H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler announces his retirement.

There was a standing ovation when Humpy Wheeler walked into the media room.

Reporters, photographers and employees of Lowe’s Motor Speedway stood and applauded the man as he walked to the front of the room.

Humpy Wheeler forced a grin, but by the look in his eyes, you could tell he did not want to be there.

The 69-year-old general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway still has a lot of work to be done in his life — he just won’t do it at LMS anymore.

When asked if he was being urged out and if he was leaving on his own terms, Wheeler was short and cryptic.

“Some of it is,” he said, “some of it isn’t. I’ll leave it at that.”
When asked if he would have still play a role at the speedway, he said, curtly, “No.”

Noticeably absent from the room was Bruton Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports and Wheeler’s boss and partner in the motorsports business since 1975. While Wheeler danced around the question about “Why retire now?” throughout the hour-and-a-half press conference in the infield media center, ESPN later reported that the announcement was supposed to come after the race, but a disagreement between Wheeler and Smith prompted the announcement now.

Wheeler, always the promoter and always the friendly guy, had a subdued tone as told stories from his career

About meeting the Allison clan after the 1992 All-Star Race, when Davey Allison was in the hospital.
“When they get together, it’s like a convention. Everyone was talking and when Bobby stood up and yelled, ‘Shut up!’ we all knew that he was back mentally.”

Or talking about Dale Earnhardt, Sr. as a young man and young driver.
“He didn’t have the sophisticated qualities of speech we now demand from driver, but he could drive the pure hell out of a race car. We miss so much of that today, which is why I like Kyle Busch. He can drive a race car.”

Or when he convinced T. Wayne Robertson, an executive at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, to keep the All-Star Race in Charlotte — by lighting the track.
“We Southerners have a funny way of saying no. ‘Maybe’ is a no. ‘What else do you got?’ is definitely a no. So I came up with this great idea of lighting the track and have the race on Saturday night. I could see the flash in his eye, so I knew he would go for it.”

Or how the up-and-coming racing executives need to know the sport inside and out.
“The biggest thing is bringing in bright, young management that understand racing. Management needs to understand the drivers and the crew chiefs and get to know them. If you understand them, then you understand the product. We need racers running the sport — and in some cases that is not happening.”

It takes a lot out of a promoter, Wheeler said, to plan big events like the Coca-Cola 600, the Sprint All-Star Race and the Bank of America 500, not to mention the myriad other events that go on during the year at the speedway. He admitted that he had been thinking about retirement for about a year, but he has no intention of slowing down: A book deal, “The Humpy Show” on the Speed Network and chariman of the Charlotte Regional Partnership will keep him busy for the next year. He also said he wants to design a “grassroots” race car — one that could be bought for cheap and raced for cheap, so the young drivers could be cultivated.

But one thing is for sure: Lowe’s Motor Speedway will not be the same without Humpy Wheeler at the helm. Neither will NASCAR. He took a page from the National Football League, he said, and how it boosted its image so now it is arguably “America’s Sport.”

“They wrapped themselves in the Red, White and Blue,” Wheeler said.

And so has NASCAR. And it is largely due to Humpy Wheeler.

What we see now is the end of an era. Much like the retirement of Dale Jarrett at the All-Star Race last week, the drivers and promoters that built the sport into the juggernaut of entertainment it is today are leaving. Once confined to the Southeast, NASCAR is everywhere. And when something like gets so big, it tends to lose something.

Like Wheeler alluded to today, it is becoming more about the money rather than the drivers. (“There are lawyers and accountants in the offices now.”)

But the personalities behind the business are what drive the sport and the fans’ devotion, not sponsorships. Who cares what company sponsors what car? Only the executives do. The fans don’t — they care about the drivers.

And they care about Humpy.

During the pre-race introductions at the All-Star Race last weekend, Gov. Mike Easley took the stage and the crowd booed. But when Humpy Wheeler took the stage, the crowd in the grandstand went wild. And why not? He’s just one of them — just a good ole country boy that has done his best to entertain people.

Retirement should not — and I expect won’t — slow Humpy Wheeler down. He is still a force to be reckoned within NASCAR and American motorsports.

“I’m not saying it’s the best way to do it,” Wheeler said. “I didn’t want fanfare or to drag it out — you know, like ‘Humpy’s Last Year’. That’s the way it is, and that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Humpy Wheeler will get a standing ovation on Sunday from an adoring crowd who he has entertained for more than three decades. And they will mean it.

Because he cared about them.

— Ben McNeely

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