Commentary

Look into Humpy's crystal ball

Race cars with no wheels? Jeff Gordon III in the No. 24? Humpy Wheeler's crystal ball gives us a glimpse of the Daytona 500, circa 2059.

Updated: February 9, 2009, 5:51 PM ET
By Ed Hinton | ESPN.com

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- There have been 50 runnings of the Daytona 500. Fifty runnings hence, there will be more participants in the race -- hundreds of thousands -- than fans in the stands. Yet the parking lots will be practically empty.

You won't be able to hear the noise from miles away. Gasoline will be a long-forgotten fuel, and rainouts a long-forgotten concern. Wrecks will be the most horrific in the history of NASCAR.

Cars will weigh 2,000 pounds or less -- not much heavier than Indy cars today -- and NASCAR rules will hold the speeds below 300 mph, not the 200 mph barrier of today.

Points will be counted in dollars and tallied not just lap by lap but according to activity within each lap and will be registered instantaneously on a giant scoreboard.

There'll be two winners of each running of the 500, yet neither might be the driver who accrues the most points (dollars) from the race.

So foresees NASCAR's best-known soothsayer, Howard Augustus "Humpy" Wheeler, former president of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and its subsidiary, Lowe's Motor Speedway.

If you're getting a chuckle out of Humpy's forecasts by now, just remember how everybody laughed at him 25 years ago when he said superspeedways should, and easily could, be lighted for night racing.

Nobody believed him until he pulled it off in 1992 at Lowe's, and the big tracks have been adding lights ever since. Sunday's 51st Daytona 500 will finish under the lights.

[+] EnlargeThe Jetsons
Warner Bros./Courtesy of Getty ImagesGeorge Jetson's sky ride had one design flaw: Where do you stick the sponsor decals?

Humpy gladly goes where no one else dares to go: far into the future.

First I went to NASCAR chairman Brian France and reminded him he once told me he considers himself more like his visionary grandfather, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., than his pragmatic father, Bill France Jr.

So, Brian, since you fancy yourself the visionary, what will the Daytona 500 be like 50 years from now?

He didn't laugh in my face, but he did allow himself a healthy chuckle.

"I'm good," he said, "but I'm not sure I'm that good."

He wouldn't go half a century down the road, but he did envision the next decade, and his two primary objectives for NASCAR other than the staple of "putting the core racing product on the track."

No. 1 is "diversity, and I would hope that we would make a lot more progress over the next 10 years and have a more diverse fan base and a more diverse driver lineup," he said.

Next is going green. NASCAR wants to be as environmentally conscious as any industry, including "looking at whatever the emerging fuel is," said NASCAR's chief technical officer, vice president of competition Robin Pemberton. "I don't think we know what it is. But it's out there. It's gonna happen."

Willing to peer further on the sociological front was Marcus Jadotte, NASCAR's vice president of public affairs, who runs the Drive for Diversity program. Diversity is inevitable as NASCAR goes global, Jadotte believes, "as what had been the Third World increasingly becomes developed -- the global middle class, if you will," Jadotte said.

"The worldwide affinity for the automobile is projected to grow," Jadotte continued, "in places like China, all over Africa and Asia. Those are opportunities for developing global race fans, in addition to developing a more diverse group of fans here at home."

By now up to here in corporatespeak, I turned to Sprint Cup director John Darby, who ventured that "There might be no tires at all." He made a hand gesture like cars running on air. "Like the Jetsons."

Encouraged by that glimmer of futurism, I turned to the one man who has long devoted many of his waking hours to thinking about such things: Wheeler.

Humpy needed no prompting past the initial question. He launched right into 50 years from now, and forecast steps along the way, in an entirely orderly manner.

Much of it was Humpy-speak, which can be akin to reading Stephen Hawking on the nature of the universe. Sometimes I can quote him directly, but often I'll have to translate into 21st-century English.

"The first thing we have to look at 50 years from now is, are there going to be drivers in the cars?" he said. "I often tell drivers that right now, for about $3,000, they can be replaced by a combination of things from Radio Shack and the local hobby shop.

[+] EnlargeJeff Gordon
AP Photo/Mark AveryCould Ella Sofia's son -- or daughter -- be driving the No. 24 at Daytona in 2059?

"Obviously, if you didn't have drivers, you would have a serious personality void."

Translation: Wheeler for years has worried that NASCAR's biggest threat is not the other pro sports but personal video gaming at home by young people that distracts them from spectator sports -- and indeed, could divert them completely from careers as participants in spectator sports.

But for the sake of argument, we agreed to assume there will be drivers.

Fifty years from now, the problem of rainouts will have long been solved.

"I think the next big step is going to be a cover that goes over the grandstands and over the track," Wheeler said. "There'll probably be another section that goes over the pit road. But it won't go over the infield."

So there'll be more of a canopy complex, rather than a complete dome as with football stadiums, and therefore free-flowing air to dissipate carbon monoxide -- for the few years that fossil fuels remain.

"All of that is possible right now -- it's just an expense situation," Wheeler said.

"Before that happens, I think we're going to start running in the rain anyway," he continued. "Everyone pooh-poohs that idea, but that's also highly possible right now. If Formula One can do it, we can do it."

Goodyear has long maintained that Cup cars are too heavy for engineers to develop effective rain tires.

"Cars will get lighter and lighter and lighter," Wheeler countered. "That's because carbon fiber will get cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. … There'll be a composite 50 years from now that will be 10 percent the weight of steel."

Now to the racing itself:

"There'll be two winners of the race," Wheeler said. "There'll be the real winner, and then there's going to be the virtual winner. The race will be transferred to virtual racing -- which they can do now; you see it every week. You'll go into your media room [at home], and you'll have paid your $49.95, or $99.95, and you'll actually be in the race ...

"There'll be hundreds of thousands of people racing against you ...

"Jeff Gordon III [Humpy's hypothetical name for a future driver] is the real winner. Alonzo Hinton, the virtual winner, will find out immediately that he won the race." (I objected to such a name for a hypothetical grandson, but Humpy never even cracked the throttle.) "If Jeff Gordon III wins $25 million, then Alonzo will win the same amount of money.

"In fact," and by now Humpy was running wide open, "they'll celebrate together the next day at Daytona USA. Now Alonzo may be in Australia when he finds out he's won the race, but we'll have faster planes -- probably Mach 2 -- and he'll get to Daytona in six or seven hours, rather than the current 23 …

"The fan amenities will be extraordinarily different. The fans will get to most tracks by mass transit. They'll go to a central place, or the airport where they come in, or their hotel, and they'll be delivered right to the door."

So, "parking problems will disappear."

Further, "you won't need a ticket. When you [pay admission], you'll do so on your computer, and your eyeball [retina] will be scanned. The gate will scan your eyeball and you'll go right in.

The first thing we have to look at 50 years from now is, are there going to be drivers in the cars? I often tell drivers that right now, for about $3,000, they can be replaced by a combination of things from Radio Shack and the local hobby shop.

-- Humpy Wheeler

"Your seat will be quite interesting. It's going to conform to your own body, through pneumatics and so forth. It'll be extremely comfortable. You'll have concession service right to you. You'll have TV right there in front of you, and you'll be able to hear what every driver is saying in every car."

On behalf of all fans everywhere, I had to interrupt, to ask the most monumental question along these lines: What about going to the restroom? If you have all that beer delivered to you at your seat, will you then have restroom capability there, as astronauts have in their compartments?

Humpy was stumped. "I haven't gotten that one done yet," he admitted. But, "There will be five times as many restrooms."

One way or another, the beer will be dispensed with.

On the track, "there'll be higher speeds, but not 300 mph. Speeds that drivers can control."

Before restrictor plates, drivers were complaining that they were not in total control at 210-plus mph. But with lighter, safer cars with better grip, we could project, say, 280.

"The driver is going to be in an extremely safe place. But the wrecks are going to be terrible. The wrecks will be much, much, much worse than anything we've ever imagined because the cars will be going faster. Drivers will take more chances.

"Humongous wrecks. People will escape from them, but people will get hurt."

The safety revolution in NASCAR over the past 10 years will not suffice.

"The Car of Tomorrow is not going to be safe forever. … The safety of the drivers will be challenged, and it'll be something we'll have to look at."

There'll come a time when "I'm not sure there will be sponsors of race cars." Translating Humpynomics into English, the day might come when money is channeled from the television networks -- "We'll have a thousand channels" -- on to track owners for purses, with some to teams.

But Wheeler figures purses will be the bulk of team financing because "Points will be awarded solely on performance. Every lap. How many cars you pass, how many cars you repass."

NASCAR already has the technology to measure such action, and does, through its "loop data" retrieval from computers.

"If you don't pass, you don't get any points," Wheeler projected. "There'll be a tremendous amount of running to the front, and action in the front, to produce the kind of entertainment the public wants by now. The competition for the entertainment dollar will be 100 times greater than it is now."

Points will translate to raw dollars, and "At the end of the race, you'll still have a winner who's actually out front. But the guy who's out front may not make the most money that day. If somebody has really put on a show and done a bunch of passing, and maybe wrecks because he's trying to win the race, he may end up with more money than the winner.

"Certainly, at the end of the year, the points will go to the guys who didn't just run around the track trying to finish fourth. They'll go to the guys who have tried to win races and tried to run up front and tried to make passes."

With tires that last for entire races and refueling no longer a concern -- Wheeler figures electric power will be key; the evolution of the high-tech batteries in today's hybrid cars -- "pit stops will be literally a thing of the past," he said.

So they'll run 500 miles nonstop? Oh, no.

"We'll see a series of [regulatory] starts and stops. Not terribly different from the All-Star race today … a mixing of putting the leader at the rear of the field, things like that."

Wouldn't electric-powered cars be noiseless? Wheeler foresees synthetic noise, produced so that "people will know where the cars are on the racetrack at all times."

But, "You'll also be able to talk to people in the grandstands."

That will be welcome relief, Humpy figures, to fans who over time lose their taste for ear-splitting noise.

But wouldn't purists howl about all of this?

"The purist of today will have a myocardial infarction about what we're talking about. But the purist is not going to be in charge of racing, any more than the purist is in charge of what goes on NBC anymore.

"It's going to be totally, totally entertainment."

OK.

But at this point, I can think only of the words of Gen. George S. Patton at the end of World War II when he was informed that future wars would be fought with high-tech super weapons: "I'm glad I won't live to see it."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.