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Pioneering Track Builder Smith Welcomed To HOF

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 22 2016
O. Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., will enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Tami Kelly Pope)

O. Bruton Smith, owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc., will enter the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Tami Kelly Pope)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Courtesy of winter storm Jonas, residents of “The Queen City” awoke Friday to a snowy, icy coating that would stress-out even the weather-blessed spirit of NASCAR founder Big Bill France.

hallf of fame logoThe inclement weather forced postponement of Friday night’s scheduled induction ceremonies for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2016, placing O. Bruton Smith, Terry Labonte, Bobby Issac, Jerry Cook and Curtis Turner on-hold for another day. Weather-permitting, this eclectic mix of personalities will be welcomed into the Hall on Saturday during a trimmed-down program starting at 2:30 p.m. (EST), and televised live on NBC Sports Network.

Judging by comments gleaned during the 34th annual Charlotte Motor Speedway Media Tour, no enshrinee is more worthy of the honor than NASCAR track-owner/promoter O. Bruton Smith. The man who had the vision and the passion to transform a bucolic cow pasture in far north Fort Worth, Texas, into “The Great American Speedway” 20 years ago now is 88-years-old.

To the title of Executive Chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc., Smith recently added the tag of cancer survivor. Since May, Smith silently has waged a battle against Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.

“Certainly difficult news to hear for anybody,” said Marcus Smith, Bruton’s son and president/chief executive officer of SMI. “But we’re thrilled to report that his doctors have pronounced him cancer-free in early December, sure did. So now he’s very thankful. We said a lot of prayers, had a lot of family time together and we’re just really thankful that he’s been able to make it through that rollercoaster.”

Bruton Smith and son Marcus Smith have had a major impact on stock car racing in America. (File photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Bruton Smith and son Marcus Smith have had a major impact on stock car racing in America. (File photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Rusty Wallace, the 1989 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, applauded Smith’s impending induction during Team Penske’s Wednesday visit to the Media Tour.

“I am so happy that Bruton’s made it in,” said Wallace, who ironically, called for a “total reconstruction” of Texas Motor Speedway after crashing-out of and finishing 37th in the inaugural Interstate Batteries 500 in March 1997. “I just wish that everybody’s that still alive and doing well and that has done such great things in our sport are recognized. That’s the reason I was so blowed away when I got inducted on the first ballot in 2013. I almost thought, ‘Look, my numbers say I should be in here but is that what the sport is all about?’ I mean, I cannot believe Benny Parsons is still not in. I would have thought Benny Parsons would have been in way before I was.

“And I don’t want anybody to have to die and then be recognized, or really be in ill health and then be recognized. I am so happy because Bruton’s done so much for this sport, so many big, big things. And for him to make it into the Hall of Fame I just think is fantastic.”

Given Smith’s reluctance to discuss anything negative, the Big C likely will not be mentioned when he delivers his acceptance speech. Expect those remarks largely to be unscripted, maybe R-rated.  

“He is so good off-the-cuff,” Marcus Smith said. “He’s got so many stories…if he were here right now he would probably share a story even I haven’t heard yet because he just has so much history in this sport. All the people that are in the Hall of Fame now, he’s worked with them. All the people that are potential Hall of Fame candidates, he’s worked with them. He promoted his first race when he was 17-years-old and worked hard to make a living out of it but also have fun at it. And he’s doing this because he’s the biggest race fan out there.”

Bruton Smith can always be counted on for a tasty – sometimes off color – quote. (File photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Bruton Smith can always be counted on for a tasty – sometimes off color – quote. (File photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway)

Four of Smith’s classmates are drivers counted among NASCAR’s 50 Greatest in 1998: two-time Sprint Cup Series champion Labonte of Corpus Christi, Texas; 1970 Grand National champion Isaac of Catawba, N.C.; six-time Modified champion Cook of Rome, N.Y., and Turner, the “Babe Ruth of stock car racing” who partnered with Smith to build Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960 in-between his off-track escapades. In addition, Harold Brasington will be honored as second recipient of the Landmark Award for Outstanding Contributions to NASCAR.

A native of rural Oakboro, N.C., Smith’s early racing endeavors included operating the National Stock Car Racing Association _ a competitor to NASCAR _ as well as building CMS. The latter became the foundation of SMI, which currently owns eight NASCAR tracks. Smith’s empire plays host to 12 Cup events, the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and several high-profile motorsports activities.

Smith and his innovative staff introduced a list of amenities to both his NASCAR and NHRA facilities, including VIP suites, a country club-style restaurant, enclosed clubhouse seating, expansive campground upgrades, contemporary corporate hospitality, big screen TVs and condominium units. The idea of living in a condo overlooking a racetrack became a running joke in 1984 for former late-night comedian David Letterman, but it was Smith who ultimately delivered the punch-line.

“That guy…I remember Bruton calling me one day and saying, ‘I want you to buy a condo at the track (CMS),’ ” said Rick Hendrick, owner of multi-championship-winning Hendrick Motorsports. “I said, ‘Bruton, if I buy a condo, it’s going to be over the ocean somewhere and not at the racetrack.’ And about two years later I paid more to get one. So, what I’ve learned about Bruton is his mind is racing all the time. He’s done so much for this sport and is so brave to step out and try things that never have been tried before. It’s past time for him to go into the Hall.”

Team-owner Roger Penske, whose juggernaut of an organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary in 2016, has dealt/sparred with Smith on several levels.

“Bruton is an icon in the sport, certainly from the standpoint of what he’s accomplished and what he’s brought to NASCAR,” Penske, 78, said during Wednesday’s Tour visit. “The speedways themselves are outstanding. When you

Roger Penske lost a big contest with Bruton Smith in Atlanta. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

Roger Penske lost a big contest with Bruton Smith in Atlanta. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Harold Hinson)

think about the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire and Sonoma and Atlanta, he’s been the best. There’s no question. He set the bar. He was always on the leading edge on his tracks _ more seats, more pomp and ceremony at one of Bruton’s tracks _ and I think we all followed that.

“Bruton also has been a great competitor, a great Ford dealer and, to me, is a guy I like to know. I remember when we were trying to buy the Atlanta Speedway, Bruton was in one room and I was in another and, guess what, Mike Helton (now NASCAR’s vice chairman/CEO) was running the track at that point. I put a bid out and Bruton put a bid out and I said, ‘Bruton, it’s yours,’ and I moved on. So I know him when I’m negotiating with him _ he always won.

“At 88 I’m really proud to just call him my friend. He’s a business associate and one that I owe a lot to from the standpoint of what he’s been able to do to help build NASCAR.  It’s well-deserved to see someone who has put so much into this sport to have the opportunity to join the Hall of Fame.”

Smith and H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former promoter extraordinaire at CMS, often crossed paths with NASCAR’s founding France family _ most notably during the reign of the late Bill France Jr. But during the HOF voting process in May, Brian France _ Bill Jr.’s son and NASCAR Chairman/CEO _ raised his hand and spoke passionately about the need to expedite the process for Smith’s induction.

“I’m on the nominating panel and voting panel,’’ said Eddie Gossage, president/GM of Texas Motor Speedway. “Brian stood up and said, ‘I really think he deserves to be in here.’ I had a long speech prepared and Brian spoke for a few minutes, said his peace. I was talking about something else and I said, ‘I’ve never been one to quarrel with Brian’…and everyone broke up. I was glad to hear him speak up. He has great respect for Bruton and I think they do get on very well.”

Eddie Wood, son of NASCAR pioneer Glen Wood and co-owner of Wood Brothers Racing with brother Len, recalled France’s pitch to the voting committee.

“I’m a voter and I voted for Bruton,” Wood said during a visit to the Ford Performance Center. “Bruton goes way back with my dad. About a month ago my dad was going through some old papers and he actually found some of the original stock that Curtis Turner and Bruton had given him like in 1960 for Charlotte Motor Speedway _ actually, coupons for the stock.

“I think it’s really good for the sport that he’s in the Hall. I know he and NASCAR were kind of always at odds a little bit about things, but I think they each made each other better. I think the France family made Bruton’s family better and Bruton’s family made the France family better. In the end, we’re the beneficiaries of it all because it made for better racing, better racetracks. It’s really a neat deal. I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

Ed Clark, Gossage’s counterpart at Atlanta Motor Speedway, said no one can question Smith’s desire to elevate NASCAR _ formerly a regional Southeastern curiosity _ to a level alongside the almighty NFL.

“I’ve heard Bruton say many times he promised Bill France he’d help him grow NASCAR years ago and he never wavered from that,” Clark said. “He may not always have agreed on exactly how to do it but I think they’re both headed in the right direction. He and Brian have a great relationship and they talk on a pretty regular basis still. Bruton has challenged all of our track managers to do better, bigger, smarter _ and in the long run we’ve all been better for it.”

Marcus Smith said he believes Brian France’s concern for his dad is heartfelt. “I’ve been able to see that there’s been a change there in the relationship with the business, the family, and I think it’s been really good for the sport,” Marcus said. “I think Brian looks to Bruton as a respected confidant _ a leader, an influencer and someone that he highly admires.”

Gossage said Smith continues to impact him daily. “Clearly, outside of my parents, he’s the most influential person in my life and I owe so much to him professionally

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage on Bruton Smith: He's a great man. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage on Bruton Smith: He’s a great man. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

and personally,” said Gossage, who has managed TMS since its inception. “Professionally, you never hope to grow up and do this. He gave me the opportunity and it’s just been one of those amazing things and your life is better than you ever hoped it would be.

“From a personal level, he’s very much part of my family, to everybody in my family. He gives extremely wise advice; you constantly learn from him. He’s 88-years-old and the life lessons you pick up from being around someone like him are invaluable. I’ve learned so much about business and how to be a man, a leader, a father, a husband all those things. How to be a better person.

“In 27 years, he’s never told me to do one thing. He suggests or encourages, but never says, ‘Do this.’ That leaves you with a tremendous amount of dignity. He says, ‘You don’t work for me, you work with me.’ Those are the kind of lessons you learn and you pass them on. He is a great man.”

Smith’s impact on the Charlotte/Concord corridor extends beyond NASCAR. Smith’s zMAX Dragway located next to CMS is a state-of-the-art straight-line facility that plays host to two NHRA national events, including the only four-wide drag race on the planet. Mark down the idea of drag racing four cars simultaneously as another SMI-inspired innovation.

“Look at the financial investment Bruton Smith’s made to the sport, not just NASCAR but to drag racing,” John Force, a 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion, said during a promotional visit to zMAX on Tuesday. “To build stadiums and hang his neck out, surviving through the good times and making it through the hard times, if anyone deserves to go into that Hall of Fame he does. I’m really happy to see that, and the timing is perfect. He’s given his life to this sport and I’m really glad to see his son, his family, taking it on.

“Marcus has said to me, ‘He deserves to have this go on and I’m going to bust my tail end to make it work.’ Well-deserved, I’m proud of him. I love the guy.”

As Penske noted, Smith is a rival to himself and Hendrick in the automobile business here. In November 1997, Smith organized his dealerships under the Sonic Automotive flag and took the package public on the New York State Exchange. Sonic Automotive Inc., a Fortune 500 company, remains one of the nation’s largest automotive retailers, operating in 14 states with more than 100 dealerships representing 25 different brands of cars while providing thousands of jobs. His flagship dealership is Town & Country Ford, Inc., on East Independence Blvd. here.

“He’s a great dealer for us,” Henry Ford, marketing manager for Ford Performance and son of Edsel Ford, said during the Tour’s visit to the Ford Performance Center. “I know he and my dad have been close for many years. He’s a legend in the sport and will be a great addition to the Hall of Fame and certainly deserves to be there. His impact on the sport has been hard-to-match.”

Smith’s philanthropic activities are highlighted by Speedway Children’s Charities, founded in 1982 as a memoriam and legacy to his son, Bruton Cameron Smith, who passed away at a young age. The nonprofit organization has grown to include chapters at each of the eight SMI facilities and has distributed more than $46-million to deserving charities serving children.  

Smith shook up the sport during its runaway growth period when he took SMI public in 1995 to become the first motorsports company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. That was the same year Smith selected North Texas as site for what has become TMS. Beginning with the official groundbreaking ceremony in April 1995, Smith demonstrated that his Texas palace of speed would redefine the idea of business-as-usual. Ground was broken via a carefully orchestrated explosion as native Texans Terry and Bobby Labonte and a young Jeff Gordon stared in amazement.

“We did the traditional shovel thing, too,” said Gossage, borrowing that day from his previous public relations repertoire at CMS. “But we do things differently as a company and that was one of the things we made clear.”

Marcus Smith said TMS occupies a unique place in his father’s portfolio as the only speedway other than Charlotte he was able to build from scratch. “He’s very, very proud of Texas Motor Speedway,” said Marcus, 42. “It’s just a tremendous example of his vision and a lot of lessons he’s learned over time _ some mistakes, some victories and they all kind of showed up at Texas Motor Speedway in a way that still blows people away today when they come to visit.”

Smith’s appearance at the HOF Saturday will be his first during a week that began with the CMS Media Tour, another SMI innovation. Historically a participant during several stops on previous tours, Smith reportedly has been saving his strength for his acceptance speech as he recuperates from his battle against cancer.

Marcus Smith said his father’s induction is playing-out on a couple of family levels. “He’s never really sought accolades for anything that he does,” Marcus said. “Typically, when he’s working on a project and accomplishes it he’s very pleased and very happy with accomplishing a goal but then he quickly moves to the next challenge.

“But I’ll tell you, this is something…to be elected by a number of people in the industry and voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame is something that means a lot to our family, means a lot to him and I think that when it comes time for the ceremony and the induction he’ll be really pleased with and appreciate the great turnout and support he sees from so many friends and people in the industry and around the country.

“For me, it’s just a matter of pride for my dad. Really, really proud of him. He has done so much in motorsports and has such a passion to deliver and over-deliver for race fans. And I think that he doesn’t even realize most of the time the huge impact he’s had on the sport. Since he was nominated, we’ve really taken some time to look at all the history and try amass a lot of stories and memorabilia we can find about him and it’s been amazing. It’s been just humbling to see all he’s been involved with.”

Marcus Smith acknowledged the cancer treatment process has curtailed many of his father’s heretofore daily activities. “But he’s very active, very social,” Marcus said. “He loves to get on the phone with his general managers and executive teams. So he’s very active in the business, no matter where he is.”

Gossage said Smith never directly has mentioned the term “cancer” to him. “He’s not going to tell you when he’s got a headache,” said Gossage, who was treated for an unspecified form of cancer in the summer of 2009. “Marcus is the one who shared the news (earlier this year). All of a sudden Bruton’s out of commission and I know something’s going on, as do others in the company. You know…it’s a family. Marcus told us but I continue to talk to Bruton every day and have never referenced calling him at home as opposed to the office. The conversations are as normal as they’ve ever been.

“When I was sick, we never discussed it either. He said, ‘Let’s get the best care we can get.’ I told him we were taking care of it here, and that was the only time we discussed it…never again. Cancers are very different. His became public at Bristol (Motor Speedway) in August. The media could see he wasn’t well and when it was brought up (during a mass interview session), Bruton got up and walked out. Marcus came in and addressed the media. And then Bruton came back…and he hasn’t missed a beat.

“He’s a tough guy. He once said, ‘Never retire, because the day you retire you start dying.’ He works six days a week and on the Seventh Day he just rests. Takes it easy.

“He also once told me the word ‘work’ should be replaced in the dictionary by the word ‘fun’…because it’s all fun. That’s a great approach. In the early days here in Texas, when it was rough-going, he’d say, ‘If it’s not fun, let’s not do this!’ And I couldn’t think of an alternative.”

Clark said the various innovations introduced by SMI forced rival International Speedway Corp. to improve its facilities, a process most notably marked by the impending debut of the “Daytona Rising” renovation project at Daytona International Speedway.

“And the fans win,” Clark said. “If there’s one word that can describe Bruton it’s probably ‘builder.’ He loves to build things. We saw what he built in Texas. And I truly believe Bruton is one of the biggest race fans that I know. That’s one reason he’s so successful with the things he does _ he knows how fans think, because he’s one of them.

“If Bruton calls me and I haven’t watched every lap of the race on Sunday and I’ve missed something _ he doesn’t get that. ‘How could you miss that?’ That’s fueled his passion for all these years. He loves to see people come into the place, see something new that they’ve built and feel like he’s given them maybe a little bit better experience than the last time.”

Like Gossage, Clark said Smith is a second father figure to him. “We all love Bruton and we care about him,” said Clark, who has worked with Smith for 23 years. “He’s always thinking about what you can do, not what you can’t do. He’s our leader and there was a (health) concern. But if I was putting money on anybody to beat cancer, it’d be Bruton.”

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, January 22 2016
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