NASCAR Could Use Another Dose Of Humpy Wheeler’s Genius
As the PA announcers like to proclaim, "The Stars And Cars Of NASCAR," will be at Charlotte Motor Speedway soon for the Bank Of America 500.
Jimmie Johnson, the five-time Cup Series champion, will be there on Oct. 15. So will Kyle and Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Mark Martin, Greg Biffle, Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and the rest.
One star who won’t be there: Humpy Wheeler.
And that’s still difficult to fathom.
From 1975-2008 Wheeler oversaw the track's part of the major NASCAR shows.
Then, quite suddenly, he was let go as president and general manager in May of ’08 by Bruton Smith, majority owner and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which includes the expansive 1.5-mile Charlotte raceway. A series of disagreements between the two, formerly close friends, led to the rupture.
Never mind that Wheeler then and now is recognized as the greatest, most colorful promoter in NASCAR history, dating to the late 1940s.
When Wheeler came to the track, Smith had just regained control of the facility he founded. The late Richard Howard had run it since falling into bankruptcy in the early '60s.
Humpy was a natural choice.
He had promoted short-track races in the Carolinas with great success. Then he led Firestone Tires' efforts in various forms of motorsports. He knew racing thoroughly from many angles, perhaps most importantly the key people to deal with.
Almost immediately, Humpy brought the same flair - sometimes outrageously - to Charlotte Motor Speedway that had drawn crowds to his short tracks.
He created big pre-race shows, in part to entertain fans, but mostly and ingeniously, to encourage them to arrive early. This helped ease traffic jams in the couple hours before races were to be green-flagged.
Among his spectaculars, he had "Jimmy, The Flying Greek" jumping a long line of junk cars in a school bus.
He enlisted the military to take part on Memorial Day weekends, re-enacting battles like Grenada and the first Gulf War.
He brought in a circus, which was a natural, because Wheeler had become known as "The P.T. Barnum Of Racing" and also "The Ringmaster."
The appearance of the circus led to an especially amusing incident.
NASCAR officials, led by vice-president Les Richter, delighted in occasionally "rattling Humpy's cage," as the saying goes.
Richter ordered that the circus, staged on the grassy area along the homestretch between the racing surface and pit road, couldn't include any elephants. "They might go wild and damage the race cars lined up on pit road," explained Richter, undoubtedly with tongue in cheek.
Characteristically, Humpy stood firm.
"There will be elephants," he insisted. "We've advertised them, and the fans are going to see 'em." Then, he invoked a motto that prevailed throughout his career as a promoter, "The show will go on!"
For a couple hours there was an impasse, then Richter relented, ordering that tarps be placed over the cars as protection.
As if a tarp could save a car from a rampaging elephant.
Humpy Wheeler stories such as this fill books. Among my favorites:
Once a major TV network, airing a Charlotte race for the first time, ruefully learned just how tough Wheeler, a former champion in Golden Gloves boxing, could be.
High network executives decided that the sponsor names of teams wouldn't be used during the telecast if those companies hadn't bought advertising time while the race was being carried. It was out-and-out blackmail
Team owners howled. Howling loudest of all was Humpy, always a strong advocate for the competitors.
When the network brass wouldn't yield, Humpy sent a very large wrecker to where the TV control trailer was set up. The hook ominously was attached to the trailer, the very heart of the telecast.
"Unless ALL the sponsor names are used and the logos shown, we're going to tow it away!" he declared emphatically.
The network quickly caved in.
Would Wheeler really have had the control center towed away?
I have no doubt the answer is yes for this iron-willed man. Never mind that cables were attached and the director and engineers were still inside.
These are among the many, many reasons Humpy, who now owns a Charlotte-based consulting company, is missed so much.
The biggest losers in him no longer being at the track are the fans and the drivers and their teams.
Considering the way things have been going lately for the Cup Series - falling attendance and low TV ratings - it seems to me it’s a no-brainer there should be a spot somewhere in the sport for Wheeler, a promotional genius.