Contributed by: ACT Staff
How do race track owners get this kind of short track racing action and put people in the stands? Fewer are surviving and tracks are closing.
A couple of years ago H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, the clever and seasoned promoter extraordinaire of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, deemed the nation’s short tracks were in trouble and shutting down.
It was time for an update on the state of short tracking from him. Some of you might not completely embrace what he is going to say. [Like your Editor – Ed.] But he has the stripes and wisdom of long experience selling racing.
(PHOTO at right - H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler is one of the foremost racing impresarios in the country. He knows that short track racing is in crisis and has solutions – which all require reducing the cost of racing.)
For instance, he faced irate police when he dropped racing leaflets from a small plane to promote a short track race -- back when laundry was hung out to dry and wet clothes and paper didn’t mix so well and angry housewives called the law. Today he’s made Lowe’s and parent company Speedway Motorsports into a powerhouse. He’s got clear business vision, knows racing and entertainment better than anyone, and makes money at it.
OvalTracking.com: Do you remember saying short tracks were hurting?
Humpy Wheeler: I probably said that we are in a crisis with weekly racing. And we’re still in that crisis. The crisis has not passed. I‘m not sure it’s even peaked yet. Track after track have closed down. This might have been one of the worst years we’ve ever had – ‘06 – at the track level.
Yet there are tracks that did quite well. So the model is definitely changing. And the track operators and sanctioning bodies that can go with that model change, or help the model change, or even make the model change are going to survive. The ones that don’t just simply won’t. They just won’t.
We have, since the early ‘50s, lost a tremendous amount of short tracks across the country. A lot of has been due to urban growth. Speedways are more valuable as real estate than operating. The American public has a lot more diversification in entertainment than they ever had.
Home’s a great place now. You’ve got 300 channels. You’ve got HD TV. Your air conditioning works now, most of the time. The refrigerator’s got cold beer in it. What more do you want? How do you get ‘em out of the house? That’s a problem that maybe 25 years ago, we didn’t have as bad.
OvalTracking.com: Is there a way of knowing just how much worse it is these days?
HW: I don’t know what the percentage is. I’ll just say it’s epidemic. It’s truly epidemic. That’s why we started the 600 Racing deal with the Legends and Bandaleros and so forth -- was to get people where they could afford to race again. And not only be able to get into racing but to stay in it. Staying in it is where the big problem is today.
When you’ve got to buy $800 worth of tires to race every Saturday night, who can afford that? When you’ve got to buy $25,000 engines and you can only run seven or eight races in ‘em, how do you do that? How does a 19-year-old A.J. Foyt or Tony Stewart afford to do that? They can’t. Those particular guys can’t. The danger that we have is that we end up with the best race drivers being rich kids. Because that’s all the ones that can afford to race. And that’s something we don’t want. Because it’s not just for rich kids because some of them are good race drivers. We need to make it available to where people of modest means can race. Because that’s where the majority of great race driver have come from. OvalTracking.com: Other than your 600 Racing cars, what can local tracks do?
(PHOTO - One of Wheeler’s solutions to get people out from in front of their electronic entertainment centers and on track is to support spec racing like these Legend cars build on an assembly line.)
HW: Understand that America has changed and is not ever going to go back to the way it was. Too many people are living in the disco days. We’re not a nation of farmers anymore so we don’t have barns like we had to build race cars. We don’t have service stations that let us come in there and let us work on our cars and stick ‘em out in the front for advertising.
We don’t move into a house with a garage; we may move into a condo. Also, gas is astronomical and we may not be able to afford a big truck, a Ford F-250 or 350, we might only be able to afford a F-150. What does all that mean? It means that the racecar has got to get lighter. And the easiest way to make it lighter is to make it a little bit smaller.
Now you don’t want to make it too small so people can’t see it. We’ve got to realize this and we’ve got to get back to where you can get your parts in a junkyard. When we were racing cars that you bought the parts from the junkyard, that was when short track racing proliferated because every community’s got salvage yards and the cost of parts was cut in half at least.
And you can do a lot of your own work yourself. Well today, a significant amount of most racing parts, you’ve got to buy from a specialty house. They don’t make many of these -- the manufacturer -- so the price is way up. There are very few things you can get from a junkyard anymore, and that’s forced a lot of people out of the racing business.
I think that what’s going to have to happen also is that we’re going to have to build our race cars on assembly lines because that’s where you really cut down on the cost. If you build a roll cage on an assembly line, and you’re a farmer with a barn and a welder, you buy the tubes, and by the time you get through doing it, you have not saved any money from that assembly line roll cage.
But we’re not doing that. We’re doing it over here, and there’s a few other people too. But this has to happen across the country. We have to have assembly-line racecars because that’s why cars cost so much money now. With assembly lines, you can buy at OE prices, you don’t have to go to that speed equipment manufacturer and pay $900 for a $200 part that you can buy if you bought in quantity.
Also, whether people admit it or not, there’s going to be a significant amount of tomorrow’s racecars built offshore. Particularly spindles and parts like that that can be made for 25% of what you can make them for in the U.S. You’d be amazed at how many parts they are running right now that are built offshore.
OvalTracking.com: I saw dedicated oval track oil pans made for small block Chevys coming in from offshore builders years ago.
HW: That’s where it’s going. We’re not really a manufacturing nation anymore. We’ve become a marketing nation. So I’m sure it was an American company marketing that deal.
Cost is the critical thing. Most of your weekly shows run from 16 to 25 thousand dollars a night to run. That’s OK if you’re selling four or five thousand tickets -- which there’s only a handful of tracks that do that. So you’ve got to get the cost down. To get the cost down, you’ve got to get the purse down. To get the purse down, you’ve got to get the cost of the car down so people can afford to race it. Or we’re just going to continue to go down this rocky road.
OvalTracking.com: You’ve explained the car part of the equation, but is there something tracks can do?
HW: I think a track operator has got to understand they own the racetrack. They make the rules. The competitors don’t make the rules. And they need to make rules that are geared toward inexpensive racing. Be bold enough to say, ‘Okay guys, we are not having $25,000 engines. We’re not going to make you buy $800 worth of tires a race. You know, you have to run this tire and it lasts 12 races and the new set doesn’t do you any good.’ You’ve got to be bold enough to do that.
Quite a few promoters have done that. There are a lot of tracks that run the crate motors, for instance. But what’s happened? You’ve got to watch out. You put the crate motor in the car and then the guy starts spending a lot of money on the chassis.
So you’ve got to stop that. You start spending it on shocks. I mean shocks for Cup racing has just gone completely wacky. Go run tubular shocks. We used to run them and the cars worked fine. Put a shock rule in. Put a tire rule in. Put a gear rule in. Get an engine rule. If you put those kinds of rules in, there’s not a lot they can do to the chassis to spend a whole lot more money.
OvalTracking.com: Wouldn’t that send short tracks to Spec racing like IROC?
HW: It is, and that’s the only way this whole thing is going to survive. For all intents and purposes NASCAR is spec racing. Busch is going to be spec racing before it’s all over. Composite bodies, engines made by maybe one person, who knows.
You don’t care what kind of car is out there as long as it’s entertaining the fans. How it gets built, who builds it is immaterial. More important is: Can you pass? Can you have close racing and all that? This Car of Tomorrow is a great example of a spec race car - once they get it figured out – it’s going to result in much, much more competitive racing that the fans are going to like a lot better than they do now.
OvalTracking.com: OK, Humpy, if you were just coming into business today, would you open up a short track?
HW: I would. Sure. I’d still do it because it’s fun and it can work. But if I were doing it, not knowing what I know, I’d go up and talk to Tom Curley at Thunder Road first. Or the Vendettis at Seekonk. Or Todd Fisher at Susquehanna. Or Mickey Schwims down in Dixie Speedway in Georgia. Or Charlie Powell in Florence (SC). The guys that are making it work - the Deerys up at Rockford.
They’ll basically tell you just about what I just finished telling you because they all know that’s the answer. Some of them haven’t got that far yet with it, but others like Tom Curley, I mean he’s operating a track, he’s running it on the wrong night – Thursday night. He’s in an area that really doesn’t have a big population, Barry, Vermont. And I’ve been up there in July when it was 38 degrees and the place was packed. So he’s doing something right.
OvalTracking.com: Would your track be asphalt or dirt?
HW: I don’t think it makes any difference. If it were asphalt, I’d have some awful hard tires on the cars so they’d get sideways in the corners. If it were dirt, I would not have any dust. If I had dust, I’d pave it right then because, you know, hair-dos are 40 bucks today.
If they were saying they’d put goggles on and hats, there are a few people that will do that. But to get your consistent 5,000 people, they’re not going to do that. Roger Slack over here with our Tuesday Night Summer Shootout 10 race deal, we averaged 212 cars a night this year and he’s finished at 10:15 every night.
OvalTracking.com: What kind of people do you get for that?
HW: We get as good a crowd as anybody does with a weekly racetrack. We get around 3,000 people, sometimes 5,000. And that doesn’t include the back gate. The back gate with 212 racecars, I mean you’re going to get about 1,000 people just in the back gate.
As usual, ‘Ol Humpy may be ahead of the curve again.
Photos courtesy LMS/Harold Hinson
ACT thanks OvalTracking.com magazine for allowing us to reprint this article