Humpy to retire
By Mike Cranston
CONCORD ó Humpy Wheeler announced his retirement as president and general manager of Loweís Motor Speedway on Wednesday, ending a 33-year career as one of NASCARís top promoters.
Wheeler will step down after Sundayís Coca-Cola 600 at the track near Charlotte. No replacement was selected for the 69-year-old Wheeler, who plans to write a book and host a television show.
Wheeler said he first considered retirement about a year ago, although he sidestepped a question on whether the decision to leave was completely his. Wheelerís boss is Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith, who hired Wheeler in 1975 and made him track president a year later. Smith was not present at Wednesdayís news conference.
iSome of it is on my own terms. I wonít say it all is,î Wheeler said. iSome of it is and Iíll let it rest at that.î
Reached at his office Wednesday afternoon, Smith denied he forced Wheeler out.
iSix months ago we had a meeting and he told me then that he had discussed retiring,î Smith said. iHe was laying the groundwork quite some time ago. It was not unexpected.î
Wheeler joked that his retirement announcement wasnít simply a gimmick to sell tickets for this weekendís race, before adding, ibut if it does, thatís OK.î
Wheeler has done almost everything to get fans to his track. He employed magicians, used back-flipping dogs, re-enacted war scenes in elaborate pre-race shows and emphasized driver rivalries to sell the sport and make his track one of the premier locations in NASCAR.
iWe did a lot of things to try to make it better for the fans, and he did a lot of that,î Smith said.
Wheeler was also behind several of the sportís innovations. To prevent NASCAR from moving the All-Star race to Richmond, Va., Wheeler vowed to make his track the first superspeedway to erect lights. The NASCAR Sprint All-Star race has made LMS its permanent home, and is now run on Saturday nights.
LMS, formerly Charlotte Motor Speedway, was also the first major track to reach a naming rights deal. Under his management, the track expanded its seating capacity to 167,000, and was the first track to offer extensive VIP suites, condominiums and extravagant pre-race entertainment.
iPeople that donít even know his name became NASCAR fans solely due to Humpyís creative promotions,î said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, who tutored under Wheeler. iI know that I am a far better promoter as a result of being a graduate of ëHumpy University.í î
New Hampshire Motor Speedway executive vice president and general manager Jerry Gappens compared Wheeler to P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney and Don King.
iHe entertained fans like P.T. Barnum by creating that three-ring circus atmosphere in Charlotte. Humpy had the vision to see into the future and paid attention to detail like Disney. He promoted every race like Don King promoted heavyweight title fights,î said Gappens, who worked under Wheeler at LMS for 15 years.
A tireless worker and cutthroat negotiator, Wheeler spent countless hours at the track and befriended numerous drivers. He was known as a stickler for details and was a calm influence during tragedy.
Wheelerís lowest point came in 1999, when three spectators were killed and eight others injured from flying debris after a wreck during an Indy Racing League event. Wheeler immediately canceled the rest of the race and the IRL has yet to return to the track.
iAs long as I was running the place there would not have been another one here,î Wheeler said.
Wheeler also helped develop other forms of racing. He was instrumental in the creation of the Legends Car and said he hopes to develop another low-cost car that will help make sure talented drivers donít miss out on the sport because of the cost.
iThe biggest thing that worries me about racing in the future is we donít get the great race drivers,î Wheeler said. iThat we leave out the next Kyle Busch or the next Dale Earnhardt Sr. because a guy canít afford to race and gets stuck in the cornfields of Iowa.î
Heíll have no consulting role with the track after Sundayís finale. Wheeler will become the chairman of the Charlotte Regional Partnership in 2009 and could be considered for a post at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is scheduled to open in 2010 in downtown Charlotte.
iItís just one of those things. Itís time to go,î Wheeler said. iItís not something Iím really looking forward to. But there just comes a time and place when youíve got to move on.î