Wheeler talks about 'Growing up NASCAR'
Gaston County native Humpy Wheeler is best known for his work as the General Manager at Charlotte Motor Speedway. By the time he was 20, Wheeler had been a ditch digger, bicycle repairman, boxer and college football player. Now at 71, he's an author. Wheeler's new autobiography "Growing Up NASCAR" begins in the 1940s, when he was a Catholic growing up in a largely angry Scots-Irish culture HUMPY: Back in the 1940s it was a poverty existence, even though people today that are descendants of those mill villages will say oh we weren't poor. They were poor. I lived next to them, I know. And that always produces a certain meanness, and you throw the Scotch-Irish culture in there, where people like to fight - and kids fought a lot. I mean, there wasn't a week went by from the time I was nine until I was fifteen years old that we weren't involved in a fight of some kind. SCOTT: You seem to have a very wide awareness of the world around you, and I don't know - I'm curious to know if you had that at the time, or does that show up in the book because you've gained that perspective over the years. Were you as well-aware of your situation as a kid as you seem to be in the book? HUMPY: I think so, because living in a small town in those days, when there were no Wal-Marts or chain stores or things like that, and you pretty much you know, saw the same people every day, you intermingle with those people, you got to know those people, and you became very aware of what they were like. Our family was middle class at what was just the beginnings of the middle class in the South. SCOTT: I'm going to ask you to put on your glasses there. I've identified a paragraph very early in the book. It's page four - it starts there with 'my father.' I'm going to ask you to read that paragraph here on the there you go. HUMPY: Yes it says, "My father was the coach and athletic director at Belmont Abbey College, and he made me go to prep school attached to the college when it was time for me to go to high school. I didn't like that one bit because they didn't play football. Unable to play football, I became serious about boxing. At that time, it was a very good school. We had to study Latin and Greek, but it was really in an interesting environment. In the morning I'd be in the Benedictine monks learning Latin, and in the afternoons I'd be up to my elbows in grease with the good old boys." SCOTT: I would assume that would create a very well-rounded individual - at least somebody who is at home in a monastery with monks and then elbowing around in grease with the good old boys. How did that serve you later in your career as a promoter working in the white collar world of NASCAR, but also serving a very blue collar race fan? HUMPY: You know in the past 15 years certain elements in the hierarchy of racing have tried to make it look like there's nothing but attorneys and accountants in the grandstand, whereas I know who's in the grandstand: who's in the grandstand are middle class people. And I know those people. I know what they like, I know what turns them on, I know what turns them off, and it served me well as a promoter of stockcar racing. SCOTT: One of my favorite stories of what I was able to read in the book this week was the story of the trophy from the first ever race that you promoted. Tell us that. HUMPY: It was the great Belmont bicycle race, and of course I had a bicycle shop in Belmont when I was thirteen, because there wasn't a bicycle shop in Belmont. And I was trying to make some money, and I was doing pretty good, but I wanted to create some more attention toward the bike shop, and obviously I knew if you raced bikes you'd tear them up. So, we had the great Belmont bicycle race, and a boy named Jimmy Abernathy won it, and he got the trophy. Jimmy lives in Greensboro now, and he brought the trophy back and he gave it to me at the speedway after I got there. And I said 'I can't take that back. You won it. That was the first trophy you ever got.' He says, 'No, you need to keep it because it was the first race you ever promoted.' So I thought that was pretty neat. SCOTT: In the tail end of your book, you detail your relationship with your long time boss Bruton Smith. I was surprised actually how candid you were about the breakup that you two had two years ago after you had worked with him for more than 30 years. Why did you include that in the book when two years ago when that went down you didn't want to talk about it? HUMPY: So many people kept asking me well what really happened that this thing ended so abruptly. I felt like the book was a good chance to explain that. And so I did, to a certain extent. SCOTT: Did you wait too long? Do you wish you would have left the speedway sooner? HUMPY: Looking back on it now I probably did. I did not like the direction NASCAR was going at the time. I didn't like the direction the speedway was going. I probably would have been better served for all if I had left maybe three, four years earlier. SCOTT: About three quarters of the way through the book, you detail your relationship, what it was like to work with Bruton. And you called him the most aggressive human you've ever been around. And you said that ultimately your departure from the speedway two years ago was because of a lack of respect - that some painted it as a money issue, and that is wasn't a money issue at all. Looking back are you surprised that relationship with him lasted as long as it did? HUMPY: In a way yes. I probably had as long a relationship with him as any person alive. Matter of fact, I don't know anybody that he has worked with as close that has stayed with him as long as I did. I think one of the things that were complicating this. . . It was a family business, and he had a son, Marcus, who was coming up. And I knew that Bruton wanted him to be the president of the company. What I would have liked to have done in a way, was stayed there, maybe gone from president to vice-chairman, and just helped Marcus along, and guided him, because I knew he was eventually going to move into my job. But Bruton didn't want that, so that kind of soured me a little bit. So I just decided at that point that it was time for me to hit the road, and that's what I did. SCOTT: It was may 2008, so next month it'll be two years ago, so when was the last time you had a conversation with Bruton? HUMPY: May of 2008. We have not spoken since. And that's unfortunate, but that's just the way it is. It's . . hopefully one day, one of these days we'll talk again, because I mean we used to talk every day. But it's just a very difficult situation. SCOTT: Humpy Wheeler it was great talking with you. Thanks for coming in. We appreciate it. I look forward to finishing the book in the next few weeks. HUMPY: Well Scott, great to be on your show again.