NASCAR Drivers Taken To School In Bus Race
June 15, 2000 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The latest promotion of H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler -- the P.T. Barnum of auto racing -- proved one thing: NASCAR aces talk a better bus race than they drive.
"It's not fair! My bus was short 200 pounds of downforce!" Stewart cried, joking.
"We're filing a complaint," Spencer declared, continuing the fun. "Who's in charge of this circuit? Mike Helton?"
No. NASCAR's chief operating officer was in the clear.
"I'm guilty," track president Wheeler said.
Spencer and Stewart were headliners in the bus race, a 10-lap event Tuesday night along the frontstretch of the speedway. Starting from the back of the eight-bus field, the two Winston Cup drivers competed against a mix of local radio personalities and Lug Nut, the track's mascot.
Stewart had maneuvered himself into fourth place by the second lap, and Spencer was right on his rear bumper.
He made it three wide in the frontstretch, but was caught in traffic and lost control in turn four. Spencer slid high toward the grass on two wheels and sent most of the protective barrels flying.
"I told Jimmy not to go up onto two wheels," Wheeler said from his perch along pit road. "The thing with Jimmy is if you want him to do something, tell him not to do it."
That left Stewart, driving a school bus for the first time in his life, alone to battle Lug Nut for the lead. Stewart hugged the turns tightly, but couldn't hold his racing line on the straightaways.
Lug Nut beat him to the finish line by almost three bus-lengths. Spencer finished sixth.
"I can't believe we got beat by a guy with a lug for a head," Stewart said.
Spencer, whose left side mirror dangled from his bus after the race, accused the radio guys of blocking him when he tried to move through traffic.
If there was a conspiracy against Spencer, it was appropriate.
Wheeler launched the bus race two years ago to kick off the track's 10-week summer series. Only local celebrities participated in the first race. But Spencer -- nicknamed Mr. Excitement -- was added last year to spice it up.
He didn't disappoint anyone.
Legend has it that before the race Spencer enlisted drivers Boris Said and Ernie Irvan to help him disconnect spark plugs in the rest of the buses. Half the drivers couldn't crank their engines, and Spencer drove to victory.
Those high jinks were just what Wheeler wants. The crowd has grown every year, and about 3,000 fans plunked down $5 each Tuesday night to watch.
"I confess, I'm looking for fun," Wheeler said. "That's what it's about."
The racing didn't stop after the buses crossed the finish line. Winston Cup drivers Chad Little and Steve Park competed in a 10-lap Grudge Match in convertible stock cars.
Little knocked down the barrels, then cheated by cutting across the grass to get back in front of Park on the last lap. Cheating is allowed, but for tearing up the sod, Little will get a bill from Wheeler, who might need cash to pay off one of his whacky past promotions.
In the most popular, a helicopter showered the crowd with money.
Wheeler will try virtually anything. Once, he re-enacted the invasion of Grenada.
He's sent paratroopers to rescue Lug Nut from enemy forces, and had a trapeze artist perform while hanging from a chopper.
Once, he wanted to stage a man vs. shark "One Must Die" competition. His staff talked him out of that one.
But Wheeler saw an opening for a shark when, at the height of their 1980s rivalry, Cale Yarborough called fast-talking Darrell Waltrip "Jaws."
Wheeler had a dead shark -- symbolizing Waltrip -- dragged behind a tow truck with a dead chicken -- symbolizing Yarborough's sponsor -- in it's mouth. Neither driver appreciated it, but the crowd went wild.
"He's a combination of P.T Barnum, Walt Disney and Don King," track spokesman Jerry Gappens said. "He promotes like Don King, he entertains like P.T. Barnum and he has a futuristic outlook like Walt Disney.
"He comes from a time when you needed to find a way to sell tickets. I don't think there will ever be another Humpy Wheeler."