H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, one of stock-car racing’s great showmen, will take his final bows as president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway this weekend.
The Observer has learned that Wheeler is retiring from his post at the track, where he has served as almost equal parts businessman and ringmaster since 1975.
"Great events people create the illusion that something is going to happen at an event that’s so great and unique that you’ve got to be there," Wheeler once said when asked about his philosophy as a promoter. "Then they make that illusion become reality." Wheeler said Tuesday he could not officially confirm he’ll end his tenure at the track as he oversees his 33rd running of the Coca-Cola 600, NASCAR’s longest race.
But sources confirmed that Wheeler, 69, is leaving. He is working on a deal for a book about his more than 40 years in racing and will likely do more episodes of "The Humpy Show" for the Speed cable network, which aired a one-hour debut in January.
"He’s a combination of Don King, Walt Disney and P.T. Barnum," said former Lowe’s Motor Speedway vice president Jerry Gappens, now president of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, when Wheeler was named to the National Motorsports Press % Association Hall of Fame in 2004.
Like King, the boxing promoter, Wheeler can "take an event and make it seem like it’s the biggest thing in the world," Gappens said.
"He also has always had a vision of what the future is going to look like the way a Walt Disney or people like him did," Gappens said. "And certainly, he’s known for being a showman like P.T. Barnum, somebody who has always understood the importance of always having something going on all of the time."
Howard Alden Wheeler was born in 1938 in Gaston County. He inherited his nickname from his father, Howard Sr., the athletics director at Belmont Abbey College, who was first called Humpy by football teammates at the University of Illinois after the elder Wheeler was caught smoking Camel cigarettes.
Wheeler played football at the University of South Carolina and was an amateur boxer, but a lifelong fascination with the automobile eventually won out.
As a lad, Wheeler hitchhiked to races at Charlotte Speedway, the dirt track where NASCAR’s strictly stock series – now Sprint Cup – ran its first race in 1949. He talked his way into driving his first race when he was 15, and before he graduated from college in 1961 Wheeler had won races at a quarter-mile track in Newberry, S.C.
After college, Wheeler worked as a sportswriter, for a local radio station and as a public information officer for the city of Charlotte. He also promoted races at tracks in Gastonia, Concord and Monroe. He wound up as director of racing for Firestone, which helped him gain knowledge and make contacts across a wide swath of the industry.
"That was my real degree in motorsports," Wheeler said.
He came to what was then called Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1975 after Bruton Smith regained control of the track Smith had helped build in 1960.
For the next 33 years, Wheeler helped make Lowe’s Motor Speedway a model for the modern race track and build Speedway Motorsports Inc. into a company with a market capitalization of $1.17 billion.
Wheeler shared in the wealth. According to SMI’s annual report, Wheeler’s 2007 compensation totaled $1,185,258.
Wheeler’s first World 600 was in 1976, and when Janet Guthrie failed to make the field in her bid to be the first woman to race in the Indianapolis 500, Wheeler helped arrange a car for her to drive in the NASCAR race that same weekend.
"We sold every ticket we had," Wheeler said.
Wheeler believed that most people who bought tickets to come to races led what he called "black-and-white" lives. "They want a little Technicolor in them," he said.
Wheeler provided it, sending school buses jumping into stacks of smashed cars and employing a 40-foot tall, fire-breathing, car-eating robot in his prerace shows.
During one show Wheeler heard a couple of reporters asking what the track might come up with next. "Dancing bears?" one asked. Wheeler thought it was funny and the next year staged a prerace circus on pit road.
With the track’s 600-mile race on Memorial Day weekend, Wheeler’s extravaganzas in recent years have centered on saluting the American military.
Lowe’s Motor Speedway has more than doubled its seating capacity to around 160,000 seats during Wheeler’s tenure. He was there when condominiums were built in Turn 1, when the track added a Speedway Club restaurant that’s open all year and when Speedway Motorsports Inc. went public.
Wheeler has been a friend, an advisor and a mentor to scores of race car drivers. Some, like Dale Earnhardt, went on to become the sport’s biggest stars. He has helped many others get their starts in other areas of the industry, has served on dozens of boards of civic organizations and has won countless awards for his service to racing and to his community.
Through it all, however, he’s kept his perspective.
"We’d had a great event and we were sitting there talking one day," said Ed Clark, another former employee who now is track president at Atlanta Motor Speedway. "He looked at me and said, ‘Don’t start feeling too satisfied. If you do, put on some old clothes and walk down the street to see how many people will pick you up. You’ll quickly realize you’re no different from anybody else. Don’t get too proud of what you’ve done.’"