The All-Star Hero Squad of Humpy Wheeler (And Friends) | Performance Racing Industry
The All-Star Hero Squad of Humpy Wheeler (And Friends)
By Louise Ann Noeth on February 1, 2016

With a guy like H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, there is no such thing as dull and boring. So when we asked a panel of top race track promoters and insiders for the person they admired, we should have expected Wheeler to upend the cart. He did. Rather than providing a name, Wheeler offered up an entire “all-star promoter team,” complete with reasons why he admired each one and what they taught him. And, it should be no surprise that Wheeler’s own name showed up on another’s list. Take a look at the men that matter to the ones who spin the turnstiles and fill the pits weekly at dirt tracks nationwide.

Humpy’s All-Stars

(In alphabetical order, but Wheeler’s own words)
JC Agajanian: The Southern California son of Armenian immigrants who loved racing. His Ascot Speedway near Los Angeles was a bastion of greatly hyped racing featuring such greats as Parnelli Jones, Freddie Agabashian, Roger McCluskey, Don Branson, Ted Holland, Bill Vukovich and others who went on to success at the Indy 500. “Aggie,” as he was known, also owned the 1963 Indy roadster that Parnelli won the 500 with that year.
Earl Baltes: The colorful “Lord High Promoter” of Eldora Speedway. This is not only the last place anyone should have built a speedway, but under his leadership it became the hottest short track in the world.
He sold it to Tony Stewart, who hired “young wonder” Roger Slack to run it. Roger has already broken all the seats sold records, and added the most colorful race in NASCAR, a Wednesday truck race before the Brickyard 400 at Indy. Crazy as it sounds, the truck race at this half-mile dirt track almost outdraws the 2.5-mile Indy track!
Russ Catlin: A former pro footballer, he helped make Indy and then came down and did make Darlington through unbelievable creativity and ability to get the South to recognize NASCAR as a major sport. He was also considered the world’s greatest expert on the board tracks of America.
Joie Chitwood: A descendant of Cherokee Indians, he never ran a track, but the world’s most successful thrill show, which played at almost every track in North America, exposing motorsports to millions of fans. He was a great promoter, bringing his vast traveling circuit of fast cars, ramps, etc. to every nook-and-cranny, from the Spud Speedway on the Maine–New Brunswick border to the bullrings of Mexico. Thrilling high jumps and spectacular crashes mixed with humor made the show great. His grandson, Joie III, a former stuntman himself, is the former president of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and current president of Daytona International Speedway.
Tom Curley and Ken Squier: The guys behind Thunder Road in Barre, Vermont. They took this banked asphalt quarter-mile in the middle of nowhere and made it a summertime Thursday night “must see” of low-cost stock car racing and the best championship format in the history of racing—the Milk Bowl—where the winner MUST kiss the cow!
Can’t have a team here without mention of Carl Fisher, the man who built Indy, as well as Eddie Rickenbacker and Tony Hulman—the guys who took the helm and made it the place it is today.
Bill France Sr. was the guy who started NASCAR; he knew race fans and how to make them come to races by providing colorful drivers and good racing backed by honesty and integrity.
Sam Nunis: If central casting sent you an “old-timey” fair operator, here would come Sam. Lanky, fast-talking Nunis was the master of the fair tracks with his traveling band of colorful sprint cars.
Tony Vendetti: the late ice cream impresario and builder of the concrete wonder at Seekonk, Massachusetts. His Speedway, on Friday nights, was where the action was dynamite and the crowds crowded! His “kids” still run it today.

Additional Influences

In addition to Wheeler’s picks, we asked several promoters about their own influences and sources of inspiration. Steve Puvalowski, owner of Tri-City Motor Speedway in Auburn, Michigan, looks outside the racing industry for his mentorship. “I can learn from people who are entrepreneurs and leaders in their field,” he confessed. For him, national talk radio host Dave Ramsey and fitness club owner/operator Mike Woody spark his creative neurons.

Darin Short, who promotes LoneStar and Red River speedways in Texas, harkened back to the 1980s. George Butland at Colorado National Speedway knew that the central point with longevity and crowd retention was based around the family, and would structure his racing programs accordingly. “Each and every night he would make sure the featured division was on the track at a time where fans that only cared about that division would see their race, and be back on the road at a fan-friendly time of night,” explained Short. “Then, he would essentially run the show backwards from that point forward, with the local/support classes rounding out the program.

“Besides keeping the fans happy,” he continued, “it also made leaving the facility a breeze, as after each feature race, about 20 percent of the crowd would leave. And you could choose when you wanted to leave, not be held hostage by waiting to see the featured division at the very last race of the night.”

Tim Frost of National Speedway Directory fired off five names that stood out as clever and effective promoters: Roger Slack at Eldora Speedway; Dan Robinson at Lucas Oil Speedway; Gary Howe at Kalamazoo Speedway; Steve Beitler at Skagit Speedway; and Bob Sargent at Macon Speedway.

What goes around comes around. Sargent cited his three influences: “No. 1 is PT Barnum, because even back then he seemed to know how to entertain a customer. No. 2 is Earl Baltes, because of his longevity, and knowledge of our sport and how to entertain a race fan. And third is Humpy Wheeler, because of his ability to not only entertain a race fan, but treat his race tracks as businesses.”

About the Author
Louise Ann Noeth's picture
Louise Ann Noeth of LandSpeed Productions is an award-winning author and photojournalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and Performance Racing Industry Magazine, among many others.
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