Open-Wheel Racing Just Doesn’t Fly In North Carolina

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HICKORY, N.C.
After Shane Hmiel won the USAC Mopar National Midget Series feature last week at legendary Hickory Motor Speedway, I was angry and wanted to find someone to blame.

It had been an enjoyable evening of racing on virtually every front. Temperatures had reached 75 degrees in the late afternoon and dropped to only about 60 by the time the final checkered flag was waved. There was an impressive field of 24 USAC midgets, including seven series champions, and 23 USAC Ford Focus midgets in the pit area.

And for any true racing aficionado, visiting Hickory Motor Speedway is like a football fan watching a game at Lambeau Field or a baseball fanatic cheering the Red Sox at Fenway Park. It was almost as if you could hear names like Earnhardt, Jarrett, Gant and Johnson echoing from the aging public-address system while stars such as Darland, East, Hines and Kuhn waited to be pushed off.

But what should have been a perfect night of racing ended in disappointment for this longtime open-wheel fan who now makes his home in the heart of stock-car country. And the disappointment had absolutely nothing to do with what took place on the race track, but was the result of an extremely small number of spectators in the grandstand.

By our count, there were 131 people in the seats just before 7 p.m. There were a few more that came in after that and several people moved from the infield pit area to the stands once racing started. But the bottom line is that PTA meetings often draw bigger crowds than attended the USAC Mopar National Midget Series’ first race at “America’s Most Famous Short Track.”

There had to be a reason for such a small turnout and this writer was on a mission to find someone to blame.

Was it the fact that the race was on a Wednesday night? Was it a lack of advance publicity and promotion in the Charlotte market? Was it a lack of support from those who work in the NASCAR industry? Was the track too far from Charlotte for a race of this type to work? There were several reasons running through my head, but I finally realized none of them were responsible for the tiny crowd.

Instead, I’m convinced the USAC midget race was the victim of the racing culture in North Carolina. Plain and simple, this is stock-car country and I’m sure we’ve all heard, probably much more than once, a devoted stock-car fan proudly proclaim, “I wouldn’t walk across the street to watch an open-wheel race.”

There are thousands of stock-car fans who live in and around Hickory, N.C., and some of them have been regulars at Hickory Motor Speedway since the gates were first opened in 1951. But on March 24, they definitely demonstrated they won’t walk across the street, or drive down the road, to watch a USAC midget race.

A strange twist to this entire situation is that Hmiel won the 40-lap midget feature in convincing fashion. Hmiel is the son of longtime NASCAR crew chief and team manager Steve Hmiel and he grew up in Pleasant Garden, N.C. He honed his skills racing stock cars on the paved tracks of the Tar Heel State, including the .363-mile Hickory oval.

USAC took a huge gamble by bringing its Mopar National Midget Series back to North Carolina. It was a gamble it lost — and we’re afraid it was an expensive loss.

It’s hard for those of us who enjoy all forms of racing to admit, but there are certain types of race cars that simply don’t sell tickets in certain regions of the country. Open-wheel racing has always been a tough sell in North Carolina and we don’t see that changing.