CHARLOTTE, NC — O. Bruton Smith, who emerged from farming country in North Carolina and turned his love of motorsports into a Hall of Fame career as one of America’s greatest car owners. of the most successful tracks and promoters in motor racing history, died on Wednesday. He was 95 years old.
His death was announced by Speedway Motorsports, which cited natural causes.
His son, Marcus, the current President and CEO, posted a tribute to his father on social media on Tuesday: “I had a wonderful Father’s Day weekend. I’m so grateful to being a dad and having an amazing dad,” said the post, which was accompanied by photos of Smith surrounded by his family.
“Racing fans are, and always will be, the lifeblood of NASCAR. Few knew that better than Bruton Smith,” said NASCAR President Jim France. “Bruton has built its race tracks using a simple philosophy; to give face fans memories they will cherish for a lifetime. In doing so, Bruton has helped grow the popularity of NASCAR as the ultimate spectator sport. “
Born 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 attended his first race at age 8 during the Depression and bought his first race car at age 17 for $700.
“The idea at the time was that I was going to be a racing driver. I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long,” Smith said of his early start, saying his mother had prayed that he would find another passion. “You can’t fight your mom and God, so I quit driving.”
Instead, Smith became an entrepreneur – promoting his first race at 18 – and became one of the giants of stock car racing. Speedway Motorsports, the company he founded, was the first motorsport company to list on the New York Stock Exchange and it currently has 11 facilities across the United States.
The tracks host NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and other series in Hampton, Georgia; Bristol, TN; Concord, North Carolina; Loudon, New Hampshire; Sonoma, California; Fort Worth, TX; Dover, Delaware; Nashville, TN; North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; Sparta, Kentucky and Las Vegas.
NASCAR is racing this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, a track that was purchased by Speedway Motorsports late last year.
“My parents taught us what work was,” Smith said in 2008. “When I look back, it was a gift, although I certainly didn’t think so at the time. “Don’t have that gift because they didn’t 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 a number of 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 over 20 states.
Smith was on the ground floor as stock car racing grew in popularity, starting with the Deep South. Smith joked that he was “unlucky” to be nominated by a committee of frustrated racers and car owners to start promoting the races.
He partnered with Curtis Turner in 1959 to build Smith’s first permanent motorsport facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. It opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest in NASCAR history. The Coca-Cola 600 is considered a crown jewel of the NASCAR calendar to this day.
Smith became known for building state-of-the-art facilities that embraced the fan experience. Its tracks have condominiums, Speedway Clubs that offer fine dining and giant high-definition video screens.
“I love the racing world. I want to contribute more and more,” Smith said in 2015. “You hear us preaching about ‘fan friendly’. I think that’s a driver for me to do more things. I appreciate the contributions I’ve been able to make to the sport.”
He often battled with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his successor, Bill France Jr., and battled NASCAR leadership for decades trying to bring elite Cup Series racing into its properties. The two biggest racetrack operators in the country rarely got along, but Smith, with his gold-rimmed sunglasses and wild sport coats, never backed down.
“Bruton’s contribution to stock car racing is difficult to measure,” said NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt Jr. “His ambitious vision has created growth and opportunity for which I am forever 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’ve met American presidents and scholars. Astronauts and artists. World-renowned musicians and athletes. But the greatest man I ever met was Bruton Smith,” said Gossage, who took his retirement last summer. “We had so much fun working together. He always treated me like an equal as he taught me lessons about business and life.”
Smith in 2016 was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame for his contributions to motorsport. 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”.
“Everyone knows what he’s done for motorsport, NHRA and NASCAR,” said drag racing great John Force. “He was like a second father to me. I met him when he opened Bristol. I really loved him. I will miss him. His legacy will live on.”
Smith is survived by his sons Scott, Marcus and David, his daughter Anna Lisa, their mother, Bonnie Smith and seven grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.