"Humpy" Wheeler Bounces Back after Being Fired from LMS
CONCORD, N.C. (Sept. 8, 2004) - "Humpy, you're fired!"
It sounds like something straight out of NBC's popular reality television series "The Apprentice," featuring Donald Trump.
It's hard to believe now, but H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the newly elected National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame promoter, was "fired" from his first job at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"I certainly know how folks feel when they lose their job," said Wheeler, now president and general manager of the 1.5-mile superspeedway. "I've lost at least three.
"The first time, believe it or not, was in 1963 when the track was known as Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track was in bankruptcy protection and times were tough," Wheeler continued. "I was doing advertising and promotion, and had a 1-year-old daughter. A guy told me they had to cut back and I was gone.
"The next day a friend told me not to be mad about getting fired, but to put my energy into getting a new job."
Wheeler turned the negative into a positive when he landed a job with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, first as a publicist for its motorsports program and later as the company's director of motorsports.
"My tenure at Firestone was very beneficial in preparing me for a career in motorsports," said Wheeler. "It exposed me to various types of racing, personalities, facilities and cultures.
"At the time, Firestone was a fierce competitor with Goodyear, so I learned a lot about promoting a product."
However, Wheeler would face the harsh reality of corporate downsizing again in 1975.
Wheeler was working for Ervin Industries, a subsidiary of American Cyanamid, specializing in commercial and residential real estate.
"Interest rates began to soar into the upper teens and the economy plummeted," Wheeler said. "This huge company, which employed thousands of people, was brought to its knees. We were down to seven or eight people when I was let go.
"They gave me seven months' notice," Wheeler said. "By then Bruton (Smith) had acquired majority ownership of the speedway and we began talking about me coming back here."
And, as they say, the rest is history. Wheeler has never forgotten the impact of losing his job while supporting a wife and three small children.
"Back then, a lot of people had never experienced a layoff or firing," Wheeler said. "Unfortunately, it has become more commonplace the past few years, especially since 9/11. When you go through it, you really find out who your friends are."
Wheeler says employment in racing certainly has its instabilities.
"I think anyone who is anyone in racing has been fired at least once," Wheeler offered. "You look at the number of drivers, crew chiefs and crew members who have been terminated at one point or another."
Unlike the format for the reality television series, Wheeler thinks real life apprenticeships take time.
"The main thing is not to go into dysfunction," Wheeler advised. "Everyone has something they can do well. Not everyone gets to do what it is they do well for a living or discovers their true calling until later in life.
"I have a theory," Wheeler offered. "I think your apprenticeship goes into your 30s. Most people find their slot somewhere between 35 and 40 years of age. Doctors, lawyers and other professionals don't really start making any money until they reach that age.
"Winston Churchill was the ultimate apprentice," noted Wheeler. "He didn't become prime minister until he was 62 years old. However, he took everything he had learned and applied it during World War II to become the greatest leader of all time."
According to Wheeler, nothing is more important than working under a good mentor.
"I've been fortunate in that area," Wheeler said. "I've had several good mentors in my personal and professional life. My dad, who was a former coach and athletic director at Belmont Abbey College, was a major influence in my life. For the past 30 years, Bruton has been a great mentor."
Wheeler also credits other Charlotte-area civic and business leaders as positive influences, including John Belk, Allen Tate and Bill Lee.
The 65-year-old Belmont native has also been a positive influence on many in the racing profession, including Ed Clark, president of Atlanta Motor Speedway, and Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. Both men spent time working for Wheeler, serving in publicity and promotion roles prior to assuming their current posts.
From running a dirt track in Gastonia to becoming arguably one of the greatest promoters in all of sports, Wheeler appreciates opportunity.
"I wonder if Donald Trump would have fired Winston Churchill if they had that show back then?" he concluded.
To keep "Humpy" from being fired again, he's asking race fans to buy tickets to the Oct. 16 UAW-GM Quality 500. The event is round five of the 10-race Chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup.
Tickets, starting at just $29, are available by calling 1-800-455-FANS or online at www.lowesmotorspeedway.com.