"Humpy" Celebrates 30 Years at LMS
Hired in 1975 by track owner Bruton Smith, Wheeler, 66, has utilized his innovative style of entertainment promotion and extensive motorsports background to transform the 1.5-mile superspeedway into one of the world's leading sports facilities.
Born in Belmont, N.C., Wheeler attended the University of South Carolina on a football scholarship and was also a very successful amateur boxer, compiling a 40-2 record in Golden Gloves competition.
Wheeler graduated in 1961 with a degree in journalism and prior to joining Charlotte Motor Speedway worked as a sports writer, a television director, a real estate manager and a dirt track promoter. He also served as director of racing at Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. during its most visible years in the sport.
Under Smith's guidance and Wheeler's management, Charlotte Motor Speedway expanded its seating capacity to 167,000 and became the first modern superspeedway to install lights for night racing. The speedway was also the first to offer extensive VIP suites, condominiums and extravagant pre-race entertainment.
Wheeler and Smith were also part of another first in 1995 when they went public with Speedway Motorsports, Inc., the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange. In addition to serving as president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, Wheeler is president of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. which owns and operates six premier motorsports facilities.
Wheeler recently sat down with Jerry Gappens, Charlotte Motor Speedway's senior vice president of events, for a question-and-answer session:
Q: What do the initials H.A. stand for and why the nickname "Humpy"?
Wheeler: "Howard Augustine and the 'Humpy' nickname came from my father. He got that nickname when he was a guard on the Illinois football team. They caught him smoking Camel cigarettes during his sophomore year and they made him run around the field for 30 minutes every day before practice as his penalty. So his teammates started calling him 'Humpy' and in sports you can't get ride of a nickname. I was a junior so people started calling me 'Little Humpy,' then it became 'Humpy.'"
Q: What got you interested in automobile racing?
Wheeler: "My dad was in the Navy in 1946 and we were living in Florida when I saw my first race. It was a motorcycle race in Daytona and I really liked it. When we came back here, I was 8 or 9 and Belmont was such a small town that we used to go out on Highway 29 and watch cars go by.
"I started seeing race cars going over to the old Charlotte Speedway which was only six miles from where I lived, and that excited me. So I started thumbing over to the race track. The first time I went I was probably 10, and I was hooked. I started working at tracks, selling Cokes and things like that, and one thing led to another."
Q: What and where was the first race you promoted?
Wheeler: "I was 13 and I had a bicycle shop-Wheeler's Bicycle Shop. Down the street was the community house and public area, so I started organizing bicycle races every Saturday afternoon at 1 o'clock. There were two trees and we just raced around the trees, made an oval track out of it. You had to have fenders; I didn't allow any open wheels because I wanted to repair fenders. It got really big and kids would come from all over to race their bicycles.
"I had the only bicycle shop in Belmont and I was looking for a way to make money. I was tired of mowing grass and delivering papers, so I started promoting bicycle races. I actually ran the bicycle shop until I went to college."
Q: What previous job best prepared you for your current role of president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway?
Wheeler: "Running the dirt tracks helped me a lot, but I got a master's degree in racing during the seven years I spent with Firestone. I got introduced to Indy car racing, Formula One, and sports car racing. That really opened my eyes. I traveled all over during that time so I got to see all the great race tracks.
"One of the most interesting things was being able to talk to Art Pillsbury, the guy who built the board tracks. He designed and built every board track. Guys like Russ Catlin, Bill France Sr. and Tony Hulman, the real pioneers of American auto racing. I was infatuated with all these guys and I was able to talk with them. They liked to talk to young people and they knew I had an interest in it. That was back in the days that if you weren't a driver or mechanic, not many people made a living in racing. I was fortunate to be with a company that was big in racing."
Q: What is the biggest change you've seen in the sport over the last 30 years?
Wheeler: The money. The money is so huge today and that's a blessing and a curse. It's a curse because the cost of racing is so high it's pushed a lot of people out of the business. You wonder if we are missing some future Richard Pettys, A.J. Foyts, Mario Andrettis, Junior Johnsons and people like that who just can't afford to race. That's sad because you want to have the best drivers. That's one of the reasons we started the Legends Car program, to give people a chance to race inexpensively.
"During the formative years of American stock car racing in the 1940s and '50s, it was very, very inexpensive to race. There was nothing you couldn't get in a junkyard. You didn't have to buy anything from a speed shop. Hopefully, what NASCAR is doing with its new car is going to greatly reduce the cost."
Q: Do you think we'll ever see another person stay with the same sports franchise or facility as a general manger for 30 years?
Wheeler: "I think so. If you put the right person in the right place, and the place has some growth potential it's highly probable someone could do that today. I think it is good to put a person in a general manager's position at a track and keep them there over a long period of time. The political ties are so important and if the person is a good general manager he's going to build those ties.
"If there is one thing about a general manager of a track, it's that he has to be trusted. The competitors have to trust him that everything is the way it's supposed to be. The fans have to trust the person because they spent a lot of money in advance and they've taken a chance that they are going to have a good time. You reduce the chance element if the fans trust the person running the track. The public officials also have to trust that person. You need to be a promoter, but trust worthiness is the most essential ingredient."
Q: Why are you still so active in supporting weekly short-track racing?
Wheeler: "A lot of people at this level today didn't come from a short-track background. That's where I cut my teeth and learned what racing was about. I have always enjoyed short-track racing and I see it as the backbone of auto racing in this country. Without the short tracks, we are the NFL without college football. We owe the short tracks something big to keep them going in an age when there is so much entertainment and staying home is much easier and more fun than it was 30 years ago. We need to do all we can to advance the short tracks."
Q: What is the single most important thing you have learned from Bruton Smith?
Wheeler: "To do things in a big way. Go ahead and take a chance on spending a lot of money for something that hasn't been done before."
Q: What has been your greatest promotional idea?
Wheeler: "Adding the lights. They don't even think about it today, but a lot people didn't think we could light a superspeedway. And, right after we started, I was wondering if we could do it. I knew there had to be a way that didn't kill the sight lines and didn't blind the drivers. For a guy to get a flicker of light in his eyes at 80 miles per hour on a short track is one thing, but going 200 you don't want to do anything to cause the driver a problem.
"When we announced we were going to light the track, it was not greeted with enthusiasm by those in the industry. A lot people said it couldn't be done. In fact, one of the things in the contract with R.J. Reynolds for The Winston was that if the lights did not pass a NASCAR test one month ahead of time that we had to run the race on Saturday afternoon. One of the things we had to do during the test was simulate the power going off while the race was going on and have enough emergency lighting to get the cars safely back to pit road.
"When I saw that, I got a bit concerned because I was promoting a dirt race early in my career and a guy went off the track into the infield. I don't know how he got to it, but he hit the telephone pole with the main transformer on it and knocked all the lights out. I thought we'd find a mess because we had 20 some cars on the track when the lights went out, but it ended up OK. I started thinking about what if that happens here, but we worked it out."
Q: What's been your worst promotion?
Wheeler: "Trying to break the record for the world's largest marching band. We got 5,000 high school and college band members in here in October. I failed to pay a lot of attention to the weather, which is unusual for me, but the whole week had been clear and I knew it wasn't going to rain. What I didn't see was that a heat wave was moving in and it was going to be over 85 degrees.
"The band members came in the back and were going to march in opposite directions around the track, meeting at the start-finish line. About half-way there, people started passing out. They had these heavy wool suits on which are OK for Friday night football but not for a hot Sunday afternoon. About eight of them hit the deck and Jay Howard [who produces our pre-race shows] looked at me and asked, 'what we were going to do?' I said, 'the show must go on.' Two minutes after that, 20 of them dropped and I said, 'the show must be stopped!' We ended up having to treat a hundred of them at the infield hospital for various stages of heat and fortunately none of them were serious."
Q: Bruton Smith says LMS continues to be a work in progress. What ideas do you have for its future?
Wheeler: "The era we are entering now is one of more luxury-type seating. Not VIP seating, but better seating like you have at major stadiums. As far as we think we've come, we'll probably go that much further with all the spectator amenities. We've got to continue to make the spectators feel good about this whole thing.
"The one thing I would like to see is a huge mega-screen like the ones at drive-in movie theaters. We have big screen TVs now, but I'm talking about a huge mega-screen that we haven't seen yet. The screens we have now are products of football stadiums, but they've got a 300-foot field and we've got a mile-and-a-half."
Q: Who is the best race car driver you've ever seen?
Wheeler: "The most natural race car driver I ever saw was Curtis Turner. Junior Johnson was also very good. They were both seat-of-the-pants type racers. Obviously, Dale Earnhardt won more races than they did but I don't know that he was better than either one of them. Then you look at Richard Petty, Jeff Gordon and drivers like that and they all had their sweet spot in time. Curtis Turner, Junior Johnson, Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt, I don't know how you could get much better than those guys as far as natural ability."
Q: What do you do away from the track for fun?
Wheeler: "My wife Pat and I have a great relationship. We've been married a long time and we do a lot of fun things together but what I like to do more than anything is ride bicycles. I'm a cycling fanatic. My life has come full circle and I'm back to bicycles again.
"I also like to fish and I like to play the banjo, although I'm not very good at it. The reason I started with the banjo is that as you get older you need constant challenges to keep your brain alive. Certainly, this place is enough of a challenge for anybody, but I've found the banjo is very difficult to play. I'll never be able to play it well-I don't have that many years left."
Q: If you were King of NASCAR for a week what changes would you make?
Wheeler: "I'd make the changes they are actually working on right now with the new race car. The new car is almost everything I would want in a race car. It is totally designed to entertain race fans. It's going to get a lot of heat because people are going to say that it's a spec race car. But the entire sport is moving toward specification racing where the cars are all the same because we have found as this happens the entertainment value increases dramatically. The sport also becomes more pure because no driver has a mechanical advantage."
Q: How much longer do you plan to keep working?
Wheeler: "As long as I have time to blow the cob webs out, I'll probably keep doing this. As you get older you realize exactly what you can do and how far you can go with something until you get uncomfortable. I don't mind being uncomfortable once in a while, but I don't want to do it on a daily basis like I did for so many years. As long as I can keep a balance in my life, I'll do it. When I can't keep the balance, that's when I'll retire."
Tickets for all events during UAW-GM Quality 500 Week, including round five of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup, are available by contacting the Charlotte Motor Speedway ticket office at 1-800-455-FANS or online here.