Small Business Runner-up

He keeps shows on tracks
By Frank Maley
Humpy Wheeler wanted to put on a big show, so the president of what is now Lowe’s Motor Speedway hatched a plan with his coordinator for pre-race shows to assemble a 5,000-member marching band to play. Jay Howard recruited bands and got them ready. “We thought we had thought of everything,” Wheeler says. “But we missed one little thing.”

Many of the musicians were wearing wool uniforms that unseasonably hot fall day in 1986. Soon after they started playing, a few drooped to the track. “The show goes on,” Wheeler said. More swooned, so Wheeler changed his tune: “The show stops.” Later, as crews were taking down a barn brought in for a salute to farmers, goats got loose on pit row.

All that might have chased some people out of the business. Not Howard. A year later, he formed what’s now JHE Production Group Inc. to put on the pre-race shows as a contractor. Most go without a hitch. But in a business governed by Murphy’s Law, you need a master plan backed by a lot of contingency plans. If they fail, you improvise. “Every single event we do, there’s a tap-dance period, however minor, and 99% of the time so minor that the audience never knows we’re even doing it,” Howard says.

Take the national anthem. It might seem simple to get jets to fly over a racetrack right as the song ends. But a pilot needs to start heading for the target before the song begins. Howard, 43, has reduced the sequence to a mathematical formula. If a singer promises a minute-and-a-half version but gets nervous and starts speeding up, JHE employees on the ground counting the beats in the song can radio the pilot to speed up.

Howard himself was a young man in a hurry. He was born and raised in Concord. His dad, an electrical contractor who had done jobs at the speedway, got him a job as Wheeler’s race-week gofer the summer after his freshman year at Appalachian State University. After he got his bachelor’s in business administration in 1984, Wheeler gave Howard a full-time job selling radio rights. A year later, he was put in charge of entertainment.

In 1987, he was ready to go out on his own. In addition to the speedway’s shows, he put on special events such as an air show in Rowan County. In the early ’90s, he won a contract for pre-race shows at Atlanta Motor Speedway — owned by Wheeler’s employer, Speedway Motorsports. He has done entertainment at minor-league hockey games and halftime shows for the Carolina Panthers of the National Football League.

These days, JHE gets all of its revenue from racing-related events. This year, it put on shows at 25 of the 38 races in NASCAR’s top circuit, the Nextel Cup. It handles entertainment at the 14 contests of the Indy Racing League and racing-themed events such as Food Lion Speed Street, a festival in downtown Charlotte the weekend of NASCAR’s Coca-Cola 600.

Howard’s proudest moment came earlier this year with the inaugural NASCAR Nextel Pit Crew Challenge. Unlike most of events, which require it to carry out a client’s orders, this one was conceived by JHE.

Few fans know about JHE’s role, but that’s no surprise. “Nobody knows the offensive lineman’s number,” Howard quips, “until he holds.”