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Bruton Smith Humbled By Call From Texas Hall

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 2 2009
O. Bruton Smith was inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame this week. Humbling, he called it. (Photo By Tom Pennington/Getty Images for the Texas Motor Speedway)  

O. Bruton Smith was inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame this week. Humbling, he called it. (Photo By Tom Pennington/Getty Images for the Texas Motor Speedway)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Fort Worth, Texas – Marcus Smith says the people who know his father best swear that motorsports mogul O. Bruton Smith is “a teddy bear” of a man.

“He is really the picture of the American dream,” Marcus Smith said his dad, who as chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc. is one of the most influential figures in stock car racing. “When you think of what is the American dream, I think of my dad.”

A one-time wannabe bull-rider, Bruton Smith finally was honored in the house that he built Wednesday night, when he was inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame at Texas Motor Speedway.

“It should have gone to somebody else,” Smith said of the award, which he shared with native Texan and 2000 Sprint Cup Series champion Bobby Labonte.  “I’m not old enough to get it. I’m only 39. How’s that?”

In Bruton’s world, that’s just another exaggeration. And Smith’s stream-of-consciousness acceptance speech touched upon several, including his would-be careers as a bull-rider, a race car driver and as the “frustrated builder” whose empire includes eight of the premier venues on the NASCAR circuit. 

“This was just a great experience building this place,” Smith said before an audience at The Speedway Club. “ I think that’s what I’m supposed to do, and I’ve enjoyed doing it, too. This was a great joy in doing what we’ve done here. I’m proud of it and I hope all Texans are proud of it, too.”

Smith presided over ground-breaking ceremonies for TMS in April 1995, and the facility played host to its first Cup race in April 1997. Although Lowe’s Motor  Speedway in Concord, N.C., remains the hub of SMI, Smith never has been shy about bragging on TMS and president Eddie Gossage.

“This speedway is something we started with a clean sheet of paper and we could build it like we wanted,” Smith said. “And I was delighted we could do that. Building this speedway was a major challenge.  I told someone today that this place is built a lot better than the Roman Coliseum. I understand that it was built a long time ago. But I can assure you this speedway here will last a lot longer than the Roman Coliseum. If you see pictures of it, you know how it’s crumbling. This place will not do that. If somebody wants to dig this place up 500, 800 years from now and say, ‘What in the world went on here?’ they’ll say, ‘Well, this is where Kyle Busch won a lot of races.’”

Turning serious, Smith accepted the honor with “all the humility I could muster.  I’m really humbled by this because this is a sport that I love and I’ve always loved it.”

That said, Smith later addressed some of his concerns about the Sprint Cup Series as it heads into Sunday’s Samsung 500. While the nationwide economic downturn has cut into leisure spending habits across the board, Smith noted Cup races earlier this season at his Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Bristol Motor Speedway were sellouts.

“We did not sell-out Atlanta, we won’t sell out here this weekend,” Smith said. “But we’ll look damn respectable, promise you that.”

Smith struck a familiar refrain as one way to improve the series.

“I think drivers, they’re making more money today than they’ve ever made in their life – so they’re not hungry,” Smith said. “So if we could get it more competitive –we’ve got to make winning more important than we’ve ever done before. That will help these ticket sales. Somebody that finishes fourth, people are not interested in that. I’ve seen interviews on television where they say, ‘Well, I had a pretty good day. I finished fourth. That’s pretty good points.’ Well, that’s bullshit. That’s what we don’t need. We’re not in the points-racing business.

“And we’re taking the money all the way down to 43rd place…we need to bring a lot of that money back up. I’d like to see about 60 percent of the purse go to the winner. Then somebody running third, fourth, fifth, they’re going to try like hell to win it because everybody wants to follow the money.”

Smith said the ongoing financial problems of Detroit’s Big Three manufacturers –GM, Chrysler and Ford (along with rival Toyota) – likely will not trickle down into NASCAR. “It will to a degree, but I’m not really concerned about it. Not going to lose any sleep over it,” said Smith, who added he does not view NASCAR’s Car of Today initiative as a built-in hedge against any manufacturer leaving the series. “I don’t know that we should have ever…I think we’d be better off today if it (the COT) never happened. It’s a safer car, but that’s the only thing you can say for it. Safer. But you could have made the old car safer. I’d rather seen that happen.

“It’s like Kyle Busch, helluva driver. He hates the car. Jeff Gordon, fabulous race driver but I’ve talked with him and he’s had real trouble trying to figure out how to drive that car. So there’s a particular problem.”

Smith and Labonte join previous TMHOF inductees A.J. Foyt Jr. (2003), Johnny Rutherford (2003), Terry Labonte (2004), Lee Shepherd (2004), Kenny Bernstein (2005), Jim Hall (2005), Eddie Hill (2006), Mark Martin (2007) and Jim McElreath (2007).

Marcus Smith, the president of LMS, noted his father’s first job was in a saw mill at age 11. “He has an insatiable appetite for great work,” Marcus Smith said. “It’s his hobby and his passion.”

Bruton Smith recalled attending his first race at age 8, along with his father and older brother. “And I thought, ‘This is unbelievable!’ Lot of noise, speed and it was just so exciting that I never got rid of it,” said Smith, who grew up on a farm wanting to be a bull-rider. “I told people recently if I’d had a manager and continued along that line,” Smith said, “I could have been somebody.”

John Sturbin | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Thursday, April 2 2009
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