O. Bruton Smith, who grew up in a farming area of North Carolina and turned his love of motorsports into a Hall of Fame career as one of the biggest track owners and most successful promoters in racing history of cars, died on Wednesday. He was 95.
His death was announced by Speedway Motorsports, which cited natural causes.
His son, Marcus, the current chairman and CEO, posted a tribute to his father on social media on Tuesday: “I had a wonderful Father’s Day weekend. I am so thankful to be a dad and have an amazing dad.” . said the post, which was accompanied by photos of Smith surrounded by his family.
“Race fans are, and always will be, the lifeblood of NASCAR. Few knew this better than Bruton Smith,” said NASCAR President Jim France. “Bruton built his racetracks with a simple philosophy: give fans memories they will cherish for a lifetime. In doing so, Bruton helped increase the popularity of NASCAR as the quintessential spectator sport.”
Born on March 2, 1927, on a farm in Oakboro, a small town 30 miles east of Charlotte, Ollen Bruton Smith was the youngest of nine children. He saw his first race when he was 8 years old during the Depression and bought his first race car at 17 for $700.
“The idea at the time was that I was going to be a race car driver. I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long,” Smith said of his early start, stating that his mother prayed he would find another. passion. “You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving.”
Smith instead became an entrepreneur, promoting his first race at age 18, and went on to become one of the giants of stock car racing. Speedway Motorsports, the company he founded, was the first motorsports company to be listed on the New York Stock Exchange and currently owns 11 facilities in the United States.
The tracks host NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and other series in Hampton, Georgia; Bristol, Tennessee; Concord, North Carolina; Loudon, New Hampshire; Sonoma, California; Fort Worth, Texas; Dover, Delaware; Nashville, Tennessee; North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; Sparta, Kentucky and Las Vegas.
NASCAR races this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, a track that was acquired by Speedway Motorsports late last year.
“My parents taught us what work was all about,” Smith said in 2008. “Looking back, that was a gift, although I certainly didn’t think of it at the time. A lot of people don’t have that.” gift because they did not grow up working. But if you’re on a family farm, that’s what you do. It’s all hard work.”
Speedway Motorsports also owns and operates several subsidiaries. Smith founded Sonic Automotive in early 1997 and took it public 11 months later; in 2000, it was recognized as a Fortune 500 company and has hundreds of dealerships in more than 20 states.
Smith was on the ground floor as stock car racing grew in popularity, beginning in the Deep South. Smith joked that he was “unlucky” to be appointed by a committee of frustrated racers and car owners to start promoting racing.
He partnered with Curtis Turner in 1959 to build Smith’s first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. It opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest in NASCAR history. The Coca-Cola 600 to this day is considered a crown jewel on the NASCAR calendar.
Smith became known for building state-of-the-art facilities that embraced the fan experience. His tracks have condominiums, Speedway Clubs that offer excellent restaurants and giant high-definition video screens.
“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 drives me to do more things. I enjoy the contributions I’ve been able to make to the sport.”
He often trained with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his successor, Bill France Jr., and battled NASCAR’s leadership for decades trying to bring elite Cup Series racing to his properties. The two biggest racetrack operators in the country rarely saw each other, but Smith, in his gold-rimmed sunglasses and wild track jackets, never backed down.
“Bruton’s contribution to stock car racing is difficult to measure,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., a NASCAR Hall of Famer. “His ambitious vision for him created growth and opportunities for which I will always be grateful.”
Eddie Gossage, who worked for Smith in Charlotte before leaving to help open Texas Motor Speedway and guide it through its first 25 years, paid tribute to his former boss.
“I met American presidents and academics. Astronauts and artists. World-famous musicians and athletes. But the greatest man I ever met was Bruton Smith,” said Gossage, who retired last summer. “We had a lot of fun working together. He always treated me like an equal while teaching me lessons about business and life.”
Smith in 2016 was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his contributions to motorsports. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007 and the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame a year earlier. Jim France called Smith “a giant of a sport”.
“Everybody knows what he’s done for motorsports, the NHRA and NASCAR,” said the great John Force. “He was like a second father to me. I met him when he opened Bristol. I loved him. I’m going to miss him. His legacy will live on.”
Smith is survived by his sons Scott, Marcus and David, his daughter Anna Lisa, his mother, Bonnie Smith and seven grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.