Mark Washburn

Humpy Wheeler, NASCAR and the mirrors

Humpy Wheeler, longtime motorsports promoter, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2000.
Humpy Wheeler, longtime motorsports promoter, at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in 2000. Observer file photo

He was born Howard Alden Wheeler in 1938, but no one growing up in Belmont wants to be called Howard Alden.

His pals started calling him Humpy Jr., after the nickname his father earned when he was playing football at the University of Illinois and he got caught puffing on Camel cigarettes. Humpy, for the camel’s back.

Wheeler, 77, whose audacious marketing stunts propelled NASCAR into the big time, spoke Thursday at the Levine Museum of the New South. He told of the little-known strategy to attract more women he used when he ran Charlotte Motor Speedway.

In 1978, women were only 15 percent of the speedway crowd. He used a trick filling stations used to become female-friendly – he cleaned up the women’s restrooms.

Not only did they sparkle, but he took the advice of his wife, Pat, and put mirrors in them – lots and lots of mirrors.

Then they spiffed up up the ticket-takers, who looked like prison inmates, Wheeler said. They told them to be neighborly. And all that did the trick.

Then there was the time he got Cleopatra to the World 600.

“We were sitting around saying, ‘Who’s the least likely person to come to Charlotte Motor Speedway?’ I said the pope. We couldn’t get the pope. So we got Elizabeth Taylor.”

Taylor agreed to be grand marshal of the 1977 race. She told Wheeler she’d never been in front of so many people.

“I got thinking about those crowds in ‘Cleopatra,’ ” Wheeler said, “but they were all fake.”

Taylor, known for being difficult on the movie set, turned out to be a good sport at the track. She gave interviews while munching fried chicken and sipping bourbon from a foam cup.

Wheeler’s most famous stunt was the time he got the U.S. Army to invade the speedway.

After the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Wheeler talked the 82nd Airborne at Fort Bragg to re-enact the taking of the island on race day. He kept it a secret, even from NASCAR.

With 100,000 fans looking on, big military helicopters suddenly swooped in, thump-thump-thumping, and soldiers began rappelling down ropes. Then out came howitzers, firing blanks at the suites.

“All the NASCAR people went crazy,” Wheeler said. “They were afraid they’d land on a car.

“It ended up being a great show. But on the following Tuesday I had to buy a horse.”

A casualty of the attack: A horse pastured near the track got spooked by the choppers, stumbled and broke its leg.

Wheeler knows cars but not horses. He asked the farmer what kind of horse it was and was told it was a Paso Fino. Wheeler knows cars, not livestock. He fretted it might be an expensive breed.

Not so. He found a replacement for $1,500.

And the show still goes on.