Bruton Smith, visionary track operator, dies at 95

Bruton Smith, visionary track operator, dies at 95

Bruton Smith, founder of Speedway Motorsports and one of the most progressive track operators and promoters in motorsports, has died.

Smith, a native of Oakboro, North Carolina, was 95 years old. Speedway Motorsports announced his passing Wednesday afternoon.

With Smith at the helm, Speedway Motorsports became the first motorsports company to list on the New York Stock Exchange in 1995. The group’s holdings would eventually grow to include 11 racing facilities that currently host 15 motorsports events. NASCAR Cup Series in 2022, including four of the series’ 10 playoff races.

Tracks currently operating under the Speedway Motorsports brand are: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway , Sonoma Raceway and Texas Turnpike.

Jonathan Ferry |  fake images
Jonathan Ferry | fake images

Charlotte Motor Speedway was Smith’s crown jewel, a facility he helped build in 1959 with fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer Curtis Turner. But it wasn’t until he returned to reclaim sole ownership of the 1.5-mile track in 1975 that Smith began a decades-long process of improvements to his company’s facilities that quickly made them the envy of the industry.

In Charlotte, Smith added thousands of seats as attendance began to increase, installed permanent lights that allowed the facility to become the first race track of its size to host night races, and built condominiums overlooking the track, as well as a “Speedway Club” badge. where guests could dine in comfort while enjoying the action on the track.

The addition of lights in 1992 was the key to CMS retaining the series’ annual All-Star race, which it has hosted 34 times in the event’s 38-year history.

CMS was also the first track to build a massive 16,000 square foot HDTV where fans could watch all the action. When it was built in 2011, the screen was advertised as the world’s largest HDTV.

“Bruton Smith is a special guy and someone who has brought a lot to NASCAR,” team owner Roger Penske said during a 2016 preseason media briefing. “When you think about Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire, Sonoma and Atlanta, has been the best. No doubt. He set the rod.”

Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 for his lifetime of achievement in the industry. His son, Marcus Smith, continues the family tradition as president and CEO of Speedway Motorsports.

However, Smith’s Midas touch wasn’t limited to the Charlotte track. Major upgrades have been made throughout its facilities, whether it’s the addition of condominiums and major infrastructure upgrades in Atlanta, the introduction of “Colossus” (the world’s largest permanent outdoor center-hung digital display) in Bristol, the Neon Garage in Las Vegas or “Big Hoss,” a 22,704-square-foot HD screen in Texas, a $225 million facility that set new standards for fans and competitors alike.

“He has an incredible sense of how to make money,” HA “Humpy” Wheeler, former president and general manager of CMS, told the Newport News (Virginia) Daily Press in a 1996 interview. the earnings. He always wants to make things better for the fans and the competitors.”

In 2015, it was announced that Smith, then 88 and out of the public eye for some time, had been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Family members revealed later that year that he had been diagnosed without cancer.

In addition to his racing-related endeavors, Smith built Sonic Automotive, an automobile sales empire spanning more than 100 dealerships in 13 states. In 2021, the company was ranked 308th on the Fortune 500 list. Sons Scott and David Smith have been involved in executive roles with the company.

Smith was the youngest of nine children born to parents James and Mollie Smith, a Depression-era boy born in 1927 and raised on a farm. When he was a teenager, he had other ideas besides spending the day behind a plow.

“You have food, clothing, and shelter,” Smith said in a 2003 interview on Driver magazine, “but you never have any money. And I never did that. Dislike.

“You worked from sunup to sundown, but you didn’t see the rewards. When I was eight or nine years old, I decided that I would not stay on the farm.”

As a teenager, Smith took a turn behind the wheel, racing local dirt tracks in a car he bought for $700. While he said he enjoyed his share of success, his racing career was soon cut short by a “superior power “.

“I started driving … and it wasn’t as hard as I thought,” he said during his 2016 Hall of Fame induction speech. “I thought, ‘OK, now I’ve got my career going.’

“My dad didn’t have a problem with that, he just said, ‘Be careful, kid.’ She was, but my mom had a problem with it and she was like, ‘I wish you didn’t do that’… and my mom was a very religious person, and my mom started praying that she would quit.

“Well, I knew then…it was time for me to quit because I wasn’t going to compete with that.”

Promoting racing in the 1950s was different, but Smith excelled there as well.

In 1954, it won the right to host the modified national championship at the three-quarter-mile Charlotte Speedway, moving it from West Palm Beach, Florida, where it has been contested for several years.

“Little by little, I found out that you could make money doing what I was doing, and I made money,” Smith said.

Smith was ranked #3 in a 2004 list of the 20 most powerful people in US motorsports by the Charlotte-based organization Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal.

Since 2006, the winner of the annual Coca-Cola 600 has received the Bruton Smith Trophy. The event, which was the first ever run at CMS, is the longest in terms of total miles on the NASCAR schedule.

Smith established Speedway Children’s Charities, the nonprofit arm of Speedway Motorsports, in 1982. The group, which established fundraising chapters at each of its stock car facilities, reportedly distributed more than $2 million in grants to 260 organizations. charities in 2020, bringing its total fund distribution to more than $61 million since its founding.

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