After more than three decades in the business, NASCAR promoter calls it quits
By Ben McNeely
CONCORD — H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, longtime racing promoter and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway, announced last week that he would retire after Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600.
He ends a 33-year career that has seen NASCAR’s prominence in American sports rise to the top level.
Wheeler said he had considered retirement for about a year, and had talked about it with Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith.
“One thing led to another, and here we are,” Wheeler said. “It’s time to go.”
He said he had arranged a deal with an author to write a book about his NASCAR experiences and would continue “The Humpy Show” on the Speed Network. He also said he was looking forward to serving as the chairman of the Charlotte Regional Partnership next year.
When asked if he would have a role at Lowe’s Motor Speedway after he retired, he curtly replied, “No.”
There is no word on who would replace Wheeler as president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports and general manager of the speedway.
Absent from the press conference was Smith, who called Wheeler “a true legend in motorsports and his contributions will be missed,” in a released statement.
Smith’s son, Marcus, attended the press conference but did not speak.
Wheeler, 69, came to Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 1975 and is credited with some of NASCAR’s fan-friendly innovations — like night races and pre-game entertainment.
“I would go to the races as a kid and sit there, waiting for the race to start and be bored,” Wheeler said. “A lot of the entertainment came from that.”
Lowe’s Motor Speedway was the first superspeedway to be lighted. Wheeler came up with the idea when he had to convince Wayne Robertson, then an executive at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company and one of the leaders in the Winston Cup series.
“You could tell the ideas I pitched to him weren’t getting through,” Wheeler said. “His eyes would glaze over. Then I said to him, ‘What if we install lights and run the race on Saturday nights?’ And I saw the flash in his eye and I knew he wanted to do it.”
Wheeler hired MUSCO Lighting of Iowa to install a new type of lighting — that used mirrors to simulate daylight without light poles.
“A lot of distinguished people from NASCAR called me and said it couldn’t be done,” Wheeler said.
Catering to the race fan was Wheeler’s trademark, and he took pre-race entertainment to new levels — jumping buses, giant car-eating robots and lots and lots of explosions. Jerry Gappens, general manager of New Hampshire Motor Speedway, said Wheeler “personified the great characteristics of P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney and Don King.”
Gappens, who worked for Wheeler for 15 years before moving to New Hampshire, said people saw the promoter side of Wheeler, but he was also a great leader who stayed cool under pressure.
In 1999, when three spectators were killed and eight others injured at an Indy Racing League event after a tire flew into the stands, Gappens remembers Wheeler writing a few lines on a piece of paper and taking the P.A. microphone. He told fans that the rest of the race had been cancelled, to file out in an orderly fashion and to keep the victim’s families in their prayers.
“People walked out like they were leaving a church,” Gappens said, “and you know how people usually leave a race.”
The next year, the pedestrian bridge over U.S. 29 collapsed, injuring race fans. Gappens said Wheeler, again, stayed cool under pressure, organized the rescue effort and, the next day, had engineers looking at the bridge and how it could replaced and made safe.
As an industry leader and local business promoter, Wheeler would be missed, said John Cox, president of the Cabarrus Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Everybody knows Humpy,” Cox said. “He has the longevity and the history in the sport … and when Humpy says something, he has credibility to say that and no one is going to second-guess him.”
Wheeler said the best part of his job as a promoter was taking care of the fans.
“The big thing about working in this job is the involvement with people,” Wheeler said. “There are good things and bad things and those involve discussions, compromise and compassion. I hoped I have showed a lot of that.”
• Contact Ben McNeely: 704-789-9131.