Bruton Smith, the visionary and feisty executive who helped build NASCAR into the sport it is today, died Wednesday. He was 95.
A statement from Speedway Motorsports announcing his death said he died of “natural causes.”
Smith was the billionaire founder and CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., a group of race tracks that includes Charlotte Motor Speedway. His Sonic Automotive Group is among the largest car dealers in the US.
Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016. The year before, he overcame a case of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and received a clean bill of health following surgery during the summer of 2015.
Smith began his motorsports career as a promoter for short track racing in Cabarrus County. But, always thinking big, he would later become known as one of NASCAR’s great innovators.
“Bruton had all kinds of ideas, and money never seemed to be an object,” Hall of Fame host Richard Petty said in 2016. And he did.
Along with former SMI president HA “Humpy” Wheeler, Smith was responsible for, among many other things, fan-focused innovations in Charlotte, including the construction of condominiums at Turn 1, the exclusive Speedway Club atop of the front section and the installation of lights.
Smith’s ideas often ran counter to more traditional NASCAR standards.
“He was throwing the ax out the window,” Wheeler told the Observer. “Then maybe they would build a new window. That’s what we all needed.”
“Racing fans are, and always will be, the soul of NASCARNASCAR President and CEO Jim France said on Twitter. “Few knew this truth better than Bruton Smith. Bruton built his racetracks with a simple philosophy: to provide racing fans with memories they will cherish for a lifetime.”
Bruton Smith and his 11 clues
Smith’s Speedway Motorsports owns 11 NASCAR tracks: Charlotte, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Bristol, New Hampshire, Texas, Kentucky and Sonoma, California, as well as Dover, Delaware, Nashville and North Wilkesboro.
Smith also founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 in memory of his late son Bruton Cameron Smith. The nonprofit organization has distributed more than $58 million to charity over the years.
Bruton Smith’s early years
Born March 2, 1927, Smith grew up in the Stanly County town of Oakboro, approximately 30 miles southeast of Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Smith family farmed cotton, corn, and wheat and owned some cattle.
Smith, the youngest of nine children, said in 2008 that his parents “taught us what work is all about,” according to a statement from Speedway Motorsports. “As I look back, that was a gift, although I certainly didn’t think of it at the time. A lot of people don’t have that gift because they didn’t grow up working. But if you’re on a family farm, that’s what you do. It’s all hard work.”
Outside of the family farm, he was just 12 years old when he started his first job, working at a local sawmill, according to Speedway Motorsports.
He took a job at a hosiery factory two days after graduating from Oakboro High School and eventually bought a $700 race car, launching his motorsports career, Speedway Motorsports officials said.
“The idea at the time was that I was going to be a racing driver,” Smith later recalled, according to the Speedway Motorsports statement. “I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long.”
His mother “started fighting dirty,” Smith recalled with a smile in a 2005 interview with Motorsport.com, Speedway Motorsports officials said. “You can’t fight your mom 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,” according to the Speedway Motorsports statement.
Smith also promoted his first race before his 18th birthday, Speedway Motorsports officials said.
“There was a lot of rioting with drivers and car owners at the time,” Speedway Motorsports officials quoted Smith as saying at the time. “We had a meeting and I was unlucky enough to be appointed by a committee of one to promote a race. I’ve never done that before, but I promoted a race in Midland, North Carolina, and made a little money, so I thought I’d try it again.”
“I’m a frustrated constructor who had a knack for promoting racing, and it’s always been fun trying to take the sport to greater heights for the fans,” Smith told the Associated Press in 2015.
In 1959, he partnered with NASCAR driver Curtis Turner and built his first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest in NASCAR history.
In the years that followed, Smith found success opening several car dealerships. Opened in 1966, his first dealership was Frontier Ford in Rockford, Ill, where he married and raised a family.
“I love the racing business,” he said at the time. “I want to contribute more and more.”
When he was 22 years old, in 1949, Smith entered direct competition with NASCAR, forming the National Association for Stock Car Racing, which staged races in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
Smith was drafted into the US Army in 1951 during the Korean War. Trained as a paratrooper, Smith was never deployed overseas. After leaving the Army in 1953, he learned that mismanagement in his absence had forced his racing organization to disband.
Undeterred, Smith continued to promote racing. But times were tough.
“He worked for decades before he got to a place where he had a few pennies to scrape together,” his son Marcus Smith, now president of SMI, told the Observer in 2016.
Smith would quickly become the running promotion game.
“He could swagger with the best of them,” Max Muhleman, a former sports marketing executive in Charlotte who covered racing for the Charlotte News in the 1950s, told the Observer in 2007. “He could look you in the eye and say something, and you would be afraid that he was deadly serious. And he would then he would burst out laughing.”
Smith and Charlotte Expressway
In 1959, Smith and his colleague Curtis Turner (who was also one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers) began construction on Charlotte Motor Speedway. Smith worked many hours and days to get the 1.5-mile track in Concord ready for the track’s inaugural World 600 on June 19, 1960.
Smith had exhausted himself to the point of falling asleep midway through the race, which was won by Joe Lee Johnson.
Debts incurred largely from construction problems and delays drove Smith and the track into bankruptcy two years later. He left North Carolina to open a car dealership in Rockford, Ill. Meanwhile, a group led by businessman Richard Howard of Denver, NC, brought the circuit out of bankruptcy in 1967.
Smith gradually bought back shares of the track and regained control in 1975.
As NASCAR’s popularity grew in the 1980s and 1990s, the Smith-Wheeler tandem turned Charlotte and other SMI tracks into one of the most innovative sports venues in the country.
In 2011, the Charlotte Speedway installed a 16,000-square-foot high-definition video screen, then the largest in the world, but has since been dwarfed by the “Big Hoss” screen at the Smith’s Texas track (where Smith also built condominiums). The Bristol rink boasts the world’s largest centre-hung, permanent, outdoor digital screen.
“He was always at the forefront on his tracks: more seats, more pomp and ceremony,” said NASCAR team owner Roger Penske. “I think we all follow that.”
Bruton, Humpy and NASCAR
At Smith’s side for most of the way was Wheeler, who was often left to figure out how to pay for his boss’s seemingly outlandish ideas.
“Oh, we were arguing about things,” Wheeler said. “He was the Ritz Carlton; I was Holiday Inn.”
Smith, who did not drink, smoke or swear, was also known for his numerous fights with NASCAR and local governments, many of which took place in public.
His disputes with NASCAR were well documented. Smith’s resentment toward NASCAR founder Bill France and, later, Bill France Jr., stemmed from power struggles over track acquisitions and race dates.
There was a long discussion about whether Smith’s racetrack in Texas deserved a second date on the NASCAR schedule (it finally got one). It was also rumored that Smith wanted to separate himself from NASCAR entirely, buying up some of the top drivers and developing his own racing series at his own tracks.
“Knowing Frances and Bruton, neither of them wanted to let the other overtake them,” former driver Darrell Waltrip said. “But it’s like people in racing to be that way.”
Smith also pushed for changes on the competitive side of NASCAR.
“One of the things we pushed hard for was finishing races under the green (flag),” Wheeler said. “We were selling tickets and expecting exciting results, but if there’s a crash with five laps to go, you don’t see anything. We are the only sport that has that.
“That needed to be changed and they finally did. It was 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 love cars and racing.”
Their children were also friends, Hendrick told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday.
Hendrick called Smith an “incredible innovator” who “never stopped coming up with ideas to make things better or bigger,” including four-wide drag racing.
“I think NASCAR owes him a lot,” Hendrick said. “He took NASCAR and the tracks to really unique places. Brave enough to try anything.
Smith was no stranger to off-track controversies.
In 2004, Charlotte Motor Speedway illegally cut down 166 trees around a new parking lot on the property. Smith said he had received permission from Charlotte government officials to cut them down, something they denied.
After being ordered to replace the trees, Smith sold the property.
When the Concord City Council voted in 2007 to prevent Smith from building what is now the zMax Dragway, he threatened to close the track and build another (along with a track) elsewhere. The council relented, and the access road was eventually built alongside Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In addition to an $80 million incentive deal, primarily for road improvements and racetrack noise reduction, the Concord council offered Smith something else:
In 2008, the road connecting Concord Mills Mall and Interstate 85 to the expressway was renamed Bruton Smith Boulevard.
“In business, if you’re negotiating … you’re fighting,” Smith once said. “When you are in a mental battle with a person, you want to win. I think they might think I’m tougher than I am. Let’s get right to it, I’m a soft type of person.”
Staff writers Adam Bell, Jonathan Limehouse, and Joe Marusak contributed.
David Scott: @davidscott14
This story was originally published June 22, 2022 4:25 p.m.