Bruton Smith, a visionary and militant leader who helped shape NASCAR’s current sport, died Wednesday. He was 95.
A statement from Speedway Motorsports announcing his death says he died of “natural causes”.
Smith was a member of the Speedway Motorsports, Inc. group at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Racetrack. billionaire founder and CEO. His Sonic Automotive Group is one of the largest car dealers in the United States
Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016. Last year, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, receiving a clean health record after an operation in the summer of 2015.
Smith began his career in motorsport in Cabarrus County as a promoter of short track racing. But he is always known later as one of NASCAR’s great innovators.
“Bruton had all sorts of ideas and money never seemed to be an object,” said Richard Petty, a gray celebrity driver in 2016. “He would pull his people together, and if they had an idea, he would go and do it.”
Together with former SMI president HA Humpy Wheeler, Smith was responsible for a number of other innovations aimed at Charlotte fans, including the construction of apartment buildings in the 1st turn, the fine Speedway Club high above the front and the installation of lights.
Smith’s ideas often flew against more traditional NASCAR standards.
“He throws the ax through the window,” Wheeler told the Observer. “Then they could build a new window. We all needed that.”
“The winning fans are and will always be The vitality of NASCAR, Said NimCAR chairman and CEO Jim France on Twitter. “Few knew the truth better than Bruton Smith. Bruton built his racetracks according to a simple philosophy: give racing fans memories they will love for a lifetime.
Bruton Smith and his 11 stories
Smith’s Speedway Motorsports owns 11 NASCAR tracks: Charlotte, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Bristol, New Hampshire, Texas, Kentucky and Sonoma (Califia), as well as Dover, Delaware, Nashville and North Wilkesboro.
Smith also founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 to commemorate his late son Bruton Cameron Smith. Over the years, the nonprofit has donated more than $ 58 million to charities.
The early years of Bruton Smith
Born March 2, 1927, Smith grew up in Oakboro, Stanly County, about 30 miles southeast of Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Smith family raised cotton, corn and wheat and owned some cattle.
Smith said the youngest of nine children in 2008 that his parents “taught us what work is,” according to a statement from Speedway Motorsports. “Looking back, it was a gift, although I certainly didn’t think so at the time. A lot of people don’t have that talent because they didn’t grow up working. But if you’re on a family farm, you do. It’s all hard work.”
Outside the family farm, he was only 12 years old, according to Speedway Motorsports, when he started his first job at a local sawmill.
He took a job in the hosiery industry two days after graduating from Oakboro High School and eventually bought a race car for $ 700 to start his motorsport career, Speedway Motorsports officials said.
“At the time, the whole idea was to make me a racer,” Smith recalled later, according to Speedway Motorsports. “I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long.”
His mother “started fighting dirty,” Smith recalled in a 2005 interview with Motorsport.com, laughing, Speedway Motorsport officials said. “You can’t fight your mother and God, so I stopped driving.”
“Smith sold his first car, a 1939 Buick sedan, for a small profit and continued to sell cars from his mother’s front yard,” Speedway Motorsports said in a statement.
Smith also advertised his first race before the age of 18, Speedway Motorsports officials said.
“There was a lot of unrest between drivers and car owners at the time,” Speedway Motorsport officials quoted Smith as saying at the time. “We had a meeting and I wasn’t lucky enough to be appointed a one-member commission to promote the competition. I never did, but I advertised the competition in Midland, North Carolina and made some money, so I thought I’d try again.
“I’m a frustrated builder who had the ability to advertise competitions, and it’s been fun to always try to elevate it for fans of the sport,” Smith told the Associated Press in 2015.
In 1959, he partnered with NASCAR chief Curtis Turner to build his first permanent motorsport facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race that is the longest in NASCAR’s history.
In the following years, Smith was successful in opening several car dealerships. Opened in 1966, his first dealer was Frontier Ford in Rockford, Illiis, where he married and started a family.
“I like the racing business,” he said at the time. “I want to bet more and more.”
When he was 22, Smith began to compete directly with NASCAR in 1949, forming the National Stock Car Racing Association, which raced in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
Smith was drafted into the United States Army during the Korean War in 1951. Trained as a paratrooper, Smith was never taken abroad. After leaving the army in 1953, he learned that poor management in his absence had forced his racing organization to disband.
Without contention, Smith continued to promote the races. But times were hard.
“He worked for decades before reaching a place where he had a few cents to rub,” the son of Marcus Smith, the current president of SMI, told the Observer in 2016.
Smith quickly grew into a promotional game.
“He could bluff with the best of them,” Max Muhleman, a former head of sports marketing at Charlotte, who covered the Charlotte News races in the 1950s, told the Observer in 2007. “He could look you in the eye and say something, and you’re afraid he was deadly dead. And then he laughed.
Smith and Charlotte Motor Speedway
In 1959, Smith and colleague Curtis Turner (who was also NASCAR’s top driver) began building Charlotte Motor Speedway. Smith worked long hours and days to get the 1.5-mile track in Concord ready to open the track for the World 600 on June 19, 1960.
Smith was so exhausted that he fell asleep halfway, which was won by Joe Lee Johnson.
Debts largely due to construction problems and delays bankrupted Smith and the track two years later. He left North Carolina to open a car dealership in Rockford, USA. At the same time, a group led by Richard Howard, a businessman from Denver, brought the highway out of bankruptcy in 1967.
Smith gradually bought back the shares in the track and gained control in 1975.
As NASCAR grew in popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, the Smith-Wheeler tandem made Charlotte and other SMI tracks the country’s most innovative sports facilities.
In 2011, a 16,000-square-foot high-definition video screen was installed on Charlotte’s high-speed track, the world’s largest but then overshadowed “Big Hos” screen on Smith’s Texas track (where Smith also built apartment buildings). The Bristol Trail has the world’s largest outdoor digital outdoor display.
“He was always at the forefront of his tracks – more seats, more pomp and ceremony,” said Roger Penske, owner of the NASCAR team. “I think we all followed that.”
Bruton, Humpy and NASCAR
Next to Smith was Wheeler, who often figured out how to pay his boss for seemingly unfamiliar ideas.
“Oh, we’ll argue,” Wheeler said. “He was at the Ritz Carlton; I was a Holiday Inn. ”
Smith, who did not drink, smoke or swear, was also known for his numerous quarrels with NASCAR and local authorities, many of
which were played in public.
His disputes with NASCAR were well documented. Smith resented NASCAR founder Bill France and later Bill France Jr. was due to power struggles over track acquisition and competition dates.
There was a long-running debate over whether the Smith Expressway in Texas deserved a second date on the NASCAR schedule (it eventually did). Rumors also spread that Smith wanted to break away from NASCAR completely, buying some of the best riders and developing his own race series on his tracks.
“Knowing Frances and Bruton, neither wanted to let the other come forward,” said Darrell Waltrip, a former driver. “But racing people are like that.”
Smith also called for a change in NASCAR’s competition.
“One of the things we worked on was to finish the race under the green (flag),” Wheeler said. “We sold tickets and waited for an exciting finish, but when the wreck is five laps away, you won’t see anything. We are the only sport that has it.
“It had to be changed and in the end they did it. It was so much for the better.
“NASCAR owes him a lot”
Although the two competed in the car business, NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick said he and Smith were good friends. We both grew up on a farm and loved cars and racing.
Their children were also friends, Hendrick told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday.
Hendrick called Smith an “incredible innovator” who “never gives up on ideas for improving or developing things,” including four-width drag-racing.
“I think NASCAR owes him a lot,” Hendrick said. “He took NASCAR and the tracks to some really unique places. Just brave enough to try something.
Disputes off the beaten track
Smith was no stranger to off-track disputes.
In 2004, 166 trees were illegally felled in a new car park on the Charlotte Motor Speedway property. Smith said he had received permission from Charlotte government officials to cut them off, which they denied.
After the order to replace the trees, Smith sold the property.
When Concord City Council voted in 2007 to prevent Smith from building the current zMax Dragway, he threatened to close the highway and build (along the route) somewhere else. The council was lenient and eventually the route was built next to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In addition to the $ 80 million incentive agreement, which was primarily designed to improve roads and reduce noise, the Concord Board offered Smith something else:
In 2008, the road between Concord Mills Mall and Interstate 85 was renamed Bruton Smith Boulevard.
“In business, when you negotiate … you fight,” Smith once said. “If you have a spiritual struggle with a person, you want to win. I think they may find me harder than I am. Come to it, I’m a soft person.”
Writers Adam Bell, Jonathan Limehouse and Joe Marusak contributed.
David Scott: @ davidscott14
This story was originally published June 22, 2022 at 4:25 pm.
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