Nearly all of the open-wheel teams competing in what was then the U.S. Automobile Club (USAC) series were based in and around Los Angeles. But in 1964, engines from Europe became the choice of most USAC teams, which ultimately shifted their operations to England and Italy to be closer to the designers and builders who were driving the technological revolution in open-wheel racing.
Virtually overnight, the heart of open-wheel racing shifted overseas, leaving L.A. faster than A.J. Foyt on a restart.
"You wonder if that could happen here," says H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, who for more than three decades ran Charlotte Motor Speedway and was considered racing's signature showman.
Wheeler has remained involved in racing after an acrimonious split with CMS and its owner, Bruton Smith, in 2008. After retreating to his home on the western edge of Huntersville, on Mountain Island Lake, Wheeler launched his own racing consulting business, helping track owners (not named Bruton Smith) and race teams improve their performance.
In many ways, Wheeler is like the drivers and team owners he came to know so well in his more than 30 years at CMS. The Lake Norman area has become the heart of NASCAR, and that evolution is no accident.
"Racing people love the water," Wheeler says, "because it's so different from the concrete and asphalt in their world."
A majority of NASCAR teams are based within a short drive of Lake Norman, including powerhouses Joe Gibbs Racing (Huntersville), Hendrick Motorsports (Concord) and Penske Racing (Mooresville). But it wasn't always that way, and, Wheeler cautions, it won't necessarily stay that way.
NASCAR was born on the sand of Daytona Beach, but by the 1970s, as the circuit began to expand its reach, team owners wanted to keep their operations closer to the tracks at which they competed, Wheeler notes. Most of those tracks were still in the Southeast, but new facilities — and new races on NASCAR's top circuits — were springing up across the country,
"The teams began to rely more and more on air travel, which made access to a quality airport a priority," Wheeler recalls.
That left Atlanta and Charlotte as the logical candidates to become stock car racing's unofficial capital.
Charlotte had a wild card to play in the recruiting game — Lake Norman. Charlotte also courted race teams more aggressively than Atlanta did, Wheeler says.
"Atlanta just narrowly missed" being the home of racing, Wheeler says. "If Atlanta had been more proactive, the area just south of (Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport) would have been the area of choice."
The Charlotte region's current stronghold on NASCAR is on full display the next two weekends at Charlotte Motor Speedway, with the Sprint Cup All-Star Race this Saturday under the lights at the speedway — which is actually within the Concord city limit — followed by next weekend's racing extravaganza capped by the Coca Cola 600 on Sunday.