Final moments at speedway about race for great promoter Humpy
By: By JENNA FRYER, AP Auto Racing Writer
CONCORD, N.C. (AP) — Long after Kasey Kahne crossed the finish line, the fireworks finished and the last of the fans finally began their slow exit from the grandstands. The lights at Lowe’s Motor Speedway flipped off, and Humpy Wheeler exited stage left. There was no grand final bow. Humpy wanted his last moments at the speedway to be about another great show. He got his wish as Kahne outlasted several NASCAR heavyweights in a last-man-standing fight to the finish. For Wheeler, an amateur boxing champion, it was a fitting close to the 33 years he’d spent promoting events at the track he’d dubbed “The Beast of the Southeast.” But Wheeler deserved so much more. He’d spent most of his adult life working tirelessly to sell tickets for the centerpiece track in owner Bruton Smith’s showcase of speedways. It was never the sparkling showplace like the track Smith has in Las Vegas, the destination spot in Sonoma, Calif., or the action-packed Bristol Motor Speedway. Wheeler had to work to push the nearly 50-year-old track. In doing so, he brought attention to NASCAR and its stars at a time when racing was still a sideshow to the traditional stick-and-ball sports. Now the show will go on without Wheeler, who abruptly announced his retirement as president of LMS last Wednesday in a hastily called news conference that raised more questions than answers. No one can say they didn’t see Wheeler’s announcement coming sometime in the near future. But the 69-year-old Wheeler deserved to go out his way and when he was ready. Yet something happened in the six months since Wheeler privately floated the retirement idea past his longtime boss. Smith was prepared to let Wheeler do it his way — as long as it was this coming Wednesday, long after the show had packed up and moved on to the next town. Instead, the former South Carolina football player pulled an end-around and announced it himself a full week ahead. Conspicuously absent was the 81-year-old Smith, who later offered only backhanded compliments in his assessment of Wheeler’s devotion to LMS. As the days wound down to Wheeler’s final Coca-Cola 600, a schism was revealed that cut so deep, two men who have worked side-by-side for more than three decades would not be seen publicly together. Wheeler skipped Smith’s Thursday announcement that SMI was purchasing Kentucky Speedway, and Smith was a no-show at a heartfelt send-off from NASCAR and lengthy standing ovation at the driver meeting. Their brief final moment together came in an awkward hug as Wheeler walked off the stage during prerace activities. “I’ll leave you with one thing and I will steal a little bit from an Irish blessing,” Wheeler told the drivers, “and that is to tell you today that I hope that the green flag waves slowly on you today and until we meet again may God hold you in the palm of his hand.” The classy goodbye touched chairman Brian France, who later said there just may be a role for Wheeler in NASCAR. International Speedway Corp., Smith’s chief rival, and perhaps the NASCAR Hall of Fame will also come calling. There’s a role somewhere in this sport for Wheeler, and the fact that so many people are clamoring for his consulting speaks volumes to the work Wheeler has done. It’s just a shame that Smith, the one man who benefited most from Wheeler’s efforts, chose not to hear it.