Nepotism causes turmoil at SMI
From the departure of Humpy Wheeler in May to Lauri Wilks' resignation last week, three of Speedway Motorsports Inc.'s top executives have left the company in less than five months.
Wilks, a 15-year veteran with Lowe's Motor Speedway, was executive vice president whose responsibilities included tickets, operations, events, camping, communications, guest services and logistics, as well as investor relations. She was No. 2 in charge at the speedway after track president Marcus Smith, and said she was leaving without another job but hopes to find a position after taking some time off. Roger Slack, the speedway's vice president of events, left in August.
Bruton Smith, 81, said the turnover was not a concern.
"Not at all," he said. "There's no story there."
But those such as Slack say this kind of fallout was inevitable after Wheeler's messy exit in May, when a rift between Wheeler and Smith was exposed. Wheeler had been with the company for more than 30 years and many within SMI were loyal to him.
"When you lose a leader like Humpy, that forces you to look at a lot of things in your life," Slack said. "A lot of people figured we'd never leave as long as Humpy was there. The people who are leaving had worked really hard there for a long time."
After Wheeler left in May, Bruton Smith installed his son, Marcus, as SMI's COO and president, as well as president of Lowe's Motor Speedway. Some close to the business thought Wilks deserved to be Wheeler's replacement as the speedway's chief.
One source with deep knowledge of SMI said Wilks "made sure things were ordered, that the bills were paid, she just made sure the engine was running. She ran that place."
A graduate of the Wake Forest law school, Wilks joined the speedway in 1993 and was integral in helping the company go public in 1995.
But this is hardly the first family business to elevate the next generation into the top job, said Dennis McAlpine, a financial analyst and consultant who has tracked the motorsports industry for more than 20 years.
Marcus Smith has worked in multiple roles at SMI for 12 years, most recently as executive vice president of national sales and marketing from 2004 until his promotion. Whereas Smith worked his way up on the SMI side, Wilks did the same at Lowe's Motor Speedway, so one did not technically report to the other until Marcus became head of the speedway in May. It’s been obvious for some time that Marcus was the heir apparent," McAlpine said. "Where else could [Wilks] go? It's Bruton's toy box."
Added Wheeler: "That's the tough thing about a family business. You can only go so far."
SMI's standing as a public company doesn't change that dynamic.
"Look at Ford Motor Co.," McAlpine said. "How many Fords have been running that over the years? There's nothing in the rule book that says because you're public you have to go outside." More at NASCAR.com