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Thank God for Little Brothers


A day at the track would come to define the life, career, marriage and more for one legendary promoter who, more than five decades later, still carries a passion for grassroots racing.

By H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler

 

I remember it like it was yesterday. My bother David asked if I wanted to “hitch” over to Robinswood Speedwayand watch the race with our friend Fat Han. I was busy in my Belmont Bike Shop, and I really wasn’t sure if I had time to go. But eventually he talked me into it. My little brother can be very persuasive.

We got there (after we snuck under the backstretch fence) and the first thing I saw was two cars barreling down the backstretch and banging doors as they slid into turn three. The noise, the speed, the action hit me like a Hellfire Missile. Little did I know, but that day would define my life, my career, my marriage, and even my kids’ lives. It was that day that I fell in love with racing, and racing hasn’t let go yet. 

I’ve worked in racing for more than 50 years. Yes, I’ve screamed at my fair share of people and had some bad days, but I can honestly say that I got paid to do something I truly loved. Not many people can say that.

Being a promoter can be a thankless job, but it’s always full of emotion. Fans can be upset about the food; racers are mad because the track is too rough; and sanctioning bodies can squeeze you like a 950-pound grizzly bear, making your eyes bulge. But think about the little boy who sees a race for the first time, and the joy he feels. Because of those moments, I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

As a promoter you get to do something fun for a living. My good friend Ken Schrader says, “You race for a living, every day is Saturday.” You aren’t digging a ditch or tarring a roof in the 95-degree August heat. You are promoting racing. Makes me grin just thinking about it. You get to watch a lot of great races and meet some of the most interesting people on earth. And you get to create happiness in your fans. For me, that is and will always be the best part. Seeing a fan jump for joy as their driver makes a pass for the lead makes all the long hours worth it. 

I’ve promoted just about everything trying to scratch out a living, especially in the early days. And while my NASCAR career is the best known, my heart has always been the happiest when I’m at the likes of Five Flags Speedway, Maryland International Raceway and Slinger Speedway—honest-to-goodness grassroots racing.

Grassroots is where the die-hard fans are, where drivers turn wrenches alongside their best friend until their wives drag them to bed at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday night, all because they LOVE IT. Your mom runs the concession stand and serves up some of the finest fried chicken in the county. Friends tell stories, where they all believe “Don’t the truth get in way of a good story.” We laugh. We build lifelong friendships in between fights. And we watch, promote and compete in the best racing in the country, period.

I love grassroots racing for its authenticity, the fan passion, and because even the workers love being there. I also love it because the drivers put everything on the line to win, and they put on a good show—not just to have a “good points day.”

Trust me, I remember how much work this all is. Yes, I had lots of help toward the end of my years at Charlotte, but promoting short track races is when I learned what real work was; but I thank God for that, as that work ethic sticks with me today.

Yes, the economy is down, but grassroots racing is very strong. During down times people flock to cheap entertainment, cigarettes and beer, as they need an escape.  If you can be creative and innovative, you can get fans in the stands and cars on the track. Creativity solves all problems.

In fact, this year I know of many promoters and series that are having FANTASTIC years. IMCA is 98 years old, has more members than ever, and was on pace to break the record again this year. Being proactive, IHRA changed their business model and is seeing very positive results in car counts. They also implemented some very innovative ideas to help teams cut costs while being able to race more. And did you see the Emmett and Lanny’s Chili Bowl last year? They use every good trick in the book, and it shows. The crowds are enormous.

I love racing. It is a great sport and a fantastic career. It is fun. It is full of wonderful people who outnumber the numbskulls 10 to 1. And while our economy is less than what we’d all want, we have something fans want—something that can bring a little fun into their lives, which are more stressful than ever.  

On any given weekend, I hope a little boy sneaks into his local track, falls in love with racing, and begins a lifelong journey in the world of motorsports. It’s a career I cherish, and thank God for every day.

God, thank you for racing, and for giving me a persistent little brother.

 

H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler

H.A. (Humpy) Wheeler was President and General Manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway for 35 years. While there, he led initiatives such as lighting the first superspeedway for nighttime racing, building condos at a speedway, and being part of the management team of Speedway Motorsports, the first speedway listed on the NYSE. He currently operates Speedway Benefits, a Charlotte, N.C.-based alliance of grassroots race tracks across the US.

 




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