‘Lifeblood of NASCAR’: Charlotte Motor Speedway founder Bruton Smith dies at 95
In 1959, Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway, and its 600-mile race is the longest ever in NASCAR’s history.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Bruton Smith, the founder of Speedway Motorsports, Sonic Automotive and Speedway Children’s Charities, died Wednesday at the age of 95, Speedway Motorsports announced.
Smith, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016, founded Speedway Motorsports in December 1994 after consolidating his motorsports holdings. In February 1995, he made it the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange
Today, the company owns and operates 11 motorsports entertainment facilities throughout the country, including Charlotte Motor Speedway and North Wilkesboro Speedway.
“NASCAR has lost one of its true pioneers, visionaries and innovators,” the NASCAR Hall of Fame said in a statement. “Bruton’s legacy and incredible accomplishments in and contributions to NASCAR will forever remain in our minds, our archives, at the cathedrals of speed he built and celebrated at the NASCAR Hall of Fame forever.”
In 1959, Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway, and its 600-mile race became the longest ever in NASCAR’s history.
CMS was also the first track to construct a huge, 16,000-square-foot HDTV on which fans could see all the action, according to NASCAR. When it was built in 2011, the screen was billed as the world’s largest HDTV.
“My parents taught us what work was all about,” Smith said in 2008. “As I look back, that was a gift, even though I certainly didn’t think so at the time. A lot of people don’t have that gift because they didn’t grow up working. But if you are on a family farm, that’s what you do. Everything is hard work.”
Speedway Motorsports also owns and operates subsidiaries SMI Properties, U.S. Legend Cars International, Performance Racing Network and zMAX Micro Lubricants.
In 2019, Speedway Motorsports made the company private in a deal worth more than $734 million.
“When you think about the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire and Sonoma and Atlanta, he’s been the best,” 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee and fellow automobile dealer Roger Penske told NASCAR.com in 2016. “There’s no question. He set the bar.”
In January of 1997, Smith founded Sonic Automotive and took it public on the New York Stock Exchange. In just a few years, Smith grew Sonic into one of the nation’s largest companies, and in 2000, it was first officially recognized as a Fortune 500 company based in Charlotte.
According to Speedway Motorsports, Smith’s first job outside the family farm came at age 12 when he went to work at a local saw mill. Two days after graduating from Oakboro High School, Smith took a job in a hosiery mill, before he eventually made a purchase that would lead him to two successful business careers.
Smith sold his first car, a 1939 Buick sedan, for a small profit and continued to sell cars from his mother’s front yard. The young entrepreneur also promoted his first race before he was 18 years old.
“From promoting his first race prior to turning 18 to becoming one of the most successful businessmen in all of motorsports, O. Bruton Smith did as much as any single person in creating the standard for the modern racetrack,” the NASCAR Hall of Fame said. “In 1959, he led the effort to design and build Charlotte Motor Speedway working alongside fellow Hall of Famer Curtis Turner. The track became the flagship of Smith’s company, Speedway Motorsports, which through his vision of taking SMI public in 1995 has grown to operate tracks across the country.”
In 2007, Smith was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and he became a member of the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 2006.
Speedway Motorsports says Smith often commented that the auto retail business was his first love and maintained his primary office at his Town & Country Ford dealership in Charlotte throughout his distinguished career.
Under Smith’s leadership, Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed more than $61 million to local organizations across the country that improve the quality of life for children in need.
In 2015, it was announced that Smith, then 88, had been battling non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Family members revealed later that year that he had been diagnosed as cancer-free.
Greg Walter, the executive vice president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway, spoke to reporters outside of the racetrack shortly after Smith’s death had been announced.
“To build a place like this, a place that has hosted millions of people from around the world here in North Carolina, we’re reminded everyday by his adage of ‘we work for the fans’,” said Walter.
The general manager spoke about the adoration Smith had for the fans and the humility he showed when speaking to people.
“He had a heart for people. He was always energized by crowds and the smiles of the fans. He was a practical joker. He would tease. He would have fun,” elaborated Walter.
Winston Kelley, executive director of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, spoke to WBTV about the impact Smith had on the world of racing and the development of modern tracks.
“Bruton didn’t raise the bar as it relates to facilities, speedways. He set the bar that others followed. He was the first in so many ways - T=the first to add lights to a super speedway, the first to add an office tower adjacent to a speedway, the first to put condominiums beside a speedway,” explained Kelley.
He also spoke about how Smith’s companies have led to growth in the Charlotte area.
“I grew up in Concord when there was nothing but Charlotte Motor Speedway on Highway 29 between Concord and Charlotte and if you go out there and look and see what has grown up around that with everything from Concord Mills to what is now Bruton Smith Blvd. that is now Speedway Blvd. It did not exist back in the 1960s when Charlotte Motor Speedway was built,” said Kelley.
He described Smith as a pioneer, visionary and innovator.
Information regarding funeral arrangements will be released at a later date.
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