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Humpy's sad farewell

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CONCORD, N.C. – For nearly 32 years, race promoter H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler and billionaire auto dealer Bruton Smith have been joined at the hip.

It's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, leading the pair to sometimes be referred to as Humpy Smith and Bruton Wheeler. They've been that close.

But after Sunday's 49th running of the Coca-Cola 600, the longest and most grueling race on the NASCAR schedule, Wheeler and Smith will go the way of other famous partnerships like George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.

Wednesday morning, Wheeler, perhaps the greatest promoter NASCAR has known outside of Bill France Sr., unexpectedly announced his retirement from his role as president of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway.

But instead of a joyous scene, it was more like a funeral wake. SMI and LMS staff and officials cried and hugged each other. The media was uncharacteristically at a loss for words. And Wheeler, usually the life of the party, was uncharacteristically subdued.

Wouldn't you be if you were just forced out of your job?

That's what appears to have happened to Wheeler.

When asked why retire now and so abruptly, Wheeler was tight-lipped.

"I didn't expect to go out this way," said the 69-year-old Wheeler, who became general manager of LMS in 1976. "The suddenness was kind of quick, but that's just the way it was."

Originally he planned on announcing that he'd be stepping down next week, with a likely transition period with his successor before officially turned over the reins, Wheeler said.

So, then, why so sudden?

"No real reason, I don't know," Wheeler said. "I don't know the answer to that."

He added later, "I'm not saying this is the best way to do it, to do it quickly and suddenly. There's other factors involved here that I'd rather not get into. But, that's the way it is and that's the way it's going to be.

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

Having undergone minor surgery Tuesday, Wheeler waved off speculation that health issues caused him to step down.

When asked what role he'll still continue to play at LMS and with SMI, perhaps as an advisor, Wheeler's response was immediate and abrupt.

"None," he said tersely.

It was all rather strange and made even more so by the absence of Smith, who never misses an opportunity to entertain the media. Never. The only vestige of Smith was a brief two-sentence statement that was part of the press release announcing Wheeler's "retirement."

"Humpy Wheeler is a true legend in motorsports and his contributions will be missed," Smith said through the statement. "His career with Lowe's Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. has been filled with many innovative promotions and I am sure that he will be remembered as one of the greatest promoters in racing history."

Smith's son, Marcus, a potential successor to Wheeler, told reporters that his father was under the weather. That may be true, but health concerns haven't stopped Bruton Smith in the past. So why now?

Did the Smith-Wheeler partnership dissolve in a less-than friendly way?

Rumors circulated after the press conference of a major blowup between the pair on Tuesday, but Wheeler refused comment.

When I asked Wheeler if he knew where Smith was, he was visibly uncomfortable in answering.

"Uh, I don't know. I'm not sure," he said.

I then asked Wheeler to expand on what he said about not going out the way he wanted to.

"Well, they have, and that's the way it is, so we'll move on," he said quietly. "It's not because I don't want to. I know some of my friends here will call me and ask for advice, and I'll certainly be open to that, but as far as (any other involvement with Lowe's or SMI), no.

"I'm going to keep doing, it's just I won't be doing it here."

So ends the era of the man who made LMS the first superspeedway to erect lights.

"His passion was to ensure that when each fan left the track, they felt as if they had been a part of a happening," Richard Petty said. "Under his direction, Lowe’s Motor Speedway became the gold standard by which all other racetracks were built and in how they were measured."

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage, a potential frontrunner to replace Wheeler, was stunned when he heard the news.

"I envisioned Humpy running Lowe's Motor Speedway another 20 years," Gossage said in a statement. "I could see him sitting in a wheelchair with a blanket across his lap by the driver introduction stage giving drivers his advice, seeing old friends and calling the shots."

Whoever will replace Wheeler will be eagerly watched. The list will include SMI vice presidents Marcus Smith (Bruton's son), Lauri Wilks ( LMS's executive vice president of management and administration), Gossage and Las Vegas Motor Speedway president/GM Chris Powell can be considered likely choices.

Wheeler arrived at LMS in 1975. A year later, Smith made him president of the track.

One of the greatest joys Wheeler took in his 32 years at LMS was helping shepherd Dale Earnhardt from sloppy country boy to a polished champion.

"I was particularly fond of Earnhardt," Wheeler said. "I look back and know that today, he couldn't even get a ride with his stringy hair, always had dirty blue jeans on, was always working on his car, didn't talk right, was shy, but just could drive the heck out of a race car.

"He had no money, went broke, didn't have the sophisticated qualities of speech or manner that everybody's looking for today," Wheeler continued. "All he could do was drive the pure hell out of a race car. That's what I miss more than anything today. That's why I like Kyle Busch, because he can drive a race car."

Wheeler has also seen his share of pain and sorrow at LMS.

In 2000, a pedestrian bridge in front of the Speedway collapsed after The Winston (now Sprint All-Star Race). Miraculously, while over 100 fans were injured, no one was killed.

His darkest moment came in 1999 when three fans were killed by a tire that flew off an Indy Racing League car following a crash. Wheeler called off the race immediately and vowed that the IRL would never return to the track.

"That was a terrible, terrible night and something that should not have happened," he said. "I'm not a fan of Indy cars and I still am not a fan of them. I think the decision to cancel the event that night, I would do that again and again and again.

"While it cost us a lot of money to do, there was no other moral or ethical right thing to do but that. And not everybody agreed with it. But looking back on it, that's what should have been done. We have not run one since, and as long as I was running the place, there would not have been another (IRL race) here, either."

Wheeler exits with what has been the staple of his career: grace, with a great sense of humor. Even though he knew reporters felt something just wasn't quite right, Wheeler couldn't help interject some levity to put a smile on some rather long faces.

"I didn't want a lot of fanfare; I didn't want 'Humpy's Last Year,'" he said with a big smile. "People don't buy tickets to see me, they come here to see Kyle Busch and other people race."

Wheeler plans on taking some time off before getting back to work. He will soon start working on a book with Peter Golenbock, who is currently penning a book on New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. Wheeler also plans on further increasing his Legends Cars business, building a new type grass-roots race car and will continue to host "The Humpy Show" on SPEED.

"It's just one of those things that it's time to go," he said. "It wasn't anything I was looking forward to, but there just comes a time and a place when you've got to move on."

So, NASCAR's P.T. Barnum is leaving the circus he's worked in for over three decades. But before he did, he couldn't help but play the part one more time.

"No, this is not a publicity stun or to sell tickets," he said. "But if it does, that's okay."