After going through one of the more challenging years of his life, Bruton Smith will be inducted in the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Friday night.
Smith’s credentials for enshrinement are unquestioned: For decades one of the sport’s innovative and hard-charging executives, his Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns eight NASCAR tracks. And despite a longstanding feud with NASCAR that has cooled in recent years, Smith, 88, has established a spot in the sport’s pantheon that will be celebrated Friday in uptown Charlotte.
“The biggest thing we all feel now is pride for him and all he has accomplished in his life,” said Smith’s son Marcus, who has taken over from his father as president and chief executive officer of SMI.
But there’s also a sense of relief throughout the Smith and SMI families.
Bruton Smith spent much of 2015 battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After having surgery over the summer, Marcus Smith said doctors gave his father a clean bill of health in December.
“We look back at last summer and see what a roller coaster we were on,” said Marcus Smith. “He really was able to appreciate his family and friends. Then all of a sudden we get this great news that they can’t find any more cancer when they do the scans. It’s just great.”
Bruton Smith spent much of last summer recovering from the surgery (he didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation). It wasn’t until he attended a race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway – one of his SMI tracks – in August that the news of his illness was made public.
Bruton had all kinds of ideas and money never seemed to be an object.
“I hate to miss any of our races, it’s heartbreaking,” Smith told reporters at Bristol. “I enjoy what I do. I love the automobile business, I like the racing business, and I want to do more and more. That is the driver for me – to just do more things. I just like what I do.”
The Bristol track is just one part of the Smiths’ SMI empire. It all began for Smith as he was growing up on a farm in the Stanly County town of Oakboro. The Smith family grew cotton, corn and wheat and owned some cattle. Bruton aspired to be a boxer, but the auto racing bug also bit him. He had affection for cars and was soon promoting races around the area.
“He worked for decades before he got to a place where he had a few pennies to rub together,” Marcus Smith said.
Bruton Smith, of course, always thought big.
Along with business partner and driver Curtis Turner (who is also being inducted into the hall of fame Friday), Smith built and opened Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960. That same year, the World 600 (now Coca-Cola 600), still NASCAR’s longest race, ran for the first time. Smith had worked so hard in getting the track prepared for the event that he fell asleep midway through the race.
Smith grew up on a farm in Oakboro and dreamed of being a boxer before the racing bug bit him.
The track was undercapitalized, however, and went into bankruptcy in 1962. Smith left to pursue other business interests, but he gradually bought back shares of the track and regained control in 1975.
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Now, Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns eight NASCAR tracks: Charlotte, Atlanta, Las Vegas, Bristol, New Hampshire, Texas, Kentucky and Sonoma (Calif.). They host 13 of NASCAR’s 38 Sprint Cup events each year.
Smith, of course, has been more than just a track owner. Along with former track president and general manager Humpy Wheeler, Smith was responsible for fan-focused innovations at Charlotte, including building condominiums in Turn 1, the upscale Speedway Club high above the front stretch and installing lights. In 2011, the 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. Plans are underway at Bristol for world’s largest outdoor, permanent, center-hung digital display.
“Bruton had all kinds of ideas, and money never seemed to be an object,” said hall-of-fame driver Richard Petty. “He’d get his people together, and if they came up with an idea, he went and did it.”
Said NASCAR team owner Roger Penske: “He was always on the leading edge at his tracks – more seats, more pomp and ceremony. I think we all followed that.”
Smith also founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 in memory of his late son Bruton Cameron Smith. The nonprofit has distributed more than $46 million to charities over the years.
Smith’s career has also been defined by what was a long-simmering but often explosive feud with NASCAR. Much of Smith’s ill feelings toward NASCAR’s 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 (that, obviously, never happened).
Smith hasn’t always been at odds only with NASCAR.
8 NASCAR tracks owned by Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc.
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 dragway was eventually built in Concord, adjacent to Charlotte Motor Speedway.
In 2013, Smith threatened to move Charlotte’s fall race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, another SMI track.
Again, none of this happened. But it only served to solidify Smith’s reputation as a maverick who would go to any lengths to get his way.
“Knowing the Frances and Bruton, neither one of them wanted to let the other get ahead of them,” said former driver Darrell Waltrip, a close friend of Smith’s. “But it’s just like people in racing to be that way.”
The relationship between Smith and NASCAR has thawed over the years. NASCAR chairman Brian France, the son of Bill France Jr. and grandson of Bill France Sr., spoke on Smith’s behalf to hall-of-fame voters last year.
“I like Brian,” Smith told the Observer in 2010. “I respect him. He and I talk almost weekly. He listens and sometimes I’ll make a suggestion and he’ll actually accept it. He’s his own man, and I like that.”
France, no doubt, has been on the receiving end of some of Smith’s tough business conversations.
“In business, if you’re negotiating … you are battling,” Smith 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.”
2016 Hall of Fame inductees
▪ Jerry Cook
▪ Bobby Isaac
▪ Terry Labonte
▪ Curtis Turner
▪ Bruton Smith
If you go
Tickets are still available in limited quantities for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony. Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800-745-3000. For more information, visit nascarhall.com, and for accessible seating, call 704-654-4400.
The ceremonies will be televised live on NBCSN starting at 6:30 p.m. Friday with the pre-event ceremonies and then the induction ceremony at 8 p.m.