Bruton Smith was a character, and I mean that in the best sense of the word. He died Wednesday at age 95, but he leaves a remarkable legacy, full of tall tales that often turned out to be true.
Racing promoter, Charlotte Motor Speedway builder, billionaire auto dealer, NASCAR Hall of Famer, guy who sometimes liked to pick a fight just to see if you were paying attention: If Bruton Smith hadn’t existed, some screenwriter would have made him up.
He was good for Charlotte, no doubt about that. I asked him once during one of our several long interviews over the years what he was proudest of in his life.
“I’ve got to say — and I hope it doesn’t sound corny — that I have four very successful and remarkable children,” Smith said. “I love my kids to death. They all work in my businesses and will keep them going long after I’m gone. That’s No. 1 without question. The second thing is I’m very proud that I’ve made a lot of people millionaires. Hundreds of them.”
Everyone called him “Bruton,” sometimes admiringly and sometimes in a “Did you see what Bruton has done now?” sort of way. He was controversial. Energetic. Charismatic. Well into his 80s, he liked to tell everyone he was 39 years old.
He grew up poor in Oakboro, N.C., about 30 miles from Charlotte, working on the family farm. He was the youngest of nine children, always dreaming.
“When I was about 11 or 12, I decided I was going to be the middleweight champion of the world,” Smith told me once. “I made my own punching bag. There had been a sawmill a mile and a half from our house, so I got a load of sawdust and built a bag from that. Hung it on a tree. We didn’t have any real boxing gloves but we had work gloves so I used them. I punched that bag every day with the work gloves. So I did that for about five years. I got to where I could hit very hard. Maybe knock a door down.”
Smith never became a boxing champ, but the ability to knock a door down never left him.
He built Charlotte Motor Speedway along with racecar driver Curtis Turner, lost the whole thing due to financial reasons, then managed to get it back. He argued with NASCAR’s first family, the Frances, about all sorts of issues — but they needed each other and always made up.
For a while, Smith dreamed that he might become a racing champion himself, but his own mother talked him out of that.
“She didn’t talk me out of it — she prayed me out of it,” Smith told me. “She started praying that I would stop. As I told some of my friends, ‘Mom is fighting dirty now.’ ”
Where Smith found his niche was as a crafty businessman. He had a knack for knowing not only how to knock the door down, but also how to put it back on its hinges when the time came. He’d argue with one city government or another, but when it came down to it, they all liked him, or at least respected him. Shoot, they named Bruton Smith Boulevard after him in Concord, the very road that leads you by Concord Mills Mall to the speedway that he made rise out of the red dirt in 1960.
I asked him about that road once — about what it felt like for Bruton Smith to drive on Bruton Smith Boulevard. And because Bruton was Bruton, he couldn’t resist throwing in a little dig.
“I would like to have a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card there if I’m speeding,” Smith said. “I have another one in Georgia — a Bruton Smith Parkway. It’s about 12 miles long — much, much nicer than this one.”
Bruton Smith’s love of racing
When Smith finally got off the farm in Oakboro and got some money, he became a clotheshorse. “I spend more money on clothes than anything else,” Smith once said.
More significantly, he became a charity dynamo. Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 as a memoriam to his son, Bruton Cameron Smith, who died as a child. Under his leadership, Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed more than $61 million to improve the quality of life for children in need.
Smith liked to be around cars, and around people. As he told me in another interview about racing: “I was introduced to it when I was 8 years old. I just love the sport. I like the thrill of it all. I love the sound of the engines. I know when I first started driving, I loved to hear that engine scream.”
He craved drama, too. When nice guy Jimmie Johnson was winning five straight NASCAR titles from 2006-2010, Smith said he thought Johnson should get out of a racecar and slap somebody, just for the heck of it. It would help ticket sales, Smith mused, and Johnson’s image as well.
“I just think it would help him maybe get away from that vanilla part of Jimmie,” Smith said. “He would show people the other side of Jimmie Johnson. Hey, if he needs to, he can hit me.”
Smith got to meet a lot of VIPs over the years, many of whom came to Charlotte Motor Speedway for one reason or another. Smith liked to tell you about them, too. I asked him once about a couple of the most memorable.
“Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “Zsa Zsa was just a delight. A pleasure. But Elizabeth (who was the grand marshal of the 1977 Coca-Cola 600)? Elizabeth was a handful, bless her heart. ... I had to station eight guards to look after her on that Saturday night, because she had such a strong fear of being kidnapped or robbed. There were a few other things that happened, too. She was a major handful.”
The time Bruton Smith’s hair caught on fire
Smith cackled when he told that story, and others, too. He enjoyed life. He liked the feel and the fight of it. He and Humpy Wheeler, the innovative president at Charlotte Motor Speedway, did things at a racetrack people couldn’t believe would work, but did.
They added condominiums, fine-dining clubs, superspeedway lighting and giant high-definition video screens. Smith’s hair briefly caught on fire during one promotion at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1992, when they were lighting up NASCAR’s all-star race for the first time.
Eddie Gossage, then head of PR at the track, had fireworks ready to go off when Smith threw a switch to turn on the lights when the speedway was first being lit up for a test run the month before the race. But one of the firework sparks lodged itself in Smith’s hair.
“Dad said he didn’t even know his hair was on fire,” Marcus Smith, now the CEO of Speedway Motorsports, said in 2017. “But Eddie thought his life was over.”
It wasn’t, though. The Smith family would roar about that story for years afterward.
It wasn’t surprising in some ways. Bruton Smith was always throwing off sparks one way or another. I asked him once about what the ideal fan experience would be at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“If you go to the speedway, you can kind of close your eyes and open ‘em up and you’re at a big state fair or something,” Smith said.
For a country boy from Oakboro who never went to college, a state fair was a magical place, full of wonder.
Bruton Smith brought us all a taste of that magic, even when he had to knock down a few doors to get us there.