If you’ve been in Charlotte any length of time, you know Humpy Wheeler. Or you know his name, at least. How could you not?
From 1975 to 2008, the 1961 University of South Carolina journalism graduate was president and general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And over those three high-octane, pedal-to-the-metal decades, he came to be regarded as one of the most colorful promotors in NASCAR history.
Heck, he’s even got an IMDB page. If you’ve seen the Pixar film Cars (or for that matter, Cars 3), you know Humpy Wheeler as the voice of Tex Dinoco, the smooth-talking gold 1975 Cadillac Coupe de Ville.
But it’s the stunts and promotions that revved folks’ engines and got them talking about Humpy.
Humpy once had a school bus jump a row of junked cars as long as a football field is wide. Humpy brought in a giant car-eating robot called Robosaurus, parked it outside the speedway and put Dale Earnhardt at the controls. Humpy reenacted a WWII aerial battle in the skies over the grandstands and recruited the 82nd Airborne to launch a surprise attack on the infield.
And it got weirder than that. One time, Humpy saw a professional regurgitator on late-night TV, brought him to a pre-race press conference and had him swallow billiard balls. When he spit the balls back up in a different order, the numbers on the balls counted as a prediction for the race’s winning driver.
“The first time I walked into Charlotte Motor Speedway I said, ‘We're going to jazz this place up,' ” says the Belmont, North Carolina, native, who got hooked on dirt track racing as a child. “It's not just going to be a race; it’s going to be a show. That’s just my instincts. I've always gravitated toward doing stuff that shocks people and gets them going.”
As a result, Humpy Wheeler, now 84, is as close as it gets to a household name in professional motorsports — and likewise in the Queen City. But before people started dropping the name Humpy in conversations about racing, he was an athlete himself.
People talked about Humpy then, too.
Humpy boxed semi-professionally, starting as a teenager, but saw what happened to men who boxed too long, so he put his brains to business rather than have them bashed out in the ring. Humpy also played football for the Gamecocks in the 1950s, “both sides of the ball” — fullback on offense, linebacker and middle guard on defense — until a serious back injury sidelined those dreams as well.
“This fullback cut back, I hit him right in the chest, and my own teammate slammed his helmet right into my spine,” he recalls. “I got caught between two huge men going full tilt. I was the mustard in the sandwich.”
Humpy ended up in the hospital with three broken vertebrae, unable to feel his toes for days: “All of a sudden my right knee starts itching,” he says, “and oh boy, I went nuts!” He was glad to have feeling again; he had worried he might never walk. For several months after the injury, he stood in the back of his classes, unable to sit down, but he refused to let up.
“It was so devastating,” he says of the injury. “But in a certain way, it was a good thing. I had devoted my whole life to the physical. Getting hurt made me go from the physical to the mental.”
It also helped him pick a lane. Whereas he originally thought about law school, the injury got him thinking about journalism. He changed majors, landed a job at the now-defunct Columbia Record, and meanwhile convinced the USC athletics department to make him assistant sports information director under Don Barton.
“My journalism school teachers were great,” he says. “Let me tell you what they did when they saw I changed majors and I'm working at the paper. The managing editor comes over, and he says, ‘We've gotten together and we're going to help you along a little bit. We're going to grade you about what you do on this paper every day, but we’re going to be tough as hell on you.’ ”
And it was hell, though not because of the work. Humpy Wheeler was never afraid of work; he held down multiple jobs his whole life, going back to his mill town childhood when he opened his own bicycle repair shop, mowed lawns and got his first bylines cranking out copy for The Belmont Banner. “I wrote whatever I wanted,” he says, “but mostly about racing because it got me a ticket to the race.”
No, the reporter gig was hell for Humpy because he missed the action. It hurt watching the Gamecocks from the press box when he longed to be in the game — “I wanted to be down there so bad because I could only hit those typewriter keys so hard!” he says with a laugh — but he gained the experience he needed to chase a new dream.
He graduated and worked for a while in newspapers and in television, but he still missed the thrill. He found it at the track, opened his own, had his share of wrecks, and not just the exciting kind. He even gave it a go as a driver himself, though he says he wasn’t any good. Eventually, he made the big time, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, and never looked back — except to spin a colorful yarn or offer a bit of homespun wisdom.
“When you have a race and nobody comes or whatever, you go down in a hole. That’s just normal,” he says. “Successful people just keep digging until they get back out.”