Smith, Wheeler not seeing the same light

May, 5, 2012

CONCORD, N.C. -- Speedway Motorsports, Inc. chairman Bruton Smith and ex-employee associate H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler are at war again.

When Charlotte Motor Speedway sent out a press release on Tuesday promoting the 20th anniversary of the first race under the lights at a superspeedway and called it Smith's idea, his former president and general manager of CMS responded strongly.

Wheeler said the idea to install lights at CMS for the 1992 All-Star race was his idea and his alone.

"I usually let Bruton spiel on, but this one got me," Wheeler said. "He would take credit for the sun and moon if he could!"

In fairness to Smith, he didn't write the press release or suggest that he be given credit in it. But when asked who came up with the idea for lights at CMS and what he thought of Wheeler's comments, he didn't smooth the waters.

"I'm not going to comment on anything about him at all," Smith said. "I don't pay attention to what [Wheeler] thinks. He's a former employee. I can't possibly think about anything about him, period."

Wheeler and Smith have been at odds since Wheeler claimed Smith pushed him out of his job earlier than he wanted in 2008 after a 33-year relationship.

Wheeler said the hastily called press conference to announce his resignation was not his idea. Smith said Wheeler was offered a consultant's position.

He said, he said. That's been the relationship of the two men -- who once were the dynamic duo of NASCAR -- ever since.

It's a shame.

And sad.

Considered one of NASCAR's greatest race promoters, Wheeler has since formed a marketing/consulting company.

Wheeler had remained relatively quiet about his strained relationship with Smith, with whom he helped make CMS a model for other big tracks with lights, condominiums and a speedway club, until Tuesday's press release.

"Twenty years after Speedway Motorsports, Inc. Chairman Bruton Smith floated the idea of installing a first-of-its-kind lighting system at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the seemingly impossible notion of racing at night has become the norm, with some of NASCAR's biggest events, including the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, now running in prime time," the release began.

On Wednesday, Wheeler fired back with a 13-paragraph email with the title, "SMITH WRONG IN SUGGESTING LIGHTS WERE HIS IDEA."

"The release sent out by Charlotte Motor Speedway suggesting that the lights at the track were Bruton Smith's idea is not true," Smith wrote. "I will not stand by and see history rewritten."

Smith said he made the suggestion to install lights and run the Sprint All-Star Race at night during a 1991 visit with T. Wayne Roberton, the director of RJ Reynolds Sports Marketing, to keep the race at CMS.

Wheeler said he was worried that RJR might move the race, which has been at CMS every year but one since 1985 -- it was in Atlanta in 1986 -- to Richmond. He made a presentation with five ideas, he said, "and [Robertson's] group didn't like any of them."

"I thought we were going to lose the race," Wheeler wrote. "Right before the meeting ended I said, 'OK, I have another idea … let's run it on Saturday night.' Wayne looked at me like I was crazy and so did my associate Jim Duncan.

"Wayne thought it was a great idea and said, 'If you can do it and NASCAR approves, then let's do it.'"

Wheeler said the idea "just came out of my head."

"We got back to Charlotte and at some point I told Bruton Smith that was what I wanted to do," Wheeler wrote. "He said, 'OK.'"

After the race, Wheeler said Robertson presented him with a bottle of champagne and a note that said, "Great idea.'' The bottle and note were sent to the Hall of Fame to be placed on display.

"I am proud of my idea," Wheeler said. "Bruton and I did a lot of great things together. We helped to change NASCAR in some way.

"A lot of the things we did in Charlotte were mutual ideas. The lights were not one of them."

Sadly, they can't enjoy their accomplishments together.

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer


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