NASCAR & Auto Racing

A one-ring circus at Lowe's Motor Speedway?

A grand quirk in Charlotte's professional sports history is that the one entity famous for putting on circuses and blowing up stuff – Lowe's Motor Speedway – always has seemed far more stable and more capably managed than the town's stick-and-ball sports teams.

But over the past few months, some of that veneer has been stripped away.

In May, during its two weeks of high-profile NASCAR events, track president and general manager Humpy Wheeler called a news conference and said he was leaving the company. And, he said, it wasn't totally his idea.

Bruton Smith, the track's owner and one of its founders in 1960, said he and Wheeler had been discussing Wheeler's retirement for some time. Wheeler never said they hadn't talked about it, just that he and Smith had never agreed on the timing before it was presented to him as a done deal that he was out after the Coca-Cola 600.

As this all played out, it became clear that the widely held notion that Smith and Wheeler were peas in the old-race promoting pod was off base. While every team that works together as long as they had – more than 30 years – is bound to have differences of opinion, this apparently went way beyond that.

It has been reported that Wheeler first found out Smith planned to build a drag strip at Lowe's Motor Speedway when Wheeler read about it in the newspaper. Wheeler, at the time, had the title of chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company that owns the Concord facility, so if that's true, you would think that qualifies as a significant breakdown in internal communication.

There's also a story going around about the shabby manner in which one long-time employee was treated when she was told her services no longer were required after Wheeler's departure. Even if 75 percent of that is complete exaggeration, the people responsible for the portions that are true should be ashamed.

Then came another piece of news last week: Roger Slack, the vice president for events at LMS, is leaving as well, effective early next month.

Slack, a Wheeler protégé in his 11 years here, supervised events at The Dirt Track @ Lowe's Motor Speedway and would have been one of the point men to help run the inaugural Carolina Nationals at the zMAX Dragway @ Concord in September. But he'll be gone by then.

“I haven't been a very good grandson, uncle or son for a while,” Slack said when I talked to him Friday. “I have a 5-year-old nephew who I've seen three times. All four of my grandparents are still alive, and I don't see them as much as I should.”

Slack said he'll take six months to figure out what's next. When he's ready, he won't have trouble finding opportunities. He's one of the bright, younger minds in the business. That he's leaving, too, is disquieting.

Within the past year Lowe's Motor Speedway also lost Jerry Gappens. He's still with SMI, running New Hampshire Motor Speedway, but the experience and expertise he had in running the track here also have been subtracted from the LMS pool of institutional knowledge.

Let's be clear. Many capable people still work at Lowe's Motor Speedway. I have no doubt the $60million drag strip will be completed in plenty of time for the inaugural National Hot Rod Association event. The October NASCAR races and big events at The Dirt Track will come off, too. The job will get done.

But Marcus Smith, Bruton's son and the man named to take Wheeler's place as the leader of a track that's about to celebrate its 50th season, doesn't have the kind of net under him he could have had if Wheeler's departure had been handled differently.

That might make for a more entertaining circus, but is it a good way to run the show?

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