Humpy Wheeler
Humpy Wheeler
June 12th Gathering: "Down Home Stories" with "Humpy" Wheeler
by Tom Hanchett, Staff Historian, Levine Museum of the New South, and Vice President, Charlotte Folk Society

Howard A. "Humpy" Wheeler, Jr., is best known to the world as the promoter who helped build Lowes Motor Speedway into a national racing destination. But he's also a world-class storyteller.

He'll share tales of growing up in the mill town of Belmont, North Carolina, and his memories of the early days of NASCAR when he visits the Great Aunt Stella Center for the monthly Gathering of the Charlotte Folk Society the evening of Friday, June 12. Wheeler promises to arrive in his '39 Ford, hot-rodded in the spirit of a 1950's moonshine car. The 7:30 program, co-sponsored by Levine Museum of the New South, is free and open to the public. Donations are appreciated.

"There were four things that respectable families who'd left the farms for the mill towns didn't want anything to do with," says Humpy: "Live in a log cabin, listen to hillbilly music, hang around with rednecks, and watch stockcar racing. I broke all those rules, except for the log cabin."

Belmont, across the river from Charlotte, remained much like TV's Mayberry during Humpy's youth in the 1940s and 1950s. Many of his stories involve the two-man police department -- one deputy and a "big old police chief who didn't like to leave his office," but still seemed to know everything that was going on.

Other tales detail Humpy's days as a teenage entrepreneur starting the town's only bicycle shop. "The first race I ever organized was a bicycle race when I was thirteen. I've always been a promoter."

The promoter spirit carried Humpy into the fledgling world of NASCAR back when tracks were still dirt. Two things made the Carolinas a hub of the race scene, he says. The piedmont's red clay could be easily bulldozed into a good track. And there were a whole lot of young moonshine runners who knew how to build hot cars and drive fast.

Along the way to becoming president at Charlotte (later Lowes) Motor Speedway, Humpy became a gifted storyteller. After all, that's a lot of what a promoter does -- spin stories that fans and especially the press want to tell and re-tell. There was the time, for instance, when driver Cale Yarborough called his aggressive rival Darrell Waltrip "Jaws." Humpy bought a big dead shark, put a dead chicken in its mouth (Holly Farms Poultry sponsored Yarborough), and had it driven around the truck on a flatbed truck before a Charlotte race. Needless to say, the "Jaws" nickname stuck.

Today, retired from Lowes Speedway, Humpy is finishing a book of his stories, Son of the South, due out this fall. He hosts programs on SPEED Channel, the nationwide cable channel headquartered in Charlotte. And you might have caught his featured voice role in the Disney Pixar film Cars as a race promoter named Tex.

Charlotte Folk Society Gatherings are made possible, in part, through a Cultural Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council and the Grassroots Program of the North Carolina Arts Council, a state agency.

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Humpy Wheeler's evening of stories will be the first presentation of this kind by Charlotte Folk Society, but one that is deeply rooted in its mission of preserving and promoting traditional music, crafts, and lore. The idea is borrowed from the National Storytelling Festival held each fall in Jonesborough, Tennessee. Last year they invited a couple of veteran NASCAR drivers to join the customary roster of professional tale tellers. Festival goers loved hearing these "natural storytellers."

The Great Aunt Stella Center is located in uptown Charlotte at 926 Elizabeth Avenue near Central Piedmont Community College. Parking is free in the lot next to the building and in the adjacent parking deck. Visitors are invited to enjoy refreshments, a song circle, and slow and fast jams following the hour-long program.

Charlotte Folk Society Gatherings are made possible, in part, through a Cultural Project Grant from the Arts & Science Council and the Grassroots Program of the North Carolina Arts Council, a state agency.