Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Humpy can't be replaced

I’ll tell you my favorite Humpy Wheeler story.

He was running Robinwood Speedway, in about 1961 or so. It was a dirt track in my hometown of Gastonia. Wheeler grew up over in Belmont, just a few miles down the road in Gaston County, where his dad was athletic director at Belmont Abbey College.

Like most people who ran dirt tracks back then, Wheeler did everything. He went around trying to drum up a crowd through the week and on race day he had to get the track ready for racing.

On this day, however, Wheeler had a problem. The old truck he used to water the track’s surface was broken down. It would not run. Wheeler was in a fix. To this day, Wheeler hates dust at a dirt track more than just about anything in this world.

He went to a couple of volunteer fire departments, hoping to borrow their water trucks. No luck. “It was the dry time of the year and they were afraid to let me use it,” Wheeler said. “I had reached the end.”

Wheeler had one last card to play. He had a buddy in the septic tank business, and he had a truck with a tank to hold, well, liquid.

They pumped water in and used the truck to work on the track. Wheeler went home to take a shower and get ready for a long night of racing. He got back to the track about 4 that afternoon.

“I am telling you, the smell was unbelievable,” Wheeler said. He couldn’t call off the race – tickets had been sold. As the crowd gathered, the complaining started. Wheeler had to think fast.

So he got on the public address system and apologized to his patrons. “The paper mill is at it again,” Wheeler said. It was the best he could do.

Wheeler’s retirement as president of Lowe’s Motor Speedway is official Wednesday. I don’t know for sure if he’s going to hang around through the weekend for his 33rd Coca-Cola 600 at the track in Charlotte, but I sure hope he does. A lot of people need time to tell him thank you.

He’s helped more people get their start or figure out their way through some of the travails of their careers in racing that anyone will ever know. He’s been kind to reporters who’re new at covering his sport. He’s thought more about fans than the fans will ever know and has helped build what I consider to be the template for the modern American racing facility.

I don’t know, not yet, why he’s leaving right now. But I do know he’s done enough for his sport that nobody should begrudge him the opportunity to do some things he wants to do.

I’ve heard that he has plans to write a book that I promise you I will be reading. He loves to travel and I hope that he and his wonderful wife, Pat, get the chance to do as much of that as they want to. He rides his bicycle and reads and thinks about the world in which we live in ways I wish I could.

I asked Wheeler a few years ago if he thought that when he retired anybody would be ready to step into the big shoes he’d be leaving. “Oh yes,” he said, “there’s nobody who can’t be replaced.”

I sort of laughed when he said that, and then I told him a story that applies here. I took the job as motorsports reporter for the Charlotte Observer in 1997, and the man who had that job before me was Tom Higgins. Higgins covered NASCAR for about 30 years and when he retired he received the Bill France Award for his contributions to the sport. He was – and still is, thank goodness – a legend.

I went to Daytona that year for my first race and somebody said, “So you’re replacing Higgins?”

It had never really been put to me like that before.

I thought a minute and said, “Well, not really. I’ve got the job he had, but nobody is ever going to replace Tom.”

Nor Humpy.


Anonymous said...

4 words
Thank you Mr. Wheeler!
If he's leaving to become closer with his family he's a smarter man then most...I've had the pleasure to meet them, wonderful people.

Here's the one story fans need to remember.
One race the neighbors of the track were charging outrageous parking fees. Humpy found out about it, got on the P.A. and apologized to the crowd and promised to remedy the situation before the next race.
By the next race the speedway had bought up huge amounts of surrounding land and provided free parking.
You can't buy integrity like that!

Anonymous said...

Three words.

The sport has a deep chasm to try and fill.

Anonymous said...

the mark of a good track promoter is that when i heard about the retirement my first thought was, "man is that an odd publicity stunt!"

RevJim said...

I had a hard time believing it myself. I second everything that has been said here. It will be hard to fill those shoes.

Anonymous said...

What others call a great promoter - the rest of us call "someone who would pi** down your back & tell you it's raining."
We fell for one of his "great" promotions -
bought brand new seats in the wonderful Ford Veranda -
Humpy promised "bistro" eating and "stadium style" wide seats.
We got Bojangles on a wheel cart -
and a seat with 6" rails as armrests.
Good riddance to a clown.

Anonymous said...

Humpy worked for Firestone back in the sixties also. He is a smart guy, he's getting out while the getting is good. Hope he enjoys his retirement.

Anonymous said...

I would not be surprised to hear an announcement from the NASCAR Hall of Fame...

"Today we'd like to introduce our new Director, Humpy Wheeler"

He'd make that place shine!

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Humpy Wheeler for elevating the business sides of speedways, along with NASCAR and racing in general.

Humpy has made the entire industry better for all those who enjoy or work with this great sport. Speedways, along with NASCAR and their drivers, are much better off because of the work of Humpy.

I wish him well, and while he is retiring from day to day duties, hopefully we'll see him still involved in the sport in some fashion.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the memories Humpy!

Anonymous said...

I watched the news conference over the Internet. Didn't get to hear the answer to the last question of "how do you tell Bruton 'I quit?'" Wish I had but heard the rest of the conference and it was indeed interesting. He is a thinking man's leader in this sport. And he was way way right when he said racers have to run this business. We have too many lawyers and too many marketers and too many semi-PR people running this show now. Many of the changes in this sport over the last 5 years have come from all the above, except from racers. Wheeler is correct that the product on the track has to be what's concentrated on. Oftentimes back a few years ago when NASCAR was shaving 1/4 inch of spoilers every two weeks I said then that they though the product was so tentative that they had to monkey with it way too often. Now I am wondering with the dreaded COT if they shouldn't actually employ that strategy now.

But Wheeler has seen it all and done much of it all in this sport. For people that have been at this for a long time and/or who care about it, then his book will be well worth the wait. His wisdom of the past and future and his witness of important events in this sport is very important for us to see and I am sure will be as entertaining as Robosorous. When I interviewed him about 10 years ago for an article I did he said then that NASCAR was in the 5th-6th year of a 12 year growth span. He was about just right on that subject. Now we need someone like him to make sure we aren't in the 2nd-3rd year of a 12 year bust cycle. COTs and $10k fines for pushing may have just gotten us there. I am just glad that he and Bruton have been around to be the anti-NASCAR or at least provide business and practical balance to this sport. Because NASCAR has made some critical errors the last 10 years and I am convinced would have made many more without the SMI balance.

Anonymous said...

Humpy's been great for the speedway. Maybe he can be the umbrella guy for Nascar and Wide World of Wrestling since they are one and the same.

Anonymous said...

DAVID- I see that ESPN is reporting that Humpy was forced out - at least to some extent. I know you're not going to address that here, but I cannot wait to see what you do write about that.

Anonymous said...

so why would humpy make his announcement Before the 600, rather than after it?

Anonymous said...

Yes let the feud begin! We all know Bruton has no class, and Humpy has the all the class and respect. After 30 years and he retires before HIS race you now Bruton showed his butt again if Humpy is leaving before this Big Weekend!

Anonymous said...

DAVID- I bet what Smith is really after is bullying the Frances into selling SMI either Darlington or Martinsville - so he can get an added date, or dates, and close another track competing with Charlotte. Also, it sounds like SMI might be able to make the antitrust lawsuit go away IF it bought the KY Speedway corporation, not just the track. It is interesting that the money Smith demanded from Concord is just about what has been announced as the price for the KY track.

Unknown said...

very well said David, nice piece.

Monkeesfan said...

I agree with anonymous #15 about Smith trying to bully Brian France & company. My question is why they let themselves get bullied by him. Take dates away from his tracks.

Anonymous said...

Humpy's legend is more those whom he has influenced than what he did at Charlotte/Lowe's, and that's saying a lot. The only good news of his retirement is that these others will continue. This is the essence of any true legacy. Legacy is why we have children (until they become teenagers, anyway). He institutionalized the position of track/race promoter. Because he did that job so much better than anyone, there will never be another comparable person. Others are left to build on his foundation, but they can never claim to be The Founder.

Now if he could just make Cup racing as fun as the truck series....

Anonymous said...

DAVID- From time to time I get irritated by some position you have taken - then you write something like this. It's hard to stay mad at you - especially when you admit Tom Higgins is the greatest NASCAR writer since the invention of bacon. You are a fine writer and 1 of only 3 - not counting Tom H. - that I check for almost daily. Thank you and keep up the good work.

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