Living Legends of Auto Racing From Dargan Watts
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla - The circus industry had its P. T. Barnum and baseball had its Bill Veeck. who owned the Chicago White Sox, and introduced the exploding scoreboard and once hired a midget to take a turn at batting in a major league game.
These men held the honor of being the most outstanding promoters in the world until a young whipper-snapper from Belmont, N.C. who was called "Humpy" surfaced and if he had come along while these other two men were doing their things, "Humpy" would have put them both to shame.
H. A. "Humpy" Wheeler, Jr began promoting bicycle races at the age of seven and his career went from there.
Wheeler got his nickname from his father, who played football under the late great "Red" Grange at the University of Illinois. It seems that the senior "Humpy" was a left guard on the team, but he picked up a bad habit for that era and that was smoking his Camel cigarettes. Well, his coach caught him in the act and issued a severe punishment, which was running for 30 minutes before each and every practice. His teammates branded him with the nickname "Humpy", since Camel cigarettes had the picture of a camel with a "hump" on each pack.
When junior was born, he automatically inherited the name of "Little Humpy", and that name has followed him for the rest of his career.
While in high school, Wheeler played football and was also a Golden Gloves and AAU boxer, competing on the Belmont Boxing Team, which was the No. 1 ranked team in the state of North Carolina. Wheeler compiled a record of 40-2 with 24 RSC's (referee stopped contest). In 1992, he was inducted into the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame. He was good enough in football to be granted a scholarship at the University of South Carolina, where he was a teammate of the late Jim Hunter, who went on to become president of Darlington Raceway and a guru with NASCAR.
A severe back injury ended his football career, but following his graduation with a degree in journalism from USC (the one in Columbia, S.C.), in 1961 he remained in sports by working with the Columbia The State newspaper and while there he tried his hand at racing cars on dirt tracks in Sumter, Columbia, Greenwood and other small tracks in the Columbia area. According to Wheeler, he cut his driving career short because of "lack of funds", but his wife, Pat swears it was the lack of "ability".
Following his career as a sports writer, he became a television director and followed that as a real estate manager and a dirt track racing promoter. He later served as director of racing for Firestone Rubber & Tire Co. during its most visible years in the sport.
Then the name "Humpy" became a household word in the racing circles as he showed his genius skills as a person and as a racing promoter. He became involved in the management of Charlotte Motor Speedway and quickly transformed the 1.5-mile speedway into one of the world's leading sports facilities. Right off the bat, the new president/general manager/promoter won over the car owners, drivers, sponsors and equally important, the fans. His down-to-earth approach made believers of all involved, as there was nothing he wouldn't do to entertain the people who were paying their hard-earned money to see a good show.
The attendance continued to increase and during his tenure, the seating capacity grew from 75,000 to 167,000 and on almost any given race day, there would be more than 185,000 fans on the property. (There has not been a capacity crowd since Wheeler left the organization). In 1992, the track was the first modern superspeedway to host night racing with the addition of a $1.7-million lighting system. Under his direction, the speedway was also the first to offer extensive VIP suites, condominiums and extravagant pre-race entertainment. The track hosts more major events than any other motorsports facility in the world.
Wheeler was part of another motorsports first in 1995 as he and majority owner Bruton Smith went public with Speedway Motorsports, Inc. the first publicly traded motorsports company on the New York Stock Exchange,(NYSE:TRK), Today, Speedway Motorsports operates facilities in Atlanta, Bristol, Tenn., Charlotte, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Tx., Sonoma, Calif. and Kentucky Motor Speedway. The company also provides souvenir merchandising services.
Currently, Wheeler is chairman of the Wheeler Company, a management consulting firm specializing in professional sports, motorsports and general business. He founded the company with son, Trip and daughter, Patti.
He has become well known as a book writer and his latest publication Growing Up NASCAR, Racing's Most Outrageous Promoter Tells All is by far one of the best books on racing this writer has ever read. It is sold in most well-known bookstores.
Wheeler has been inducted into eight Halls of Fame, including the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of Belmont Abbey Hall of Fame, the Carolinas Boxing Hall of Fame and the World Karting Hall of Fame.In 2005 he was voted into the Gaston County Hall of Fame and In 2008, Wheeler became a member of the American Racing Hall of Fame He was inducted into N.C. Public Relations Hall of Fame last April and was selected as a member of the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame last May. He is the holder of dozen awards, including the National Auto Racing Promoter of the Year, the N.C. Travel Attractions Award, the Charles J. Parker Award for the person who contributed the most tourism to the state of North Carolina and the Hugh Deery Memorial Award for outstanding service to the motorsports industry. The University of South Carolina honored him with the University of South Carolina Journalism Alumni Award in 2009 and in 2012 he was given the Sports Business Journal Pioneer of American Sport Award.
At its 21st annual banquet on Wednesday, February 20, the Living Legends of Auto Racing will present Wheeler with the Pioneer of Racing Award, which goes each year to the person who has done the most in promoting the sport.
Social hour will begin at 6p.m. and the banquet will follow at 7p.m. Tickets are still available and can be purchased in advance by contacting Paulette Mandala at 386-299-7343. The festivities will be held at The Shores Resort & Spa, 2637 S. Atlantic Ave., Daytona Beach Shores.
Recipients of the 2013 awards are:
Allison Family Corporate Award (In memory of Clifford & Davey): Fox Sports - Dave Hill
Dedicated Service: Don Bok (Photographer)
Distinguished Driver: Dale Jarrett (Former championship driver and presently TV commentator)
Pioneer of Racing: Humpy Wheeler (You name it and he has done it)
Russ Moyer Media: Eddie Roche (Sports Writer)
Saturday Night Hero: Billy Scott (Winner of more than 300 races..National Dirt Late Model Hall-of-Fame Inductee, 2010)
Tribute to Early Years: George and Ginny Baker (George was the first NASCAR pilot and Ginny was one of the original employees of NASCAR)
H. A. "Humpy" Wheeler, former president/general manager/promoter of Charlotte Motor
Speedway will be presented the Pioneer of Racing Award at the 21st annual Living
Legends of Auto Racing banquet in Daytona Beach, Fla. on Wednesday, February 20th.
Wheeler is a past winner of the National Auto Racing Promoter of the Year Award.
Wheeler was Grand Marshal of the Martinsville 500 in 1984. He is shown here with his