Commentary

Humpy Wheeler kicked out before his time was really up

Humpy Wheeler's days as president of Lowe's Motor Speedway -- and NASCAR's best promoter -- will come to an end after the Coca-Cola 600. That's bad enough. That he didn't get to leave on his own terms is worse, writes David Newton.

Updated: May 21, 2008, 9:24 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Like the great promoter he is, H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler made one last splash, although this one wasn't exactly how he would have scripted it.

Wheeler announced Wednesday that he is resigning as president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway after Sunday's Coca-Cola 600.

The announcement was scheduled to be made next Wednesday but was pushed up after a disagreement between Wheeler and Bruton Smith, chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owns LMS.

"The suddenness was not my idea," Wheeler said. "I would have liked to have stayed around a little bit, just eased out a little easier. … Maybe in a part-time role."

The promoter, who was hired by Smith before the October race in 1975, said no part-time offer was made. Asked whether he was given that option, Wheeler said, "No."

Asked whether he would remain with the track in any capacity, 69-year-old Wheeler bluntly said, "None."

Smith, who did not attend the news conference that was thrown together quickly after news of the retirement leaked out Tuesday night, said Wheeler was offered the chance to stay as a consultant.

"To my knowledge, nothing has changed," he said.

Smith said that Wheeler was offered a consultant's salary for five years beyond the $12,500 a month SMI has agreed to pay him for the next 10 years. He added that Wheeler holds 151 shares of stock options with the company and that he has to stay involved to execute them.

Smith said he did not attend the news conference because he was not invited and because he didn't want to take away from Wheeler's moment.

"It was his press conference," he said. "Not mine."

Marcus Smith -- the executive vice president of sales and marketing for SMI and, according to sources, expected to be named the next president of LMS next week -- said nothing should be read into his dad's absence.

But Wheeler clearly was bothered by something. Asked whether he felt unappreciated, the native of nearby Belmont, N.C., said, "I'll let you judge that one."

It was a strange day for a man who deserved to go out on his own terms, who deserved to go out in a blaze of glory like many of the prerace shows that gave him the reputation for being the P.T. Barnum of track promoters.

Instead, this one had an almost funereal atmosphere, as though somebody had been fired.

Was Wheeler pushed out? He says emphatically not, that he has been considering this for almost a year. Smith agreed.

Did Wheeler leave on his own terms? Not exactly.

"Some of it is on my own terms," Wheeler said. "I won't say all of it is. I'll let it rest at that."

Smith appeared confused by Wheeler's comment.

"He's been talking about retirement for about a year," he said. "I talked to him about it six months ago. All of this is his idea."

Smith was complimentary of Wheeler in a statement released by the speedway.

"We owe Humpy a tremendous debt of gratitude for all he has done for Speedway Motorsports and Lowe's Motor Speedway," the statement read. "We wish him all the best in any future endeavors and hope that he and his wife Pat have a great retirement with their family."

But Wheeler apparently isn't ready to retire. He recently signed a deal to write a book about NASCAR and his experiences in all of motorsports. He didn't rule out working in some capacity with NASCAR, and even had a conversation with chairman Brian France on Wednesday morning.

"I'll probably be available to do that," Wheeler said. "I have had a close relationship with them for a long time. I feel like there are a lot of challenges there, but we'll just have to see. I want to take a little time off after this race."

That Wheeler won't serve as an LMS consultant or as president emeritus at LMS is a shame. He deserves that much.

"Humpy Wheeler has been as important to shaping NASCAR as the France family, as Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt," said Eddie Gossage, the president of Texas Motor Speedway who got his start under Wheeler. "You take all these people that make the whole, and Humpy and Bruton Smith stepped out and had a vision that exceeded anything that anybody else in the sport could offer.

"We wouldn't be a major league sport without Humpy Wheeler."

Wheeler introduced lights to superspeedway racing in 1992 in an attempt to keep the All-Star race in Charlotte. In 2002, LMS became the first superspeedway other than Indianapolis to install a form of soft wall that transformed into the SAFER (Steel and Foam Energy Reduction) barriers now at all NASCAR tracks.

During his tenure, condominiums and fine dining in a speedway club were introduced to tracks.

He started prerace shows in 1977 that no track promoter has matched, from re-enacting the battle of Grenada to staging a three-ringed circus to creating a huge fire-breathing, car-eating Robosaurus to jumping a school bus over cars.

"Humpy was a step out of the box," said Jim Hunter, NASCAR's vice president for corporate communications and the former president/track promoter at Darlington Raceway. "Even if he laid an egg, it was successful.

"There'll never be another Humpy Wheeler. Humpy always got up in the morning running, thinking of ways he can promote Lowe's Motor Speedway."

That included one of his final promotions, a backflipping dog to announce his pick of backflipping Carl Edwards to win the All-Star race.

"It got the track a lot of publicity on a normal down day," Hunter said. "That's the reason he started picking the winner anyway. It wasn't just to let everybody know he was smart. It was to make news on a nothing day.

"Humpy always has been the master of that."

But Wheeler's impact on the sport goes beyond promotions and building LMS into a facility that seats 167,000. He has helped develop many young drivers, from teaching them mental toughness in the boxing ring at his house to giving them a much-needed pep talk.

He is an ambassador for reducing costs so drivers at the grassroots level who can't afford to advance in the sport don't get left behind. He has been outspoken on what it will take to improve NASCAR's new car, which teams are becoming increasingly frustrated with at intermediate tracks such as LMS.

"If I were over there at NASCAR, the first thing I would do was say let them widen the tire an inch and a half," Wheeler said.

Wheeler wouldn't go into details about who might replace him, likely because he knows that is a done deal, but he does have a few ideas about what that person's résumé should include.

"We need racers running the sport," he said. "In some cases, that's not happening, and it's creating some problems. I've sat in some meetings where we're trying to decide things and I look in there and hear comments and I know some of these people know absolutely nothing about racing.

"We can blow stuff up and set off $175,000 worth of fireworks and bring Robosaurus in and have 'Alien vs. Predator,' but we still have to have the product on the track."

That's why people love Wheeler so much. He speaks his mind, even if it rubs others the wrong way. Hopefully, Marcus Smith has been paying attention.

"The vision that Dad and Humpy had is the biggest thing I learned from them, how big everything needs to be for the future," Marcus Smith said. "Not what today holds, but what things will be tomorrow and next year and years after that."

Those attending the news conference certainly have paid attention. Wheeler received a standing ovation when he entered the infield media center at LMS and was the recipient of teary-eyed hugs afterward.

"No, this is not a publicity stunt," Wheeler said as he began the announcement. "I didn't do this to sell tickets, but if it does, that's OK. It's just one of those things, it's time to go. There just comes a time and a place you have to move on."

That time apparently came before Wheeler was ready.

"I'm not saying this is the best way to do it, to do it quickly, suddenly" he said. "I did not want a lot of fanfare, for one thing. I didn't want to drag it out. I didn't want to have Humpy's last year.

"People don't buy tickets to see me. They buy tickets to see Kyle Busch and other people race. There's other factors involved here, but I'd rather not get into it. That's the way it is. That's the way it's going to be."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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