Wheeler Dealer

It’s been more than 20 years since I first came to Charlotte Motor Speedway to cover a NASCAR event. It’s been another 10 years since Humpy Wheeler became the best-known ringmaster in the circus known as motorsports. And in the decades since Wheeler brought his act to town, it’s clear there’s never been anyone like him in the history of our sport.

We’re closing in on another fall Race Week at what’s now Lowe’s Motor Speedway, and the rythym of October at the Concord, NC facility has returned. The Speedway gathered a couple dozen media members this week to reminisce about Wheeler’s 30 years at the helm, the growth of the Charlotte race track, and the incredible momentum NASCAR racing has achieved in America’s sports pantheon.

The next great racing book will document Humpy’s incredible career as a showman, a promoter…a species some believe is endangered in the sport. I think otherwise. Humpy Wheeler has trained an entire generation of leaders in the racing industry to think, to work hard, to know their customers as well as their athletes, and most of all to entertain. Look at the general managers of other Speedway Motorsports facilities….leaders and gentlemen like Eddie Gossage, Jeff Byrd, Ed Clark, and Jerry Gappens. Lauri Wilks. Chris Powell at Las Vegas. Rising stars like Scott Cooper, the current PR maven at Lowe’s. And so many more. These are the current and future leaders of professional, major-league motorsports at the facility level. They share Humpy’s vision and his passion for what makes this sport a spectacle like no other.

Of course Humpy will long be remembered for his pre-race shows. There’s no encyclopedia of such things but I believe Wheeler was the first to stage country and rock concerts before races, now a standard part of most major events. He was probably the first to recognize the value of a good fireworks display in conjunction with a big race. He’s involved enough in the nuts and bolts of an event to know how many caution periods his last Cup race included (23 in this year’s 600) and to know what that meant to hot dog sales. And he was absolutely the originator of military-based prerace shows, like the mock “invasions” and flyovers he’s staged at Charlotte for many years.

Back in the early 90’s when I joined TBS Sports in Atlanta to host their coverage of NASCAR events, I was just on the air from the old STP Pit Communications Center at Charlotte during a May race weekend, several hours before the start of the Coke 600.

I’d launched into our opening segment, getting set to interview drivers, dignitaries, and Hal Needham before bringing in our pit reporters and handing the show off to Ken Squier and Neil Bonnett. Standing under the then-very hot lights on a hot May Sunday, I nearly had the final heart attack when the first artillery shell exploded about six feet over my head. I knew there’d be a military element to the Memorial Day weekend prerace extravaganza but I had no idea just what that would mean.

As best I recall I was speechless for what seemed an eternity, but which was in reality only 6 or 7 seconds. I must have looked panicked because our producer, the legendary Fred Rheinstein, shouted into my headset “What the #@$%^&### are you waiting for, FRIEND?? SPEAK!!!” I gathered myself and continued…mentally planning to bring a flak jacket before the fall 500.

There were many such occasions over the next many seasons…and the magic continues.
Listening to Humpy spin yarns on a fall afternoon is one of the great pleasures of covering racing. Much of it may be blarney but it’s all good.

From the theater of posting ever-larger purse numbers to the creative arithmetic of leaking huge crowd estimates wherever possible, Humpy is the acknowledged master. He’s also a deep thinker about the business of motorsports, always a great source of quotes and off-the-record background material.

Retirement can’t be far away, but just like with his boss, Bruton Smith, and other giants of the industry such as Bill France Jr., Wally Parks, and a handful of others, I suspect it’ll be awhile before he leaves the center ring. Here’s hoping Wheeler has a few more
fanfares and flourishes left in his repertoire to keep us all enthralled.

By the way, there’ll be a race or two at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in a couple of weeks. Something about a “Chase for the Championship”? See you there.

Related Topics:

NASCAR Sprint Cup, 2005

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