As a child, Lauri Wilks lived a short drive from the Michigan International Speedway, where her mother worked and she later interned.
In law school, she urged administrators to launch a sports law class. A few years later, Wilks was climbing the ranks at Lowe's Motor Speedway, eventually becoming one of its top executives.
On Wednesday, during a luncheon at Queens University of Charlotte, Wilks tearfully accepted the Charlotte BusinessWoman of the Year award, sponsored by Queens and Wachovia Corp., as more than 300 attendees stood to applaud.
She paused on stage, telling the crowd she hadn't prepared a speech. Then, Wilks thanked her family, friends and others who'd made her success possible.
"I am humbled," she said, "and I am appreciative."
Wilks, 40, is executive vice president of management and administration at Lowe's Motor Speedway, a 167,000-fan track that's one of NASCAR's premier speedways.
She interned at the speedway, which was then called Charlotte Motor Speedway, as a student and started her career in the events department in August 1993, fresh out of the Wake Forest University School of Law.
A month later, Wilks worked with Bruton Smith and Humpy Wheeler to create a corporate counsel position and was promoted to it, her assistant said Wednesday.
Within 18 months, she'd helped Smith and Wheeler form Speedway Motorsports Inc., which owned two tracks then and now owns seven speedways nationwide.
In the years that followed, Wilks earned promotions and oversaw ticketing, logistics, finance and legal operations for the speedway.
She kept her acceptance speech short Wednesday, but others, including 2006 winner Dee Dixon, had much to say about her.
"I saw a sense of humor in her," Dixon said after the ceremony. "I saw her tenacity. I saw her faith."
Queens President Pamela Davies said Wilks was a natural choice for the award, which honors business achievements and civic contributions.
"Lauri is an extraordinary leader with a compassionate and humble heart," she said after the luncheon. "She epitomizes the kind of successful leader we want to lift up and celebrate."
Women have come a long way in business since the award was first presented in 1986, attendees said. But today's leaders still have work to do, Tamara Erickson, a writer, researcher and analyst, told the crowd.
Young women, who no longer feel they have to prove themselves by having careers, are leaving the work force to become mothers, she said.
Earlier this month, volunteers and civic leaders touched on the topic at the 2008 Charlotte Women's Summit, pledging to help women better balance their work and family life.
Erickson called on the crowd Wednesday to make sure women could succeed in business and at raising a family.
"We gave them the gift of choice," she said. "Now, let's give them all the gift of humane workplaces that are worth choosing."
This year's winner couldn't agree more, she said.
"Corporate America should stand up and recognize that women can do it both," said Wilks, who later said her proudest accomplishment was becoming a mother.
She offered this advice to young working women: "Don't be afraid to be yourself, and don't be afraid to work hard."
And then, with a smile, Wilks turned to the people who'd gathered nearby, waiting to meet her, and started shaking hands.
2007 Charlotte BusinessWoman of the Year
Name: Lauri Wilks.Age: 40.
Title: Executive vice president of management and administration for Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Degrees: Bachelor's in history and political science from Pennsylvania's Cedar Crest College, 1990; law degree from Wake Forest University, 1993. At Wake Forest, co-founded Sports & Entertainment Law Association and pushed for the creation of a sports law class, which began the year after she graduated.
Family: Husband, Whit Wilks, sons Bennett, 6, and Andrew, 4.
Favorite professional accomplishment: Promotion to current title.
Favorite personal accomplishment: Becoming a mother.
Community involvement: N.C. State Bar, N.C. Bar Association, Mecklenburg and Cabarrus county bar associations, The May 20th Society and the National Investor Relations Institute.
Charlotte BusinessWoman of the Year Award
Sponsors: Queens University of Charlotte and Wachovia Corp.
2007 finalists: Barbara Anderson of AMS Specialty Steel, Terri DeBoo of All American Roofing, Melissa McGuire of Sherpa LLC, Anne Vulcano of CB Richard Ellis and Lauri Wilks of Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Recent past winners: Dee Dixon (2006), Christie Taylor (2005), Peyton Howell (2004).