HARRISBURG, N.C. — Every interview with iconic racing promoter H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler generates substantially more interesting information than will fit in the space allotted for the assigned story.
Such was the case when we spoke with Wheeler recently for a piece that appears elsewhere in these pages. That story focuses on the state of NASCAR racing, so we’ll use this column to share Wheeler’s insight on three additional topics.
Racing’s No. 1 Problem: “We’ve developed this industry that is self-perpetuating high costs. The industry is wonderful, but we’ve got to control it because we know what happens if you don’t — a racer is going to spend every dime he’s got to make his car run faster,” Wheeler said. “I think the No. 1 problem facing us is the cost of racing, and that goes all the way down to Seekonk (Mass.) Speedway. However, I see more things going on to contain costs at the short tracks than I ever do at the superspeedways. We’ve got to get the costs down, there’s just no question about it.
“I was looking at Bobby Allison’s old race car the other day — his ’67 Chevelle, which was quite a race car in its day,” Wheeler continued. “I’m looking at the suspension, I’m looking at the engine, I’m looking all the way down through the car — and that was a hell of a race car. It would be so easy to reproduce that today and cut the cost 75 percent.
“I go to the short tracks and there are still so many wannabe racers out there. Guys are always coming up asking, ‘How do I get a sponsor,’ this, that and the other thing, so I think the interest is there. What we’ve got to do is get the cost down so these wannabe racers can afford to go racing.”
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Spectacular Pre-Race Stunts: “People still like to see things blown up, jumped and crashed,” Wheeler noted. “I wish Travis (Pastrana) was doing then what he’s doing now because we would’ve had him doing some interesting things. People still love stunts. That’s just part of the American psyche.”
Birth of the Legend Car: “It wasn’t a stroke of genius that produced the Legend Car. We just took the dwarf car and made more of a race car out of it,” Wheeler explained. “But what we did more than anything is that we would not bend to the competitors. They all wanted softer tires. They all wanted this, that and the other thing, and we would not give them that. It saved the competitors a tremendous amount of money, but the whole idea on that car was to make it difficult to drive.
“Some of these kids today are jumping in a late model stock car and they’ve got soft tires, they’ve $50,000 worth of springs and shocks, and it makes the car much easier to drive, particularly in the corners, and that’s not where guys learn,” Wheeler added. “I think the Legend Car did what it was supposed to. It had a lot of torque coming off the corners. It didn’t handle right so you had to drive them. I think it’s a great testimony to the car itself and to the people running the thing because of keeping the costs down.”
– While we understand his decision to chase the money and pursue a career in stock car racing, Tanner Gray’s departure from the NHRA Pro Stock ranks is a major blow to the straight-line sport.
With his impressive talent behind the wheel, a strong marketing prowess and an unwillingness to back down from a fight, many were expecting the 19-year-old Gray to lead the next generation of NHRA stars. His departure leaves a void and it will be interesting to see who — if anyone — steps up.
– In this month where we all pause to give thanks, we tip our hat to the thousands of men and women who operate push trucks at short tracks across the country, making it possible for us to enjoy the thrills of sprint car and midget racing.