Imedia Tour 2001:/I Day 4 Notebook

CHARLOTTE – Lowe’s Motor Speedway President and General Manager H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler says he’s got a great way to instill some much-needed personality into NASCAR racing.

His idea is certainly colorful and creative.

“What we need to do is get the track promoters all together to start a Winston Cup team,” Wheeler said Thursday during Day 4 of the UAW-GM Media Tour, hosted by Lowe’s Motor Speedway. “We’ll paint the car black and put a skull and crossbones on it. Then we’ll get Jimmy Spencer to drive the car. That ought to stir a few things up.”

While Wheeler was only jesting, he did say he had encountered public perceptions over the past year that NASCAR’s popularity had slowed down. To back that up, attendance figures at some tracks were down in 2000, and television ratings weren’t as high as they had been in the past.

Wheeler said NASCAR’s popularity still hasn’t peaked yet, but it has a ways to go to match that currently enjoyed by the NFL. In a word, Wheeler suggested the sport has become somewhat stagnant.

“We’re sort of like the dog that has caught the Mack truck, what do we do with it now?” Wheeler quipped. “What we really need is personality, some strong, young personalities. You look at what Tiger Woods has done to the PGA, and that’s what we need.

“We have to have personalities that go beyond the sport. We need to get someone on the cover of Time Magazine. It’s going to take an awesome personality to do that. Our whole deal is entertainment, what are we doing to entertain the fans. We haven’t peaked yet, because you can’t peak until you get to the top. There’s still a lot of room for improvement, and that’s going to be spearheaded by the new television package for the upcoming season.”

Speedway Motorsports Chairman and Lowe’s Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith was asked if perhaps his tracks needed a “free-behavior zone,” – where drivers could speak their minds about any subject or anybody – to drum up a little excitement.

“I’d say that’s a great idea,” Smith said. “I’m not advocating that there should be fights in the pits or anything like that, but drivers should be able to just tell it like it is. It seems like when they’re interviewed after an accident or something like that, they’ve all but calmed down about the incident.

“I’m not saying he should go on a swearing tirade or anything like that, but let’s not condemn a driver for showing his emotions. That’s the type of stuff that race fans really want to see.”

STILL A HOT TOPIC: After two days of testing at Daytona International Speedway, Todd Parrott is still convinced the Ford teams are at an aerodynamic disadvantage when it comes to the restrictor-plate tracks. The crew chief for Dale Jarrett’s No. 88 Taurus expressed his thoughts on the media tour’s stop at Robert Yates Racing.

NASCAR implemented new aero rules prior to last October’s Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and the Ford teams didn’t fare very well. In fact, the top-six finishers in the race were Chevrolets (Mark Martin, in a Ford, was seventh), and seven of the top-10 qualifiers were Monte Carlos.

“We feel better now than what we did at Talladega because they (NASCAR) have given us some relief,” Parrott said. “NASCAR has evened up the volume on the roof spoiler, but there are still some things that aren’t exactly even. Now there is less area for the air to hit the roof spoiler on our cars, and there’s still that two-inch wide rear spoiler on the back of the car that is acting like a parachute.

“I thought we went down to Daytona and tested well, but we’ll have to wait and see what the Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Dodges do before we’ll really know where we’re at. We saw what the race and qualifying was like at Talladega, so they’ll just have to keep playing with it until everything is evened up.”

The Chevrolet and Pontiac Winston Cup teams test at Daytona Thursday and Friday, and the Dodge teams are set to test at the 2.5-mile facility next Tuesday and Wednesday.

The top speed recorded by a Ford driver this week was 182.271 mph by Roush Racing’s Matt Kenseth. Jarrett’s top speed on the final day of testing Wednesday was 179.394 mph. Joe Nemechek, in the No. 33 Oakwood Homes Chevrolet, won the pole for the last race at Talladega at 190.279 mph.

NOT A JOKE: As part of Thursday’s stop at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, the Roush Racing family of Winston Cup drivers treated the members of the media to a ‘ride-along’ program in the seat of their race cars.

One of those Roush drivers – Mark Martin – used a brief press conference beforehand to downplay some of the jokes surrounding his move to the Viagra sponsored Ford. According to Martin, having a car sponsored by a product that aids sexually dysfunctional men is something that’s tricky, but worthwhile.

Martin was asked what he told small children when they asked who sponsored his car.

“I have a son too, so an age appropriate answer is what you need to give to your child, just like you would when they ask you where babies come from,” Martin said in reference to his 9-year-old son Matt. “I just told my son it was a medicine for a men’s health problem. If he were 16, I’d probably have given him a little bit different of answer than that.

“I really don’t feel like there is any problem with that because acceptance has been overwhelming. I have a lot of pride in being able to represent a company like this and be able to do some of the things we’ve got the chance to do. At this stage of my career, it’s going to be a good fit for me. I believe that, in the end, if we can improve or help improve the quality of life for some of these kids’ fathers, that will mean a lot more that having to explain it to my son.”

HABLA ESPANOL?: When the Winston Cup Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the April 1 Harrah’s 500, NASCAR and the Performance Racing Network will break down a language barrier. The race will be broadcast entirely in Spanish, and the syndicated PRN broadcast will be made available nationwide to all Hispanic radio outlets.

“Texas Motor Speedway is honored to participate in this inaugural project,” said TMS Executive Vice-President and General Manager Eddie Gossage. “There are more than 500 predominantly Hispanic broadcasting outlets in the United States, with one-third of them located in Texas. We believe this is a great opportunity for the excitement of NASCAR Winston Cup Racing to reach another segment of the market.”

Felix Sabates, a longtime Winston Cup car owner, will be an analyst for the race. Carlos Contreras, driver for the Mattel NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series team, will serve as one of the pit reporters. The balance of the broadcast crew will be announced later.

PRN also announced it will be joining forces with “Racing Country USA” for the 2001 season. “Racing Country USA” is a country music-oriented radio show that’s heard on nearly 350 radio stations across the nation.

MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON: President-elect George W. Bush has invited both Smith and Gossage to be a guest at his presidential inauguration on Jan. 20. Both will attend the inauguration to witness the swearing-in ceremonies of the former Texas governor.

They will also attend a “Black Tie & Boots Ball” honoring Bush the evening before the inauguration. Smith and Gossage will view the presidential parade following the inauguration from a balcony along the parade route as guests of the Vinson & Elkins law firm, and then will attend one of the inaugural balls.

“President-elect Bush has been very enthusiastic about his support of Texas Motor Speedway since we started,” Smith said. “He attended our 1999 Winston Cup event, his first exposure to our sport, and thoroughly enjoyed his visit.

“I want to congratulate all of you (the media) who went to the polls and voted Republican. We’ve got a wonderful president who loves racing and doesn’t smoke cigars. Those are two big plusses.”

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Monster Energy NASCAR Cup, 2001

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