Bruton Smith: From Working The Dirt To Owning an Empire

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 26 2022

Bruton Smith, a NASCAR Hall of Famer, passes on a racing legacy.

FORT WORTH, Texas _ NASCAR Hall of Famer O. Bruton Smith, whose vision transformed a bucolic cow pasture in far north Fort Worth into Texas Motor Speedway, died Wednesday, June 22, 2022, of natural causes in Charlotte, N.C. Ollen Bruton Smith was 95.

Smith was the founder and executive chairman of Sonic Automotive, Speedway Motorsports and Speedway Children’s Charities.

Smith was a key player during NASCAR’s rapid expansion outside of its traditional Southern markets into mainstream America during the mid-1990s, often clashing with Bill France Jr. in his dual executive roles with the Daytona Beach, Fla.-based sanctioning body and International Speedway Corp. 

Born March 2, 1927, Smith was the youngest of nine children and grew up on a modest farm in Oakboro, N.C. As a member of “The Greatest Generation,” Smith learned the value of hard work early in life. With inspiring determination and relentless optimism, Smith built a business empire through the automotive and motorsports industries that define his legacy.

“My parents taught us what work was all about,” Smith said in 2008. “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.”

Smith founded Speedway Motorsports by consolidating his motorsports holdings in December 1994, and in February 1995 made it the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange.

The company today owns and operates 11 motorsports/entertainment facilities _ Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.

Speedway Motorsports also owns and operates subsidiaries SMI Properties, U.S. Legend Cars International, Performance Racing Network and zMAX Micro Lubricants.

“With heavy hearts, we join the NASCAR community in mourning the passing of Bruton Smith,” NASCAR icon and team-owner Richard Petty said in a statement. “I remember first meeting Bruton in the 1950s at a dirt race where dad (Lee Petty) was racing and Bruton was the promoter at the time. Since then, Bruton became so much more than a track owner and promoter. He was a pioneer of our sport and instrumental in building it to what it is today. His vision and passion to make the sport better was seen and felt across many decades and generations of fans.

“From racetracks to Speedway Children’s Charities, Bruton touched the lives of so many and impacted the lives of everyone he met. Our hearts are with the Smith family during this difficult time.”

Smith introduced himself to the stick-and-ball sporting landscape of Dallas/Fort Worth on Nov. 28, 1994, when he announced his intention to build a multi-million-dollar, NASCAR-style superspeedway in the market. On Feb. 28, 1995, Smith confirmed the 1.5-mile track would be built near developer Ross Perot Jr.’s Alliance Development Corp. site located between Fort Worth and Denton.

Accompanied by NASCAR Cup Series stars and native Texans Terry and Bobby Labonte, as well as Jeff Gordon, Smith broke ground for Texas Motor Speedway on April 11, 1995. Smith and Eddie Gossage, TMS’ first president and later general manager, officially introduced North Texas to SMI’s modus operandi by “blowing stuff up” in a wind-swept cow pasture at the intersection of Interstate 35 West and Texas State Highway 114.

“Just trying to do things bigger,” Gossage recalled upon his retirement in June 2021, “and tell everybody here, ‘You ain’t seen nothing like this. We might be new here _ but watch this!’^” Construction began on Aug. 18, 1995 and the track played host to its first NASCAR weekend in April 1997. Jeff Burton won the inaugural Cup Series Interstate Batteries 500 on April 6, 1997 before a sellout crowd in excess of 200,000.

On June 7, 1997, Texas Motor Speedway played host to the first night-time INDYCAR race in history under sanction of Tony George’s fledgling, all-oval Indy Racing League. The True Value 500k ended in controversy and immediately added to TMS lore.

Billy Boat was celebrating his apparent victory with team-owner and Texas open-wheel legend A.J. Foyt Jr. when Arie Luyendyk interrupted the proceedings to claim a scoring error had occurred and he had won the race. An angry Foyt slapped Luyendyk upside the head, igniting a brief Saturday night, short-short track-style skirmish. Following an official protest filed overnight by Luyendyk’s team, U.S. Auto Club officials declared the Dutchman the winner the following morning citing malfunctioning timing and scoring equipment. 

Event-by-event, TMS was emerging as “The Great American Speedway” and “No Limits, Texas.” TMS was at the forefront of NASCAR’s westward expansion into the lucrative Las Vegas and Los Angeles/Fontana, Calif., markets. Under Smith’s guidance, Speedway Motorsports added Las Vegas Motor Speedway to its holdings in 1999.

Smith’s son, Marcus, said TMS continued to occupy 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, who was named president/CEO of Speedway Motorsports on May 28, 2008. “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.”

Texas Motor Speedway’s 1,500-acre complex includes a 1.5-mile superspeedway, 194 luxury suites, 76 condominiums, a nine-story Speedway Club, Class-A office space and the 11,000-seat, four-tenths-mile Texas Motor Speedway Dirt Track.

“When I built Texas Motor Speedway, I had plenty of architects, accountants and attorneys, but what I really needed was promotion,” Smith said as Gossage prepared to exit the company after  a 32-year tenure last June. “That’s where Eddie came in. They say ‘everything’s bigger in Texas’ and I needed a big personality in Dallas/Fort Worth. Eddie’s become a shrewd businessman over the years, but he’s remained a publicist at heart, and he never forgot what the entertainment business is about _ having FUN.

“I am grateful for all that Eddie has done for our company. He’s been a promoter, friend and an asset to the entire motorsports industry.”

Gossage, in turn, called Smith “the greatest man I’ve ever met. We have a really special relationship. I’ve learned so much from him _ him and my father _ and probably a couple other guys. Bruton, our relationship is more personal than professional and I love that guy in the truest sense of the word. A man who’s taught me so much about life, forget the racetrack.”

In January 1997, Smith founded Sonic Automotive and took it public on the New York Stock Exchange in November of that year. Smith subsequently grew Sonic into one of the nation’s largest companies, and in 2000 it was first officially recognized as a Fortune 500 company based in Charlotte.

Sonic Automotive is now a Fortune 300 company and one of the nation’s largest automotive retailers with over 160 dealerships in over 23 states, representing 25 automotive brands. Sonic Automotive dealerships have received numerous nationally recognized awards for exceeding customer satisfaction and automotive retail brand performance standards.

In 2014, Smith’s passion for automotive retail continued with the creation of EchoPark Automotive. A subsidiary of Sonic Automotive, EchoPark Automotive is the company’s high growth segment rooted in providing quality pre-owned vehicles, while delivering a world-class guest experience. The company currently operates over 40 EchoPark Automotive locations nationwide.

Smith began to scale-back his presence at his tracks beginning in May 2015, when he silently began waging a battle against Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the body’s immune system.


Smith’s first job outside the family farm came at age 12 when he went to work at a local saw mill. Two days after graduating from Oakboro High School, Smith took a job in a hosiery mill, before he eventually made a purchase that would lead him to two successful business careers.

“I bought a race car for $700,” Smith said. “The whole idea at that time was that I was going to be a race car driver. I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long.” Smith recalled that his mother had alternate plans and prayed to a higher authority. “She started fighting dirty,” Smith joked during a 2005 interview with Motorsport.com. “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 wheel-and-deal cars from his mother’s front yard. The young entrepreneur also promoted his first race before he was 18- years-old.

“There was a whole lot of unrest with the drivers and car owners at that time,” Smith said. “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, N.C., and I made a little bit of money, so I thought I’d try it again.”

In his early 20s, Smith’s career as promoter and car salesman took a u-turn when he was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Smith served two years stateside as a paratrooper, then returned to selling cars and promoting auto races featuring the France family’s burgeoning National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). During a rough era for the sport, Smith built a reputation as one of the first professional promoters to pay good purses, tend to the needs of the fans and find unique ways to promote events at speedways he leased around North Carolina.

“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 _ the “Babe Ruth of stock car racing” _ and built his first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 1.5-mile 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 automotive dealerships. His first dealership, Frontier Ford, opened in 1966 in Rockford, Ill., where he married and started a family. While growing his automotive business, Smith’s passion for auto racing never waned.

“I love the racing business. I want to contribute more and more,” Smith said in 2015. “You hear us preach about ‘fan friendly.’ I think that is a driver for me to just do more things. I enjoy the contributions I’ve been able to make to the sport.”

Under Smith’s innovative direction, Speedway Motorsports facilities were the first in racing to add condominiums, fine-dining Speedway Clubs, superspeedway lighting and giant high-definition video screens.

“When you think about the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire and Sonoma and Atlanta, he’s been the best,” Roger Penske, a 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, owner of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and fellow-automobile dealer, told NASCAR.com in 2016. “There’s no question. He set the bar.”

NASCAR team-owner Rick Hendrick, another prominent auto dealer and fellow-NASCAR Hall of Famer, recalled a unique sales pitch he once received from Smith.

“That guy…I remember Bruton calling me one day and saying, ‘I want you to buy a condo at the track (CMS),’^” said 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.”

Following an NHRA victory in 2021 at Smith’s zMAX Dragway, 16-time Funny Car world champion John “Brute” Force dedicated the win to an ailing Smith.

“I love this guy and everything he’s done for our sport,” Force said. “I’m excited I get to send this trophy home to somebody I love _a guy who built our sport.”

An entrepreneur at heart, Smith had a passion for “growing” people and business. His love of the automobile and racing businesses drove him to continually build and expand while taking care of his family and co-workers.

“I learned from my own experience that when people go to an event _ like a big race _ they may know who won the race, but all the other stuff they don’t remember,” Smith once said. “I want to put something on so regardless who won the race, it will be a memorable experience. We’re here to entertain fans, and I want them to go home with a memory that will last forever.”

Among his accolades, Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January 2016. In 2007, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and he became a member of the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 2006.

Despite his many accomplishments in motorsports, Smith often said the auto retail business was his first love. Fittingly, he maintained his primary office at his Town & Country Ford dealership in Charlotte throughout his career. And depending upon his mood on any given day, he would _ or would not _return phone calls from inquiring beat journalists about NASCAR. Along those lines, Smith was a master of the incomplete thought-and-sentence when attempting to dodge a controversial subject related to one of his tracks.

“You have trophies, you have championships, you have wins, but friends are what really make the difference,” fellow-NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip said about Smith in 2019. “Bruton Smith has been one of my heroes since I started racing in NASCAR in 1972.”

Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 as a memoriam and legacy to his son, Bruton Cameron Smith, who passed away at a very young age. Given his experience, Smith became passionate about helping children in-need; Speedway Children’s Charities was created to focus on serving communities surrounding Speedway Motorsports racetracks. Speedway Children’s Charities chapters work with organizations to identify and resolve pressing issues ranging from learning disabilities and broken homes to hunger and childhood cancer.

Under Smith’s leadership, Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed more than $61- million to local organizations across the country to improve the quality of life for children in- need.

Survivors include sons Marcus, Scott and David; a daughter, Anna Lisa; their mother, Bonnie Smith and seven grandchildren.

A funeral service open to the public has been scheduled for Thursday, June 30, at 1 p.m. (EDT) at Central Church, Charlotte Campus, 5301 Sardis Road. Guest are requested to arrive and be seated by 12:30 p.m. The service will be live-streamed on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s YouTube channel, https://www.youtube.com/user/CLTMotorSpdwy/featured.

The colorful and controversial career of motorsports mogul O. Bruton Smith spanned eight decades. Here are selected highlights from Smith’s tenure behind the wheel of Speedway Motorsports:

1959 _ Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner break ground on what would become the flagship facility for Speedway Motorsports _ the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C.

1960 _ Bruton Smith hosts the first 600-mile NASCAR race at the newly built CMS.

1982 _ Bruton Smith founds Speedway Children’s Charities to support children in-need through deserving non-profit organizations.

1984 _ First-of-their-kind condominiums suitable for year-round living are built outside of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Turn 1.

1985 _ Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the inaugural NASCAR All-Star Race.

1988 _The Speedway Club opens at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The restaurant and entertainment facility is the first high-end, fine-dining experience built at a racetrack.

1990 _ Speedway Motorsports acquires the 1.5-mile Atlanta Motor Speedway in Hampton, Ga.

1992 _ Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the first superspeedway race under the lights, a NASCAR All-Star Race aptly nicknamed “One Hot Night.”

1995 _ Speedway Motorsports is the first motorsports company traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.

1996 _ Speedway Motorsports acquires the half-mile Bristol Motor Speedway and Sonoma (Calif.) Raceway road-course.

1997 _ Speedway Motorsports completes construction of the 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

1998 _ A state-of-the-art tower complex is opened at “Thunder Valley,” Bristol Motor Speedway’s iconic drag strip.

1999 _ Speedway Motorsports acquires the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

2006 _ Bruton Smith is inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.

2006 _ Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts the world premiere of the Disney-PIXAR movie CARS.

2006 _ Las Vegas Motor Speedway opens its innovative, fan-friendly Neon Garage.

2007 _ Speedway Motorsports acquires the 1.058-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway in Loudon, N.H.

2007 _ Bruton Smith is inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Lincoln, Ala.

2008 _ Bruton Smith is inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.

2008 _ Speedway Motorsports acquires the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway in Sparta.

2008 _ zMAX Dragway is constructed in Concord, N.C.; it features the first, four-lane all-concrete drag strip.

2011 _ Charlotte Motor Speedway debuts the world’s largest HDTV, a 16,000-square-foot “Speedway TV.”

2013 _ Texas Motor Speedway adds its giant HDTV, “Big Hoss,” eclipsing Charlotte’s HDTV screen with a 22,700 square-foot screen.

2013 _ Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts its first Electric Daisy Carnival music festival.

2016 _ “Colossus” _ the world’s largest outdoor, center-hung digital display _ is unveiled at Bristol Motor Speedway.

2016 _ Bristol Motor Speedway hosts the “Battle at Bristol,” setting a world record for the largest attendance (156,990) at a college football game. (Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee).

2016 _ Bruton Smith is inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in a class including former partner/driver Curtis Turner, Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac and Terry Labonte. Turner, Cook, Isaac and Labonte all were counted among NASCAR’s 50 Greatest Drivers, a list announced in 1998.

2018 _ Charlotte Motor Speedway hosts its first ROVAL race during the NASCAR Playoffs on an innovative road course/oval hybrid track.

2018 _ Las Vegas Motor Speedway completes construction to widen The Strip to four lanes and host the West Coast’s first four-wide NHRA drag race.

2021 _ Bristol Motor Speedway hosts the NASCAR Cup Series on dirt for the first time in more than 50 years.

2021 _ Speedway Motorsports hosts races from NASCAR’s three touring series for the first time at the FIA-approved Circuit of The Americas outside of Austin, Texas.

2021 _ Speedway Motorsports acquires the 1.33-mile Nashville Superspeedway and the 1-mile Dover Motor Speedway in Delaware.

2022 _ Atlanta Motor Speedway completes a resurfacing project with the highest degree of banking for an intermediate (1.5-mile) track at 28 degrees.

Editor’s Note: John Sturbin is a Texas-based journalist specializing in motorsports. During a near 30-year career with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he won the Bloys Britt Award for top motorsports story of the year (1991) as judged by The Associated Press; received the National Hot Rod Association’s Media Award (1995) and several in-house Star-Telegram honors. He also was inaugural recipient of the Texas Motor Speedway Excellence in Journalism Award (2009). His list of freelance clients includes Texas Motor Speedway, the Dallas Morning News, New York Newsday, Rome (N.Y) Daily Sentinel, Corpus Christi (Texas) Caller Times, NASCAR Wire Service and Ford Racing).


| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Sunday, June 26 2022
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