Early in my motorsports career, I used to confuse Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler with NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Cale Yarborough.
Sounds ridiculous, I know. But consider this: They were about the same height, had similar stocky builds and sandy blonde hair. At a function where both wore suits and ties, I had to pause and take a hard look before I spoke: “Hello, Humpy! Evening, Cale!”
Of course, as I got more immersed in NASCAR coverage, it was easy to tell one from the other – aided by the fact that almost every time I saw Yarborough he was in his driver’s suit.
I believe that Wheeler and Yarborough not only looked alike, but they also had the same drive, sense of purpose and tenacity it takes to be successful.
Yarborough, winner of 83 races and a three-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, was never known as a strategic driver. He attacked the competition with ferocity. This style served him very well during his glory years with car owner Junior Johnson.
Wheeler was the same way. But his tenacity was focused almost entirely on Charlotte. When it came to promoting races – and selling more tickets – there was very little he wouldn’t do, or at least try.
When I say very little, that is exactly what I mean. Wheeler used sideshows, competition gimmicks, driver incentives (more money), press conferences and glittering dinners and cocktail parties to spark the interest of drivers, fans, media and sponsors.
He did things few other speedways attempted. Truth is, most of them simply couldn’t afford such tactics. Wheeler had an edge. Charlotte’s CEO when he came on board was Burton Smith, a man who was not afraid to spend money to make money.
It was Smith, with partner Curtis Turner, who built Charlotte. Racing history records that it was a long, arduous task that suffered numerous cost over-runs and reached a point where completion was very dubious.
In need of funds, Turner negotiated with the Teamsters Union, which said it would provide a loan if Turner recruited the drivers to be members.
That raised NASCAR founder Bill France Sr.’s ire – to put it mildly – and he suspended Turner (along with pro-union allies Tim Flock and Fireball Roberts) from competition for life. However, in time, all were reinstated.
Smith’s control of the speedway dissipated rapidly, and he all but disappeared. CMS was eventually secure under the direction of its new president, furniture magnate Richard Howard.
But Smith came back in the early 1970s. He was far removed from the pauper he seemed to be when he left. He had money. And he meant to use it. The first order of business was to buy up CMS stock and again take control of the track.
Once that was done, Smith made it clear it was just the beginning. He had plans, big plans. It was as if he was going to convert the speedway into a glittering, glamorous facility the likes of which racing fans had never seen.
He made Wheeler his associate. For every dollar Smith spent, it was Wheeler’s job to see it was returned – and then some.
My first indication of what CMS was to become came in 1976, when I had an interview with Smith and Wheeler. It was held in a construction trailer because work on the track and its surrounding grounds had already begun.
Smith told me what he had planned for his track. It would have more fan amenities and comforts that any other. It would have VIP suites that would nearly encircle the 1.5-mile facility. It would have a modern, roomy press box and a full infield media center. There would also be a new scoring pylon and expanded garage area.
“And,” Smith said, “we are going to build condominiums all the way down the frontstretch.”
Condominiums? Now, who is going to want to live at a speedway?
“What do you think?” he asked me. “You think we can do it?”
“Yes,” I responded. I wasn’t honest.
But they did it and then some. A second, more exclusive set of condos was built in the first turn. When I learned that was going to happen, well, suffice it to say I had no doubt it would.
Since then, of course, CMS has expanded and improved in so many ways it’s difficult to keep count.
But even the most spectacular speedway can’t survive without fans who are eager to attend its races.
At CMS, that was Wheeler’s job. He firmly believed that entertaining fans at a speedway took more than just dropping the green flag.
“Listen,” he said, “What fan wants to come to race two hours early with nothing to do or see?”
So he provided pre-race shows that, over the years, have become legendary. I certainly couldn’t tell you all of them, but they range from military invasions to motorcycle jumps to Jimmy the Flying Greek to The Great American Taxicab Race to Robosaurus to boxing matches to air shows and a circus complete with elephants.
Wheeler liked to liven up the racing. He wanted the competitors to race hard for reasons other than victory. More money was nearly always the lure.
With Wheeler’s skill in promoting fully established – he has long been known as the “P.T. Barnum of Racing” – I once asked him if indeed promotion was the key to a successful race.
“Naw,” he said. “It’s toilets. You gotta be sure they all flush properly, and every time, when fans are at the races. Stopped up toilets can kill you.”
Well, he does have a point.