Bruton Smith, the visionary and combative executive who helped shape NASCAR into the sport it is today, died Wednesday. He was 95.
A Speedway Motorsports statement 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 ranks among the biggest auto dealerships in the US
Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016. The previous year, he overcame a case of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, receiving a clean bill of health after surgery during the summer of 2015.
Smith began his career in motorsports as a short-track race promoter in Cabarrus County. But, always thinking big, he would later be known as one of NASCAR’s great innovators.
“Bruton had all kinds of ideas, and money never seemed to be an object,” said hall-of-fame driver Richard Petty in 2016. “He’d get his people together, and if they came up with an idea, he went and did it.”
Along with former SMI president HA “Humpy” Wheeler, Smith was responsible for— among many other things — fan-focused innovations at Charlotte, including building condominiums in Turn 1, the upscale Speedway Club high above the front stretch and installing lights.
Smith’s ideas often flew in the face of NASCAR’s more traditional standards.
“He would throw the ax through the window,” Wheeler told the Observer. “Then maybe they’d build a new window. That’s what we all needed.”
“Race fans are, and always will be, the lifeblood of NASCAR,” NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France said on Twitter. “Few knew this truth better than Bruton Smith. Bruton built his race tracks employing a simple philosophy: Give race fans memories they will cherish for a lifetime.”
Bruton Smith and his 11 tracks
Smith’s Speedway Motorsports owns 11 NASCAR tracks: Charlotte, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Bristol, New Hampshire, Texas, Kentucky and Sonoma (Calif.), plus 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 has distributed more than $58 million to charities over the years.
Bruton Smith’s early years
Born on March 2, 1927, Smith grew up in the Stanly County town of Oakboro, roughly 30 miles southeast of Charlotte Motor Speedway. The Smith family grew cotton, corn and wheat and owned some cattle.
The youngest of nine children, Smith said in 2008 that his parents “taught us what work was all about,” according to a Speedway Motorsports statement. “As I look back, that was a gift, even though I certainly didn’t think so at the time. A lot of people don’t have that gift because they didn’t grow up working. But if you are on a family farm, that’s what you do. Everything is hard work.”
Outside the family farm, he was only 12 when he started his first job, working at a local saw mill, according to Speedway Motorsports.
He took a job in a hosiery mill two days after graduating from Oakboro High School and eventually bought a race car for $700, launching his motorsports career, Speedway Motorsports officials said.
“The whole idea at that time was that I was going to be a race car 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 laugh 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 he turned 18, Speedway Motorsports officials said.
“There was a whole lot of unrest with the drivers and car owners at that time,” Speedway Motorsports officials quoted Smith as saying at the time. “We had a meeting and I was unlucky enough to be appointed a committee of one to promote a race. I had never done that, but I promoted a race in Midland, North Carolina, and I made a little bit of money, so I thought I’d try it again.”
“I’m a frustrated builder who had a knack for promoting races, and it’s been fun to always try and push 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 ever in NASCAR’s history.
In the years that followed, Smith found success opening several automotive dealerships. Opened in 1966, his first dealership was Frontier Ford in Rockford, Ill, where he married and started a family.
“I love the racing business,” he said at the time. “I want to contribute more and more.”
When he was 22, in 1949, Smith went into direct competition with NASCAR, forming the National Stock Car Racing Association, 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 dissolve.
Undeterred, Smith continued to promote races. But times were difficult.
“He worked for decades before he got to a place where he had a few pennies to rub together,” son Marcus Smith, now president of SMI, told the Observer in 2016.
Smith would quickly grow into the race-promotion game.
“He could bluff 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’d be afraid he was deadly serious. And then he’d bust out laughing.”
Smith and Charlotte Motor Speedway
In 1959, Smith and colleague Curtis Turner (who was also a top NASCAR driver) began construction of Charlotte Motor Speedway. Smith worked long hours and days to have 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 that he fell asleep midway through the race, which was won by Joe Lee Johnson.
Debts incurred in great part by construction problems and delays put Smith and the track into bankruptcy two years later. He left North Carolina to open an auto dealership in Rockford, Ill. Meanwhile, a group led by businessman Richard Howard of Denver, NC, brought the speedway out of bankruptcy in 1967.
Smith gradually bought back shares of the track and regained control in 1975.
As NASCAR rose in popularity in the 1980s and ’90s, the Smith-Wheeler tandem developed Charlotte and other SMI tracks into among the most innovative sports facilities 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 since eclipsed by the “Big Hoss” screen at Smith’s Texas track (where Smith also built condos). Bristol’s track features the world’s largest outdoor, permanent, center-hung digital display.
“He was always on the leading edge at his tracks—more seats, more pomp and ceremony,” said NASCAR team owner Roger Penske. “I think we all followed 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’d argue about things,” Wheeler said. “He was Ritz Carlton; I was Holiday Inn.”
Smith — who didn’t drink, smoke or wear — was also known for his numerous feuds with NASCAR and local governments, many of which played out in public.
His disputes with NASCAR were well documented. Smith’s resentment toward NASCAR founder Bill France and, later, Bill France Jr., came over power struggles about track acquisitions and race dates.
There was a long-going argument about whether Smith’s speedway in Texas deserved a second date on the NASCAR schedule (it eventually got one). Smith was also rumored to want to split off from NASCAR entirely, buying off some of the best drivers and developing his own race series at his own tracks.
“Knowing the Frances and Bruton, neither one of them wanted to let the other get ahead of them,” said former driver Darrell Waltrip. “But it’s just like people in racing to be that way.”
Smith also pushed for changes in the competition side of NASCAR.
“One of the things we pushed real hard for was finishing races under green (flag),” Wheeler said. “We were selling tickets and expecting thrilling finishes, but if there’s a wreck with five laps left, you don’t see anything. We’re the only sport that has that.
“That needed to be changed and eventually 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 also were friends, Hendrick told The Charlotte Observer Wednesday.
Hendrick called Smith an “unbelievable innovator” who “never quit coming up with ideas to improve things or grow things,” including four-wide 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 anything.”
Controversy off the track
Smith was no stranger to controversies off the track.
In 2004, Charlotte Motor Speedway illegally chopped 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 instead sold the property.
When Concord City Council voted in 2007 to stop Smith from building what is now zMax Dragway, he threatened to shut down the speedway and build another one (along with a dragway) somewhere else. The council relented, and the dragway was eventually built adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In addition to an $80 million incentives deal, mainly for road improvements and drag strip noise abatement, the Concord council offered Smith something else:
In 2008, the road connecting Concord Mills Mall and Interstate 85 to the speedway was renamed Bruton Smith Boulevard.
“In business, if you’re negotiating … you are battling,” Smith once said. “When you’re doing mental battle with a person, you want to win. I think it may be that they think I’m tougher than I am. Come right down to it, I’m a softie kind 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 PM.