Bruton Smith, who helped grow the NASCAR fan experience at his tracks with visionary ideas, died Wednesday from natural causes. He was 95.
Smith founded the company that is Speedway Motorsports and owns nine tracks that host Cup races, including Nashville Superspeedway, which hosts the NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series this weekend.
“For me, Bruton Smith passing away is like Bill France Sr. or Bill France Jr. passing away,” NBC Sports analyst Kyle Petty said Wednesday. “It’s the connection to the very, very beginning of the sport, a connection to guys who had a dream and a vision and believed in what NASCAR and auto racing could become. They put it all out there.
“It’s sad for me to see that generation go. We could sit down and talk with them and hear those stories, and now they’re gone.
“I think most race fans believe he owned Charlotte Motor Speedway and went head-to-head with Bill France, but he was so much more. He went back to the 1940s when he promoted races. The majority of fans see him as the titan of Charlotte and what he did in Texas and building speedways, but he was more than that. He was a pillar of the sport and part of the foundation.”
Smith’s tracks, which included Charlotte Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway, among others, used the slogan “fans first” in providing unique experiences for fans, whether it was special pre-race shows, mammoth video boards, or special food in the concession stands. He also added lights to Charlotte, making it the first 1.5-mile track to run races at night, something that has become common.
“I’ve told people before that he doesn’t do things to get awards,” Marcus Smith, Burton’s son, said of his father in January 2016. “He doesn’t really relish a victory as much as he does a challenge, and that’s probably something in common with a lot of Hall of Famers, I would guess.
“He’s certainly someone who just relishes the challenge, loves the climb and when he achieves a goal, he quickly moves to the next opportunity and the next challenge.”
“Race fans are, and always will be, the lifeblood of NASCAR,” said NASCAR Chairman and CEO Jim France. “Few knew this truth better than Bruton Smith. Bruton built his race tracks employing a simple philosophy: give race fans memories they will cherish for a lifetime. In doing so, Bruton helped grow NASCAR’s popularity as the preeminent spectator sport. His vision and legacy inspired many, and his fan-first mentality remains today through his son Marcus. On behalf of the France family and all of NASCAR, I offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Bruton Smith, a giant of our sport.
Smith entered the NASCAR Hall of Fame in January 2016, joining a class with Curtis Turner, Terry Labonte, Bobby Isaac and Jerry Cook.
“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,” said Winston Kelley, NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director. “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.
“Smith has always sought to focus on the fans and competitors and how he could make things better from their perspectives. His tracks were the first to add lights to a superspeedway and add innovative amenities such as officer towers, condominiums and high-end restaurants — all ushering in a new era of tracks.”
In 1959, Smith partnered with Turner and built his first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest ever in NASCAR’s history.
“His mind is racing all the time; he’s done so much for the sport,” Rick Hendrick said of Smith in 2016. “He’s so brave to step out and try things that have never been tried before … He’s a sharp guy. He helped build this sport and it’s (Hall of Fame induction) well deserved.”
Smith, born March 2, 1927, was the youngest of nine children and grew up on a modest farm in Oakboro, North Carolina.
Years ago, Smith told the story how he wanted to race and bought a car for $700, but his mother was against it and prayed that he would stop racing.
“Well, I knew then when she did that it was time for me to quit because I was not going to compete with that,” Smith said. “That’s when I quit, and I went over on the other side, and I started promoting races.”
Smith, who founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1984 also was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame (2006), the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2007), and Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame (2008).
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.
Survivors include sons Scott, Marcus and David; his daughter, Anna Lisa; their mother, Bonnie Smith; and seven grandchildren. Information regarding funeral arrangements will be released at a later date.
“A pioneer, a visionary and a true original. Never afraid to take a chance, Bruton will go down as one of the greatest promoters and innovators in the history of motor sports,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said. “I have tremendous admiration for the legacy he carved out in both racing and the car business.
“Even though we occasionally competed, I was always happy to call Bruton a friend. He was someone you wanted on your side because he was tough as nails and never backed down from a fight. At the same time, Bruton was incredibly generous and dedicated much of his life to giving back. The impact of Speedway Children’s Charities and his countless acts of kindness cannot possibly be measured.
“Bruton and I both grew up on farms, and we shared a passion for racing and for the car business. In 1983, I held a press conference at City Chevrolet (in Charlotte, North Carolina) to announce a new NASCAR team that would become Hendrick Motorsports. He was there that day, and his support was something I never took for granted.
“Although most knew him as a savvy and successful businessman, I will remember Bruton first and foremost as a father, a family man and a dear friend. He was so proud of his children, and our families have always been close. On behalf of Linda (Hendrick), our family and our entire organization, I offer my deepest sympathies to the Smith family and the many, many people who loved and respected Bruton.”
Highlights that Smith and Speedway Motorsports accomplished through the years that have forever reshaped the racing landscape.
1959: Bruton Smith and Curtis Turner broke ground on what would become the flagship facility for Speedway Motorsports – Charlotte Motor Speedway.
1960: Bruton Smith hosted the first 600-mile NASCAR race at the newly built superspeedway.
1982: Bruton Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities to support children in need through serving non-profit organizations.
1984: First-of-their-kind condominiums suitable for year-round living were built outside of Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Turn 1.
1985: Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted the first NASCAR All-Star Race.
1988: The Speedway Club opened at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The restaurant and entertainment facility was the first high-end, fine-dining experience built at a race track.
1990: Speedway Motorsports acquired Atlanta Motor Speedway.
1992: Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted the first ever superspeedway race under the lights, a NASCAR All-Star Race aptly nicknamed “One Hot Night.”
1995: Speedway Motorsports became the first motorsports company traded publicly on the New York Stock Exchange.
1996: Speedway Motorsports acquired Bristol Motor Speedway and Sonoma Raceway.
1997: Bruton Smith completed construction of Texas Motor Speedway.
1998: Smith built and opened a new dragway tower at Thunder Valley, Bristol Motor Speedway’s iconic drag strip.
1999: Speedway Motorsports acquired Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
2006: Bruton Smith was inducted into the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame.
2006: Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted the world premiere of the Disney-PIXAR movie CARS.
2006: Las Vegas Motor Speedway opened the innovative, fan-friendly Neon Garage.
2007: Speedway Motorsports acquired New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
2007: Bruton Smith was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
2008: Speedway Motorsports acquired Kentucky Speedway.
2008: zMAX Dragway was constructed; it was the first-ever, four-lane all-concrete drag strip.
2011: Charlotte Motor Speedway debuted the world’s largest HDTV, a 16,000-square-foot “Speedway TV.”
2013: Texas Motor Speedway added its giant HDTV, “Big Hoss,” eclipsing Charlotte’s HDTV screen with a 22,700 square-foot screen.
2013: Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosted its first Electric Daisy Carnival music festival.
2016: “Colossus,” the world’s largest outdoor, center-hung digital display was unveiled at Bristol Motor Speedway.
2016: Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the “Battle at Bristol,” setting a world record for the largest attendance (156,990) ever at a college football game. (Virginia Tech vs. Tennessee).
2016: Bruton Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
2018: Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted its first Roval race in the NASCAR playoffs on an innovative road course-oval hybrid track.
2018: Las Vegas Motor Speedway completed construction to widen The Strip to four lanes and hosted the West Coast’s first four-wide NHRA drag race.
2021: Bristol Motor Speedway hosted the NASCAR Cup Series on dirt for the first time in more than 50 years.
2021: Speedway Motorsports hosted NASCAR races for the first time at Circuit of The Americas outside of Austin, Texas.
2021: Speedway Motorsports acquired Nashville Superspeedway and Dover Motor Speedway.
2022: Atlanta Motor Speedway completed a resurfacing project with the highest degree of banking for an intermediate track at 28 degrees, bringing superspeedway racing to the 1.5-mile oval.
Bruton’s contribution to stock car racing is hard to measure. His ambitious vision created growth and opportunities that I am forever thankful for. My heart is with the Smith family. https://t.co/GUSu7kxLQS
— Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) June 22, 2022
Always kind to me. Made huge bets on growing the sport. He will be missed 🙏 https://t.co/J8s5fDoNGL
—Brad Keselowski (@keselowski) June 22, 2022
Anyone who made a living around the @NASCAR world, should thank Mr. Bruton for his vision, leadership, and dedication to the sport. I sure appreciate everything he has done for my family!
Thank you sir. https://t.co/O7ff6mP9pV
— David Ragan (@DavidRagan) June 22, 2022
Sad day…Bruton had a huge impact on our sport and had a huge amount of ingenuity. If you haven’t, you need to watch his @NASCARHall speech, there will never be another one like him! https://t.co/JKAMJPtUXm
—Cole Custer (@ColeCuster) June 22, 2022
I’m heart broken this afternoon my good friend Bruton Smith passed away, he helped me in so many ways, he was an icon in the sport he loved, RIP my dear friend!
—Darrell Waltrip (@AllWaltrip) June 22, 2022