Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Report: Wheeler to retire as Lowe's Motor Speedway president
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Humpy Wheeler, the "P.T. Barnum" of NASCAR promotions, will retire and step down as president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway, The Associated Press has learned.
This weekend's Coca-Cola 600 will be Wheeler's last race for Lowe's Motor Speedway, two people familiar with the decision told the AP. They requested anonymity because an official announcement, which could come as early as Wednesday, has not yet been made.
Humpy Wheeler turned Lowe's Motor Speedway into a premier sports facility.
It was not immediately clear who will succeed Wheeler, who has managed the track for the past 33 years and was named president in 1980. Candidates include track owner Bruton Smith's son, Marcus, the executive vice president of sales and marketing for Speedway Motorsports Inc., and Lauri Wilks, executive vice president of management and administration for LMS.
Hired in 1975 by Bruton Smith, Wheeler coupled his flair for the dramatic and an extensive motorsports background in outrageous publicity stunts promoting Lowe's Motor Speedway, turning it into a premier sports facility.
After Cale Yarborough gave Darrell Waltrip the derisive nickname "Jaws," Wheeler pounced -- bringing a giant dead shark to the track, placing a dead chicken in its mouth and sending it around the track on a flatbed truck before a race.
He prides himself as a master prognosticator, annually predicting the winner of the All-Star race in grand fashion. Last week, Wheeler used a backflipping dog to predict the acrobatic Carl Edwards would win Saturday night's $1 million sprint. He didn't.
Wheeler's had just two right since 2001 after correctly picking six of seven winners from 1989-95.
"There will never be another Humpy Wheeler," said NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter, a teammate of Wheeler's on the South Carolina football team who often went head-to-head against him as a rival promoter of Darlington Raceway.
"He had no fear, and he may have rubbed some people the wrong way, but he kept Charlotte in the news constantly. Constantly," Hunter said. "You'd never know we had races in Darlington because of all the work Humpy did to steal our headlines."
Nicknamed "Humpy" because of the camel's hump on a pack of Camel cigarettes his father was caught smoking, Wheeler was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2006.
Born Howard Augustine Wheeler Jr. in 1938 in nearby Belmont, Wheeler attended a motorcycle race in Daytona as a young child and was so entranced by the excitement, he said he would sit along the highway to watch cars pass. As a 10-year-old, he was hitchhiking his way to the old Charlotte Speedway, where he landed himself a job selling soda just to have an excuse to be at the track.
Wheeler began promoting races three years later when he organized Saturday afternoon bicycle races to get out of mowing lawns and delivering papers. He slowly climbed the promotions ladder -- working as a sports writer, television director, real estate manager, dirt track promoter and director of racing at Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. -- until Smith hired him to run the speedway.
Under Wheeler's management, the speedway expanded its seating capacity to 167,000 and became the first modern facility to install lights for night racing. The speedway was also the first to offer extensive VIP suites, condominiums, an "all-you-can-eat" grandstand section and extravagant pre-race entertainment. Wheeler is known to recreate war scenes fully equipped with explosions for the Memorial Day event.
He was on board in 1995 when Smith went public with Speedway Motorsports Inc., the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange, and Wheeler became president of SMI.