Chicago Street Race and the Hall of Fame

Chicago Street Race-Round Two is upon us. 

Round One was voted the Sports Business Journal’s “Sport Event of the Year” in their 2024 Sports Business Awards ceremony. 

Pretty impressive for an inaugural event. More so for the first Cup Street race in NASCAR’s 75-year history.  

Even more still, considering that weather conditions of Biblical proportions cancelled major portions of the weekend’s scheduled events, caused NASCAR to take unprecedented action and declare a winner to the Xfinity race before the race was completed to the point where it’s rules allow it to declare it to be an official race and the shortened Cup race saw a New Zealand rookie come in and take the “World’s Greatest Drivers’” lunch money.

When you think about all the sports in the US and all the events they put on in 2023, a washed out card, two incomplete races, short attendance and anticipated economic impact shortfalls lands you as the top sport event of the year, this year’s event with infinitely better weather predictions and a year’s experience under its belt to learn from should make the event a Grand Slam lock to repeat as the  “Sport Event of the Year”.

Nary a lap of Cup competition has been completed and let me be the first to say “Congratulations!”

As I take a moment to reflect on last year’s accomplishment there are two people, I can’t help but remember, who helped shape and make this whole thing possible.  It’s two you have probably heard of but are two who you would not normally connect to this unprecedented award-winning NASCAR event. Two, who without them, the event in its current configuration would have not been possible at this time.

The two – Howard Augustine “Humpy” Wheeler, Jr., and Henry “Smokey” Yunick.

How are they involved with this street race? 

Let’s start with Humpy.

“Humpy” Wheeler, the long-time former president and general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway was known as a promotor extraordinaire.  Called the “PT Barnum of motorsports”, a fan to a Wheeler race was always given something more than a just a race, it was an event.  His pre-race shows were different, unexpected, memorable, legendary.  They got the fans to the track, in their seats, ready to go racing and making memories long before the engines fired.  They made fans’ time at the track waiting for the race to start something to never forget. 

You never knew if it was going to be a shark with a chicken hanging out of it’s mouth affixed to the pace car, parading around the track to promote the rivalry between Darrell “Jaws” Waltrip and the Holly Farms (poultry) sponsored Cale Yarborough, or Jimmy “The Flying Greek” Koufus jumping a souped up school bus over a width of a football field long row of junk cars, to the World’s Greatest Taxi Cab race with the 20 of best cabbies from around the country racing cabs around the infield quarter mile.

It might be a three-ring circus complete with everything but elephants at the Start-Finish Line, to “The Regurgitator”, a man swallowing die cast cars and then throwing them back up to predict the order of race finish, or “Robosaurus” a giant, fire-breathing, car-crushing, robotic dinosaur-like monstrosity operated by none other than “The Intimidator” himself.

And yeah, he had his share of pre-race concerts by big-name acts as well.

My first experience was Wheeler’s infamous “Invasion of Grenada”.  Not knowing what to expect, my buddy who had brought me to the race who had seen Humpy’s pre-race shows before could only grin big and say “Hang On”.  For the next 15 minutes “Operation Urgent Fury” unfolded before our eyes as 200 troops and airmen in Apache helicopters descended into “Grenada”, and with pyrotechnics displays that included strafing runs on the huts and palm trees along the front stretch, so authentic, Humpy had to call the local sheriff and convince him that a Red Dawnlike invasion wasn’t going down at the Speedway.

Knowing Wheeler’s propensity to pre-race “blowing things up”, a few years later when Wheeler came on the Public Address system to announce the start of UAW-GM Quality 500 was being delayed because the US was invading Afghanistan as “Operation Enduring Freedom” was underway, fans initially thought Humpy had pulled off the stunt to end all stunts… until the big screens switched to the CNN broadcasts showing the reality of war a half a world away unfolding live before our eyes.

Memorable, but nothing any of us wanted to see.

Wheeler always pushed the envelope.  He gave Janet Guthrie her NASCAR start after she didn’t make the Indy 500, opening the sport up to millions of female fans.  When his attempt to get up and coming African-American driver, Willy T. Ribbs into a Cup ride went awry, that ride went to an unknown local driver, you may have heard of-a fella named Dale Earnhardt.  And to keep the All-Star Race from being moved from his Charlotte track, he did what was thought to be impossible and successfully lit the 1.5 mile track and ran the first big-track night race.

Before today’s leaders like Ben Kennedy were born, Wheeler was casting the need of taking NASCAR overseas.  Almost a decade and a half before Kennedy made his “bold move” to take racing to the LA Coliseum, Humpy had laid out the blueprint for it in the 2006 movie Cars, a movie in which Wheeler not only had a role in (voice of Tex, boss of Dinoco, sponsor of The King) but provided technical advice on the NASCAR aspects, it’s history and future used in the feature. 

But with all that said, as Buddy Guy, The Black Keys, The Chainsmokers, Lauren Alaina, Keith Urban and all the other talents take to the DraftKing’s Stage entertain fans for this weekend’s event, remember that a promoter by the name of H. A. Wheeler, Jr. plowed that “entertainment” ground a long time ago and that is his forever connection to the Chicago Street Race. 

 Moving on to Smokey.

There is a lot you can say about the owner of the “Best Damn Garage in Town”.   Officially, Smokey Yunick was a driver, owner, crew chief, engineer, engine builder and car designer.  His drivers won over fifty races in Cup.  They brought two Cup Championships back to the Daytona Beach garage.  Many of his drivers are the legends who built the sport-Thomas, Turner, Roberts, Goldsmith and more

His proponents call him one of the leading innovators in the sport-the best of the best.  Opponents say he’s a cheat.  History says his creed was “If they don’t say you can’t do it, you can.” 

And can he did.

Smokey’s pushing of the envelope as hard as he did increase the size of NASCAR rule book exponentially as the Sanctioning Body tried to rein in the mechanical wizard from Daytona Beach by out-ruling him.

Let the record show that their success was questionable.

But what connects Yunick to Chicago Street isn’t for any of that.  It’s his work in safety… specifically, soft wall technology. 

You see, long before the death of Dale Earnhardt, Smokey saw the need to change the concrete retaining wall systems at the tracks and developed a safer, moveable wall system-the beginnings of soft wall technology and a forerunner to today’s SAFER Barriers.

Racing in Smokey’s day was much different than today, as each piece and part were evolving to perform without failure to the ever-increasing demands NASCAR racing placed on each. Firestone and Goodyear worked endlessly to develop tires that could keep up with racing’s loads and stresses that all too often were pushed beyond failure.   

Yunick had seen far too many drivers severely injured or worse in this “bang-bang” era of NASCAR.  It was a time when the first “bang” was the right front tire exploding under intense load, followed by the inevitable and immediate second “bang” of the car slamming full speed into the concrete retaining wall that lined the track. 

Sick of what was happening to his and other drivers, Smokey not only preached the need for a soft wall system but used his own money and engineering talents to develop a crude prototype for a “moveable kinetic energy barrier” – the forerunner to the system that protects drivers today.

Yunick concocted his system from readily available materials-used racing tires and plywood.  Realizing it was just a starting point, Yunick would show anyone who would look and listen, including NASCAR, to try to garner the necessary support to move development to the next level and eventually, fruition.  Unfortunately, his efforts fell on blind eyes and deaf ears, and he eventually had no choice but file his soft wall efforts into the “good idea, but…” file.

An early prototype of Smokey Yunick’s soft wall

Speaking in an interview after the deaths of Adam Petty and Tony Roper, Yunick prophetically predicted, “I figure, as soon as the right guy gets killed, they’ll come down here and look at it. I spent enough of my money and time, and tried hard enough, that at this point I don’t give a (bleep) anymore,” he said. “I’m tired of hollering into the wind.”

A few short months later, Dale Earnhardt would be killed and although NASCAR never came back to look, Smokey’s tire-based  soft wall concept set the foundation for development of the SAFER Barriers of today.

This weekend, when you see the Xfinity and Cup cars racing on the award-winning, tire barrier-lined temporary circuit through downtown Chicago, remember the man behind it-Smokey Yunick.

When the sun goes down Sunday evening and YouTube videos are rolling. Social Media is spiking, the stories are being written and the congratulatory accolades are flowing like Sunoco Fuel from a thousand gas cans, I predict that the names of Humpy Wheeler and Smokey Yunick, visionaries and pioneers in the sport who in their own ways and through their actions taken years  ago made this weekend possible will not be a part of the conversation, nowhere to be found.  

Julie Giese and Ben Kennedy and others deserve the credit and recognition for their hard work to successfully pull an event of this magnitude off successfully.  As mentioned earlier, their efforts should be a lock for more awards this season and no doubt will be leading accomplishments for their Hall of Fame resumes that will surely be up for consideration sooner than later.  

But what shouldn’t be lost in all of this weekend’s success is the fact that they stand on the shoulders of these two giants in the sport-Humpy Wheeler and Smokey Yunick.  Sadly, giants who for whatever reason, cannot or will not be recognized by the very sport each helped build.  

That is wrong.  

Maybe I missed it, but the last time I checked I saw neither have ever been mentioned for nomination into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

That is wrong.

Until it’s righted properly by the NASCAR HOF Nominating Committee, fans in the Windy City can remember these two-Humpy, each time one of the the many musicians take to the DraftKings Stage and Smokey, each time those tire barriers trap a wayward car before it hits the concrete wall behind.

Fans, this weekend, you can get it right…even if others in NASCAR can’t find it in themselves to.

Thunder On… and Stay Safe

David Nance

Photo Credit (cover): Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

One comment

  1. Nailed it, my friend. Two alltime greats who are denied adequate recognition because they aren’t on the Friends-of-NASCAR list. Those stories need never be forgotten.

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