Personnel File - July 2008: Entertainment
Past President & General Manager, Lowe's Motor Speedway
Past President & COO, Speedway Motorsports Inc., Concord
Such prestigious titles as president and chief operating officer may have preceded his name, but make no mistake: Humpy Wheeler was, above all, a world-class entertainer. Described as snippets of P.T. Barnum, Walt Disney and Don King rolled into one, he presided for 33 years over dazzling, in some cases startling, pre-race shows at Charlotte — now Lowe’s — Motor Speedway, setting a standard for NASCAR entertainment that has spread to tracks across the nation. “Great events people create the illusion that something is going to happen at an event that’s so great and unique that you’ve got to be there,” he once said.
Though the Belmont native, 69, announced his retirement a few days before the Coca-Cola 600 in May — apparently after a falling out with boss Bruton Smith — his work will live on. Every time jets roar over at the final note of The Star-Spangled Banner or a jet-powered outhouse sputters in a circle, race fans will remember him.
Humpy’s greatest hits …
• October 1984: More than 200 soldiers and airmen re-enact Operation Urgent Fury, the October 1983 U.S. invasion of Grenada. The 15-minute show includes the strafing of thatched huts and splintering of palm trees.
• May 1987: Driver Jimmy “The Greek” Koufus jumps a souped-up school bus over a row of cars the width of a football field.
• October 2001: The pre-race show makes the Guinness Book of World Records by assembling 5,000 firefighters to pay tribute to rescuers who died in the 9/11 attacks.
… and a couple that didn’t make it
• A stunt pilot would pretend to crash his plane behind the Turn 3 wall after performing a series of aerobatic feats. Dynamite would be used for noise and smoke. A few minutes later, he would fly back over the speedway to show folks it was all a joke. The idea gets a resounding thumbs down. “There aren’t enough doctors in the Carolinas to treat all the heart-attack victims we’d have,” a track official says.
• Man vs. Shark — One Must Die: Marathon swimmer Moon Huffstetler, a Gaston County native, would square off with a shark in a large tank. When told animal-rights people would be furious, Wheeler replies, “You’re damn right. And if there aren’t any, you better hire some!”