Who doesn’t like a flamboyant event promoter? Crazy-haired boxing impresario Don King. Or circus champion P.T. Barnum. Or 1960s rock ’n’ roll booster Bill Graham. And don’t forget custom car promoter Bill Larivee and SCORE off-road racing honcho Mickey Thompson.
One auto-related promoter, though, stands out: Howard Augustine Wheeler, Jr., best known as “Humpy.” Wheeler was born October 23, 1938 in the hard-scrabble small town of Belmont, North Carolina. He made his mark at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he served as general manager for more than three decades, during which time he helped push NASCAR from regional sport to national phenomenon.
In the 1930s, rural Gaston County, North Carolina, was dirt-poor and populated by tough Scotch-Irish immigrants. In Wheeler’s wildly entertaining autobiography, “Growing up NASCAR,” he describes his childhood in this rough-and-tumble environment. Drinking and fist-fights were the two most popular pursuits, and disagreements among youngsters — often poor and bored — were more often than not settled with a closed fist. To combat this practice, adults pushed organized boxing. This appealed to young Humpy, who quickly excelled at the “sweet science.” Fighting as a light-heavyweight for the Belmont Boxing Club, he won 40 bouts against two losses and was a Carolina Golden Gloves champ.
Wheeler had earned a boxing scholarship to Michigan State when the NCAA dropped the sport. Let Humpy explain what happened next: “I loved contact. I relished hitting people. That pretty much left football as the only option.” He played for Charlotte Catholic High School and earned a scholarship to the University of South Carolina. (Interestingly, his father played on the famous Red Grange Illinois teams in the mid-1920s.)
Cars were an interest of young Howard, as well. After WWII, the local Charlotte speedway — a dusty 3/4-mile red clay loop — hosted “modified” races, old Ford coupes from the ’30s running Flatheads. Humpy was a regular at the raceway and had the good fortune to witness the first-ever NASCAR cup race, at Charlotte in 1949.
It was during this period that Wheeler also started his first business and promotion. An ambitious lad with a need for extra cash, he noticed Belmont lacked a bicycle shop, so he started his own, Wheeler’s Bicycle Shop. While business was good, he believed that staging a bike race might make it even better. Six cyclists pedaled around the Belmont Abbey football field in pursuit of one trophy. Wheeler was 13 years old.
Humpy Wheeler’s life is like that, a series of fascinating personal anecdotes that read like a treatise on postwar life in the South. He tried driving modifieds on Carolina short tracks, but realized promotion was his true calling. After earning local kudos for promotion, Firestone hired him as director of the brand’s motorsports program. In 1975, he returned to his roots: He was appointed general manager at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In Wheeler’s 30-plus years at the helm of CMS, he ushered in more racing’s “firsts” than all other motorsport promoters combined:
- The first to outfit a Superspeedway with lights for night racing.
- He designed and created the Legends race cars, a ¾-scale motorcycle-powered car that is now run around the world.
- The first to successfully mass produce race cars (Legends), selling more than 8,000.
- The first to produce huge pre-race shows that have included an invasion of the speedway with helicopters, tanks and 1,000 Special Forces and airborne personnel out of Ft. Bragg.
- The first to offer extensive VIP Suites and condominiums to a race track.
- Created Autofair, one of the largest automotive events in the world, featuring AACA, hot rods, concept cars, and more than 10,000 vendors.
- A leader in negotiating NASCAR’s lucrative television agreement.
- A leader in teaming with the sanctioning bodies in developing race regulations, he dramatically increased purses and advocated safety measures, such as the “soft barrier.
Over-the-top, smile-inducing promotions, though, were always Humpy’s signature move. Not long after joining CMS, driver Cale Yarborough tagged rival driver Darrell Waltrip with the nickname ‘Jaws.’ Sensing an opportunity, Wheeler found a dead shark and stuffed an equally dead chicken in its mouth. He then drove it around the track on a flatbed. The crowd roared. The kicker? Yarborough’s sponsor was a poultry farm.
About what made him a success:
“Nothing I tried beat long hours, highly personal contacts, practicing creativity and being very nice to all. Having terrific people around you is all-important, too, as is paying them well to keep them. They will make you look great.”
On being a successful promoter:
“Biggest element, I believe, is to do things other people can’t even think of, like lighting a superspeedway, which we did first in 1993, and it paid great dividends. Suddenly we had air conditioning in late May! There is nothing so great as the ‘Great Idea.’ We put a lot of effort into that and it paid rich dividends.”
On the importance of seeking out and working with the best people:
“Connecting with the right people is essential. When I decided to put on the greatest rod and custom show ever, I contacted Goodguys and Gary Meadors, and now the Goodguys Southeastern Nationals at Charlotte Motor Speedway is one of the organization’s most successful events.”
On his relationship with and Gary Meadors and Goodguys:
“Gary was one of the most influential people in hot rodding. His creativity brought a whole new dimension to the effort, and he was a master at putting on shows to make them more interesting to folks of all ages. He also had a great knack of understanding that you had to keep bringing different aspects to the shows. I asked him once what was your next car? He said a 1956 Chrysler 300. While we were all doing ’40 Fords, he did a 300 followed by a 1961 Lincoln Continental. We lost a great man, but his son Marc is doing a fine job. And his wife Marilyn is a tremendous person who will help carry out his great legacy.”
The late journalist Chris Economaki, the longtime publisher of National Speed Sport News, once said of Wheeler, “He knows how the race fan thinks and responds quickly to their needs. Humpy Wheeler is the best promotor in racing.”
And now a Goodguys legend of hot rodding, too.