he knew the risks. Most of the risks lived in the imposing concrete wall that he was rapidly approaching, and the momentum he carried into the third turn while making the pass in fact sent him into that wall. As he bounced along it and the speed was trimmed from his car by the contact, Johnson went low, regained the lead and rolled on to the checkered flag.
It was one of the best final laps of the season. Edwards, his Ford mashed on the passenger side, managed to hang on to second when his spectacular move could have left his car in a smoldering heap.
It was great theater. It was the kind of racing people pay $100 and ridiculous food prices and highway-robbery parking fees to see. It makes traffic on the way home bearable. It’s great fun.
Edwards said he gave brief thought to driving the safe way home on the last lap. “I just figured, man, I’m not going to be able to live with myself,” he said. “It’s going to be hard enough to go to sleep today, but there’s no way I’d sleep a wink if I didn’t try something on the last lap. You got to try.
“I planned on hitting the wall, but I didn’t plan on it slowing me down that much.”
If Edwards had made that move – one more often seen on short dirt tracks – stick, he would have been one of the season’s most honored winners. Even finishing second, he deserves a salute.
And he still gets those valuable Sprint Cup points.