We’re proud to introduce Frontstretch‘s newest column: Speed Reads! Starting this Thursday, former Frontstretcher Becca Gladden will review one NASCAR book a week throughout the month of April. First up is Humpy Wheeler’s memoirs … enjoy, and let us know what you think by posting in the comments section below! If enough readers want it, we’ll turn this “trial” idea into a permanent weekly edition!
Becca’s Book Review: “Growing Up NASCAR – Racing’s Most Outrageous Promoter Tells All”
Authors: Humpy Wheeler and Peter Golenbock
They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, and, in the case of Humpy Wheeler’s autobiography, it is literally true.
No doubt the life’s story of one of NASCAR’s most dynamic personalities is loaded with potential. But the picture on the front cover – Mr. Wheeler dressed in a blue fortune-teller’s outfit, donning an oversized feathered turban à la Carnac the Magnificent – lends the impression that the book might be a bit too farcical. And given the description of the book on its back cover referencing “Darryl” (correct spelling: Darrell) Waltrip, I wondered what other inaccuracies might be contained within.
Fortunately, my initial misgivings based on the book’s exterior were not borne out by its content. Mr. Wheeler, now in his early 70s, has been involved in NASCAR since its inception and attended the first-ever NASCAR-sanctioned race in Charlotte in 1949 at age 11. His story not only recollects NASCAR but his life in general, including many of the childhood experiences that contributed to his feisty personality and strong work ethic.
But if you flip open this book expecting to be greeted by gleeful tales of NASCAR’s glory days, you will be disappointed. The first few chapters delve into Wheeler’s youth in considerable detail, which at times is a bit dry. He devotes a lot of time to discussing the ethnic makeup of the towns he grew up in, sometimes making what are, by today’s standards, politically incorrect stereotypes. “There was a meanness to the Scottish-Irish culture that didn’t exist in other cultures,” he writes. “This was because of the poverty – a dour existence – and the lack of ability to laugh and have fun like the Italians do.”
Even as he recounts the tales of his childhood, the personality traits that led to Wheeler becoming one of NASCAR’s most successful and colorful track managers and race promoters start to emerge. At age 11, he writes, he delivered newspapers and mowed grass, but wasn’t satisfied with the wages, so he opened his own bike repair shop. Still not content with his earnings, he started promoting bicycle races – at the tender age of 13.
Eventually, a few chapters in, Wheeler delves into his NASCAR experiences in more detail, and it quickly becomes apparent that everyone who was ever anyone in the sport knew Humpy (a nickname he inherited from his dad), and vice versa. Most of the tales from the early days would likely appeal to diehard fans who are really interested in NASCAR history. Later chapters include the names and faces that today’s fans are most familiar with – Darrell Waltrip, Dale Earnhardt, Rick Hendrick, Richard Childress, Jeff Gordon and many more.
To hear Wheeler tell it, he is responsible for getting some of NASCAR’s most renowned drivers into the sport at its top level. In the chapter on Earnhardt entitled “Dirt Poor Dale,” Wheeler writes, “I gave Dale his first big break in May 1978.” Discussing Gordon, Humpy says he was asked by team owner Rick Hendrick who he thought was the “best young driver out there” that Hendrick could sign to a contract. “Jeff Gordon,” Wheeler replied. “No question in my mind.”
Humpy says he was concerned about bringing Jeff along too quickly and told Hendrick, “…a guy has to mature a certain amount before he can start winning races. He’s got to be mature in the car and out of the car. I don’t know how you can expect a 21-year-old to have any maturity.”
There are a few minor mistakes in the book that will jump out to fans instantly. In a chapter on the death of Earnhardt, Wheeler discusses the aftermath and the decisions made by Dale Earnhardt Jr. in terms of his racing career. Humpy says he was surprised by Jr.’s decision to sign with Hendrick Motorsports, but more so that he was leaving longtime sponsor Budweiser. “I’m still not sure it’s going to be the best move in the end,” he writes. “He’s now in the red No. 9.” Of course, Dale Jr.’s car is the blue and green No. 88; Kasey Kahne, who took over the Bud sponsorship, is in the Red No. 9.
As interesting as the retrospective sections of Humpy’s book are, perhaps the most compelling chapter is the one titled “Racing of the Future.” Wheeler forecasts sweeping changes to NASCAR as we know it for the sport to survive. Among his predictions are a buyout of both the International Speedway Corporation and Speedway Motorsports, Inc. by a major media company or equity investor, which will further shift the emphasis from racing to entertainment. “Once media companies take over, they won’t abide boring races. They won’t stand for drivers who are satisfied with finishing seventh in order to win points.” Wheeler predicts an end to rained-out events, a transition to shorter races, a greater emphasis on passing and even more changes that could come under the heading “Future Shock.”
But don’t panic. These are the predictions of a race promoter known for sensationalism and a flare for the dramatic (see photo on page 236 of Mr. Wheeler sticking his head in the mouth of a live tiger to promote a race).
Whether NASCAR will one day race in Malaysia, Beijing and Dubai, rivaling World Cup soccer for its global fanbase – as Wheeler suggests – remains to be seen.
But it’s an intriguing thought – as are the many memories and tall tales that fill this interesting book.
Becca Gladden wrote for Frontstretch from 2006 through 2008, and is a weekly columnist for Insider Racing News. She also runs a PR business called Limelight Writing; check it out! Contact Becca through Twitter or her email address at [email protected]