Hulsey Smith’s life plan was crushed on a football field. But now he’s racing into the future.PHOTOGRAPHS BY VAN DITTHAVONG
TO FULLY GRASP the pedigree of Harding Road, whiz kid W. Hulsey Smith’s fledgling IndyCar Series racing team, you have to begin on the football field, deep in the red zone. The genetic thread isn’t discordant. Football and open-wheel racing -- a racing style à la the Indianapolis 500 that features low-slung single-seat machines with wide tires swelling from the car bodies like Sphinx paws -- flaunt similar levels of split-second intensity and danger.
Smith, now 27, reveled in both, first as a high school football star in Tennessee and later as a scholarship athlete at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas. He thrived on the intensity, but the danger betrayed him. An arm-and-neck injury he sustained during a practice session at SMU in October 2003 led to surgery and months of rehab. By March 2004, his athletic career was over.
“You literally eat, breathe, and sleep athletics when you’re playing,” Smith says. “All of a sudden, you realize the identity that you built for yourself is no longer.”
To cope with his career-ending injury, Smith turned to Budweiser, transferring his consuming focus from football to alcohol. “I didn’t have a goal,” he says. “I drank a lot.”
There would be no celebrated college-football highlight reel. There would be no NFL career enabling him to follow in the footsteps of his father (who played for the Denver Broncos) and grandfather (who was drafted by the Washington Redskins and played for the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Los Angeles Rams). All he was left with was more rehabilitation and incessant, excruciating pain.
But the Budweiser blur was no match for Smith’s innate intensity and drive. The appeal of the bottle quickly was replaced by a new focus, a new challenge: the business landscape. “I really had an open blackboard, a clean slate,” he says. “I could choose whatever direction I wanted to go for the first time in my life.”
Smith immersed himself in business-leadership training and spearheaded a $700,000 fund-raising effort for a new Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity house at SMU. He learned the intricacies of finance and entrepreneurship from fraternity brother Douglas Gill, cofounder of Dallas–based Summit Alliance Investment Group. With Gill’s guidance, the then 21-year-old Smith developed and launched the private equity firm Invexsis Group with the $17,000 he’d received as a graduation gift from his parents. Invexsis then became the wet nurse of what has grown into a portfolio of some seven companies Smith controls in energy, aviation, logistics, motor sports, and communications -- a portfolio worth an estimated $50 million.
Through all the fortune making and business building, the seductive twin call of intensity and danger never was fully silenced. So Smith went looking for it -- in racing.