By Owen A. Kearns, NASCAR Wire Service
There’s a possibility, albeit remote, that O. Bruton Smith could be entering the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a race car driver instead of a race promoter extraordinaire.
Smith, at age 17, bought a race car and decided to be a professional driver.
“One time, I actually beat (NASCAR Hall of Famers) Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly,” Smith said in a May 7, 2005 interview with Motorsport.com. “So I knew when I beat them I could be a contender, right?”
Smith’s mother, however, believed otherwise and appealed to a Higher Authority. She prayed her son would change his mind.
“She started fighting dirty,” said Smith in the same interview. “You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving.”
NASCAR stock car racing became the beneficiary of the intervention. Smith turned to race promotion, ultimately creating some of America’s greatest facilities. His eight-track Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), anchored by Charlotte Motor Speedway, helped boost the sport to new heights in the 1950s and was the first American motorsports company to go public in 1995.
The Oakboro, North Carolina native is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s class of 2016 that includes Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner. Induction ceremonies will be held Jan. 22 in Charlotte, N.C. and will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. by the NBCSN.
Born on a farm in rural North Carolina, Smith never considered an agricultural life. He hated the thought of being poor, which a childhood during the throes of the Great Depression appeared to suggest.
“You have food, clothing and shelter but you never have any money and I never did like that. I did not like that,” said Smith in a July 2003 Car & Driver story authored by Bob Zeller. “You worked from sunup to sundown, but you never did see the rewards.”
By 1949, Smith had his own stock car racing association, the National Stock Car Racing Association, which was a direct competitor to William H.G. “Big Bill” France’s fledgling NASCAR. Both groups fought for the same drivers and neither was making much money.
France and Smith discussed a possible merger in 1950 but the Korean War and U.S. Army scuttled the negotiations. Smith was drafted, served two years stateside as a paratrooper and by the time he mustered out the NSCRA was defunct.
Smith began to be noticed in 1954 when he took over promotion of the half-mile track at the Charlotte Fairgrounds.
Motorsports writer Russ Catlin wrote of “the genius of a 27-year-old fanatic named Bruton Smith … who took a poorly lighted, run-down half-mile track that wends around a muddy lake and built it into a spectacular speed emporium.”
In partnership with Turner and others, Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway, completed in 1960 at a cost of $1.5 million. The first Coca-Cola 600 – then the World 600 – was the facility’s opening event.
Eventually, Smith decided just owning the 1.5-mile track wasn’t enough. Boosting its profile meant adding seats, building suites and condos for VIP customers – and changing demographics of ticket buyers and sponsors.
“He took a cue from the oil industry in World War II when they were trying to get women who were suddenly driving the family car to stop in and pump gas at their service stations,” said CMS’ then-general manager Humpy Wheeler. “What they did was clean up the stations and make sure they had a decent women’s rest room.”
By 2000, the track’s customer base was 40 percent female.
“I took the position that Charlotte Motor Speedway was constantly under construction,” said Smith, a statement that describes how the now 88-year-old entrepreneur views his racing empire. Fueled in part by public stock offerings, Smith acquired Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1990 and Bristol Motor Speedway in 1996 – expanding the latter from 71,000 to 160,000 seats. SMI bought Sonoma Raceway in 1996, Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1997, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2007 and Kentucky Speedway in 2008.
Smith built and opened Texas Motor Speedway – SMI’s signature project – in 1997, which rose from the prairie outside Fort Worth. The track later added Big Hoss TV, the world’s largest HD screen measuring 20l,633.64 square feet. SMI presents 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races annually, including three in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
“He (is) such an innovator. He would think of something and do it,” said NASCAR Hall of Fame voter Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers Racing team, in a May 20, 2015 interview with ESPN’s Bob Pockrass.
NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France agrees.
“He deserves to be in (the NASCAR Hall of Fame); he’s made a huge impact (on the sport) obviously,” France said. “He has given the fans an experience that has transformed the sport.”
Tickets are available for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony (limited quantities available). Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800.745.3000.
Image: Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images