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May 2005
The Need for Speed
By Ellison Clary

Pontificate all you want, but big cars with fenders rank with fancy women’s restrooms as the most important reasons for NASCAR’s phenomenal success.

So says H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, arguably the most knowledgeable person alive when it comes to Southern-born-and-bred stock car racing. [He inherited his father’s nickname, who got it for smoking camel cigarettes while playing football at the University of Illinois.]

“Racing’s been my whole work life,” says the 66-year-old president and general manager of Lowe’s Motor Speedway (LMS), who has watched NASCAR’s metamorphosis from hot-rods in red clay fields to precision-tuned machines on super speedways.

This year Wheeler marks his 30th anniversary of managing the speedway just across the Mecklenburg line in Cabarrus County. Owner Bruton Smith hired him in September 1975.

Wheeler’s not big on celebrations, he says. But, when pressed, he allows he might mark his anniversary riding his bicycle 30 times around the LMS 1.5-mile banked oval.

“I rode around 20 times the other day,” he says off-handedly as he lounges on a sofa in his spacious office. It’s perched on the seventh floor of the LMS tower that also houses a fine dining restaurant, souvenir shop, ticket office and leased office space.

The office is cluttered with model race cars and photos of famous people. Many are race drivers, but not all. There’s one of North Carolina Governor Mike Easley posing in a racing uniform, and an autographed black-and-white of Yogi Berra squatting behind home plate in his New York Yankee pinstripes. The conglomeration of knickknacks contrasts with the clear view from his wide windows of the track below, where cars with a race driving school are roaring through their paces.

 

Coming up to speed

So how did NASCAR, born on grimy, country tracks in 1949, become such a big sport that movie star Morgan Freeman would slip into Charlotte unannounced one recent Saturday to try his hand at driving 180 miles per hour? Wheeler, a Belmont, N.C., native, who’s been in racing or related occupations since being a filling station attendant at 16, thinks the answers are simple.

First, NASCAR race cars are recognizable, based on factory-built models. They’re brightly colored and easy to see, unlike the small, rear-engine vehicles driven on the Formula One and Indy car circuits.

“Every time we get a big head about what’s been done in NASCAR,” Wheeler grins, “it might simply go back to a matter of size and having fenders on the cars. Fenders enable cars to bounce against each other without flying up in the air.”

Wheeler quickly follows with an alternate thought. Years ago, he and other track operators recognized the need to attract women.

Back in 1975, only 15 percent of the folks who attended races at Lowe’s Motor Speedway were women. “That’s fatal when you’ve got a recession,” Wheeler says. When money’s tight, he explains, the man of the house might want to go to a stock car race but his wife says they should spend the money on the kids. “So he doesn’t go,” Wheeler says. “But if she’s interested in the race, it’s a whole different ballgame.”

Wheeler copied the oil companies. As a teen attendant, he observed how gas stations cleaned up both their employees and facilities to make women feel more comfortable about stopping in. Attendants got uniforms and they made the women’s restrooms “splendid,” Wheeler says. He calls the effort “one of the greatest marketing ploys in the history of commerce in the United States.”

At LMS, Wheeler took the same tack. “We built a couple of beautiful women’s restrooms,” he says proudly. Today’s typical female race attendance at LMS is 39 percent, and it’s mostly because of making women feel at ease, Wheeler says.

Mirroring NASCAR’s rise to major league status, Lowe’s Motor Speedway grew from a bankruptcy in 1961 that cost both Smith and Wheeler their jobs. That proved merely a temporary setback when Smith, today a billionaire, regained control of the track and rehired Wheeler.

Now LMS is a 167,000-seat facility that hosts racing events year-round. These include the Coca-Cola 600, the UAW-GM Quality 500, the NASCAR All-Star Challenge, and a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series competition. Coupled with various other races, three gigantic car shows and driving school activities, the track is in use nearly continuously.

 

Even good ideas can backfire

Wheeler is known as a master promoter, having dreamed up attendance enticers such as reenactments of helicopter assaults and troop deployments in the sprawling LMS infield. But one of his best-known promotions almost backfired, and the reason is related to those fancy women’s facilities.

It was 1976 and Wheeler had found a way to get aspiring female racer Janet Guthrie in a competitive car for the Coca-Cola 600. “When she made the field,” he remembers, “we sold more tickets the next day than we’d ever sold.”

Many were bought by women who converged on LMS from across the country to watch Guthrie do something no female had done: compete in a major car race. The women put the restrooms to such steady use that the entire speedway facility, which depended on what Wheeler calls “a Rube Goldberg system of wells,” ran dry.

Wheeler recalls the moment: “The race is half over. Guthrie’s in the top 25. My brother comes up, jabs me in the ribs and says, ‘You’re pumping air.’”

Luckily, an LMS staffer had a plan. He called volunteer fire departments within a 30-mile radius and promised each a $500 cash donation if they would drive their water trucks to the speedway immediately. “Thirty minutes later, there were sirens coming from everywhere,” Wheeler laughs. “They got us through.”

Anticipating the unexpected is important for Wheeler. Case in point: The collapse of a pedestrian bridge on a Saturday night after a race in 2000. It injured 95 people, some seriously.

“We set up triage, and in 59 minutes every one of those people was on their way to the hospital,” Wheeler says. “We had plans in place and they all worked.”

 

Seeing the light

Wheeler’s fondest racing memory is his creation of today’s NASCAR all-star race format in 1992 when he turned it into the first night competition on a super speedway.

When he promised an executive at RJ Reynolds, then NASCAR’s title sponsor, that he could make the concept work, Wheeler didn’t have a clue how he’d do it. After a failure of two, he found an Iowa-based lighting expert who devised a system using reflectors and mirrors to shine lights at angles that wouldn’t blind drivers.

The all-star race attracted 140,000 last year and is so popular that several other cities are trying to pry it away from Charlotte.

Still, Charlotte has the backing of banking titans Wachovia and Bank of America, whose top marketing executive, Cathy Bessant, also leads the Chamber.

“Cathy Bessant is the best breath of fresh air we’ve had in years,” Wheeler says. “She’s a race fan,” he adds, citing her work at Michigan Speedway in younger days. “She’s in a great spot to help us now.”

Also kicking around is the concept of a NASCAR Hall of Fame and the question of where it should be. Wheeler is convinced it ought to be in center city Charlotte.

With scores of racing team shops set up in northern Mecklenburg, southern Iredell and southern Cabarrus counties, Wheeler maintains the Charlotte region is the natural environment of stock car racing.

“Thousands and thousands of people visit these race shops,” he says, and with the

elaborate layouts of some, he can see why. The Mooresville shop of Penske Racing is 424,000 square feet with Italian marble floors.

Wheeler’s sure visitors would troop into Charlotte to see exhibits featuring their favorite drivers.

Which drivers does Wheeler remember fondly? He names Buddy Baker and Richard Petty, whom he’s known since he was 15. “Dale Earnhardt and I were very good friends,” he adds, “and his father Ralph was a friend.” He thinks the recent movie ESPN put together on the late Dale Earnhardt portrayed the racing icon pretty accurately, but might have missed the mark on Ralph.

Returning to the influence of women, Wheeler opines that they have much to do with the immense popularity NASCAR drivers enjoy. He thinks females could be the reason most drivers have avoided adverse publicity that has dogged athletes in other sports.

Most successful drivers have enjoyed a positive relationship with a strong woman, Wheeler explains. Few have gone through divorce. “That lends a lot of stability,” he says.

 

Racing safely into the future

What’s in NASCAR’s future? Wheeler thinks there will be a continuing emphasis on safety measures.

A significant portion of the $250 million owner Smith has pumped into LMS has paid for safety features, he says. As an example, he cites the impact absorbing walls installed last May.

Among other safety innovations Wheeler sees as important through the years is the use of fuel cells that have virtually eliminated race car fires; an inner liner tire design that prevents blown tires from going completely flat; and an improved driver head-and-neck restraint.

NASCAR is also designing a race car that Wheeler predicts will make competition much safer, when it debuts. It will be a prototype for manufacturers to follow in developing the models they offer for competition.

Then there’s the “Humpy bumper,” so named because it’s Wheeler’s design for carbon fiber device that dissipates energy when a race car collides with another object. NASCAR hasn’t adopted the bumper, but Wheeler vows it will. “It’s kind of like the Hudson Hornet,” he says of the device. “It’s way ahead of its time.”

NASCAR is becoming more international, Wheeler believes. “Racing is too big to stay in the United States,” he says, citing the success of a recent Busch series competition in Mexico. “Everything is going global now,” he says.

And the circuit which currently accepts only domestic makes, should welcome vehicles from foreign-based manufacturers as well, he adds. “What’s an American car, anyway? The Chrysler 300 that has been such a sales success has a Mercedes transmission and drive line and the rest of the car is a Chrysler. So what is it really?”

Innovations such as races in other countries and more car makes in competition can help the sport continue to grow, according to Wheeler.

“We’ve got new people who’ve moved in this area from other places and they know about stock car racing but have never been to a race,” he says. “We have to bring them into the fold.”

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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