Humpy Wheeler announced his retirement as president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway on Wednesday, ending a 33-year career as one of NASCAR's top promoters.
Wheeler will step down after Sunday's Coca-Cola 600 at the track near Charlotte. No replacement was selected for the 69-year-old Wheeler, who plans to write a book and host a television show.
Wheeler said he first considered retirement about a year ago, although he sidestepped a question on whether the decision to leave was completely his. Wheeler's boss is Speedway Motorsports CEO Bruton Smith, who hired Wheeler in 1975 and made him track president a year later. Smith was not present at Wednesday's news conference.
"Some of it is on my own terms. I won't say it all is," Wheeler said. "Some of it is and I'll let it rest at that."
Reached at his office Wednesday afternoon, Smith denied he forced Wheeler out.
"Six months ago we had a meeting and he told me then that he had discussed retiring," Smith said. "He was laying the groundwork quite some time ago. It was not unexpected."
Wheeler joked that his retirement announcement wasn't simply a gimmick to sell tickets for this weekend's race, before adding, "but if it does, that's OK."
Wheeler has done almost everything to get fans to his track. He employed magicians, used back-flipping dogs, re-enacted war scenes in elaborate pre-race shows and emphasized driver rivalries to sell the sport and make his track one of the premier locations in NASCAR.
"We did a lot of things to try to make it better for the fans, and he did a lot of that," Smith said.
Wheeler was also behind several of the sport's innovations. To prevent NASCAR from moving the All-Star race to Richmond, Va., Wheeler vowed to make his track the first superspeedway to erect lights. The NASCAR Sprint All-Star race has made LMS its permanent home, and is now run on Saturday nights.
LMS, formerly Charlotte Motor Speedway, was also the first major track to reach a naming rights deal. Under his management, the track expanded its seating capacity to 167,000, and was the first track to offer extensive VIP suites, condominiums and extravagant pre-race entertainment.
"People that don't even know his name became NASCAR fans solely due to Humpy's creative promotions," said Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, who tutored under Wheeler. "I know that I am a far better promoter as a result of being a graduate of 'Humpy University.'"
A tireless worker and cutthroat negotiator, Wheeler spent countless hours at the track and befriended numerous drivers. He was known as a stickler for details and was a calm influence during tragedy.
Wheeler's lowest point came in 1999, when three spectators were killed and eight others injured from flying debris after a wreck during an Indy Racing League event. Wheeler immediately canceled the rest of the race and the IRL has yet to return to the track.
"As long as I was running the place there would not have been another one here," Wheeler said.
Wheeler also helped develop other forms of racing. He was instrumental in the creation of the Legends Car and said he hopes to develop another low-cost car that will help make sure talented drivers don't miss out on the sport because of the cost.
"The biggest thing that worries me about racing in the future is we don't get the great race drivers," Wheeler said. "That we leave out the next Kyle Busch or the next Dale Earnhardt Sr. because a guy can't afford to race and gets stuck in the cornfields of Iowa."
He'll have no consulting role with the track after Sunday's finale. Wheeler will become the chairman of the Charlotte Regional Partnership in 2009 and could be considered for a post at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which is scheduled to open in 2010 in downtown Charlotte.
"It's just one of those things. It's time to go," Wheeler said. "It's not something I'm really looking forward to. But there just comes a time and place when you've got to move on."