Bruton Smith, NASCAR Hall of Famer and visionary track operator, dies at 95

Bruton Smith, founder of Speedway Motorsports and one of the most forward-thinking track operators and promoters in motorsports, has died.

Smith, a native of Oakboro, North Carolina, was 95. Speedway Motorsports announced his passing Wednesday afternoon.

With Smith at the helm, Speedway Motorsports became the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange in 1995. The group’s holdings would eventually grow to include 11 racing facilities that currently host 15 NASCAR Cup Series events in 2022, including four of the series’ 10 playoff races.

Today, tracks operating under the Speedway Motorsports banner are: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, Sonoma Raceway and Texas Motor Speedway.

Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images
Jonathan Ferrey | Getty Images

Charlotte Motor Speedway was Smith’s jewel, a facility that he helped construct in 1959 with fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame member Curtis Turner. But it wasn’t until he returned to regain sole ownership of the 1.5-mile track in 1975 that Smith began a decades-long process of upgrades for his company’s facilities that quickly made them the envy of the industry.

At Charlotte, Smith added thousands of seats as attendance began to soar, installed permanent lights that allowed the facility to become the first speedway of its size to host races at night and built condominiums overlooking the track as well as a distinctive “Speedway Club,” where guests could dine in comfort while taking in the action on the track.

The addition of lights in 1992 was the key to CMS retaining the series’ annual All-Star Race, which it has hosted 34 times in the event’s 38-year history.

CMS was also the first track to construct a huge, 16,000-square-foot HDTV on which fans could see all the action. When it was built in 2011, the screen was billed as the world’s largest HDTV.

“Bruton Smith is a special guy and someone who has brought so much to NASCAR,” team owner Roger Penske said during a 2016 preseason media gathering. “When you 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.”

Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 for his lifetime of achievement in the industry. His son, Marcus Smith, continues the family’s tradition as president and CEO Speedway Motorsports.

Smith’s Midas touch wasn’t limited to the Charlotte track, though. Major upgrades occurred at all his facilities, whether it was the addition of condos and major infrastructure upgrades at Atlanta, the unveiling of “Colossus” –- the world’s largest permanent outdoor center-hung digital display –- at Bristol, the bar-raising Neon Garage at Las Vegas or “Big Hoss,” a 22,704 square-foot HD screen at Texas, a $225 million facility that set new standards for fans and competitors alike.

“He has an incredible sense of how to make money,” H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler, former president and general manager of CMS, told the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press in an interview in 1996. “The best thing is, he puts almost all the profits back in. He always wants to improve things for fans and competitors.”

In 2015, it was announced that Smith, then 88 and out of the public eye for some time, had been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Family members revealed later that year that he had been diagnosed as cancer-free.

In addition to his racing-related endeavors, Smith built Sonic Automotive, an automotive sales empire that encompasses more than 100 dealerships in 13 states. In 2021, the company was ranked No. 308 on the Fortune 500 list. Sons Scott and David Smith have been involved in executive roles with the company.

Smith was the youngest of nine children born to parents James and Mollie Smith, a Depression-era child born in 1927 and raised on a farm. As a teenager, he had other ideas besides spending the day behind a plow.

“You have food, clothing and shelter,” Smith said in a 2003 interview in Car & Driver magazine, “but you never have any money. And I never did like that. I did not like it.

“You worked from sunup to sundown, but you did not see the rewards. I decided by the time I was eight or nine, I was not going to stay on the farm.”

As a teen, Smith took a turn behind the wheel, racing at local dirt tracks in a car he purchased for $700. While he said he enjoyed his share of success, his driving career was soon cut short by a “higher power.”

“I started driving … and it was not as difficult as I thought it was,” he said during his 2016 Hall of Fame induction speech. “I thought, ‘OK, now I’ve got my career going.’

“My dad didn’t have a problem with it, he just said, ‘Be careful, boy.’ I was, but my mom had a problem with it, and she said, ‘I wish you wouldn’t do that’ … and my mother was a very religious person, and my mom started praying I would quit.

“Well, I knew then … it was time for me to quit because I was not going to compete with that.”

Promoting races in the 1950s was different, but Smith excelled there as well.

In 1954, he won the right to host the national modified championship at the three-quarter-mile Charlotte Speedway, moving it from West Palm Beach, Florida, where it has been contested for several years.

“Just little by little, I found out that you could make money doing what I was doing, and I made money,” Smith said.

Smith was ranked No. 3 in a 2004 listing of the top 20 most powerful people in U.S. motorsports by the Charlotte-based Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal.

Since 2006, the winner of the annual Coca-Cola 600 has been presented the Bruton Smith Trophy. The event, which was the first contested at CMS, is the longest in terms of total miles on the NASCAR schedule.

Smith established Speedway Children’s Charities, Speedway Motorsports’ nonprofit arm, in 1982. The group, which established fundraising chapters at each of its stock-car facilities, reportedly distributed more than $2 million in grants to 260 charitable organizations in 2020, bringing its total fund distribution to more than $61 million since its founding.