When 95–year old Charlotte resident Ollen Bruton Smith passed away on Wednesday, June 22, we lost more than a Forbes 400-list billionaire, Speedway Motorsports Inc. racetrack promoter, NASCAR (2016) and International Motorsports (2007) Hall of Fame member and Sonic Automotive car sales magnate.
North Carolina lost a living legend, who lived the power of his dreams!
Smith was born in Oakboro, North Carolina in 1927. Growing up on a farm, he became enamored of automobile racing on the occasion of seeing his first race at the age of 8. By 17 he had bought his first race car. By 18 he had promoted his first race in Midland, North Carolina and made a profit!
Less than 4 years later in 1949, he took over the National Stock Car Racing Association (NSCRA, an early competitor to Bill France Sr.’s National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR)). Smith sanctioned and promoted races in Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee before getting drafted into the U.S. Army as a paratrooper. He was never deployed in his 2-year hitch, which ended in 1953. His sanctioning body had dissolved in his absence.
In 1959, Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway with big dreams and $1.5 million dollars, financed through his wealthy brother-in-law. The track went bankrupt two years later. A bankruptcy judge gave control of the Speedway to local furniture store owner Richard Howard, who guided the track back to solvency.
Meanwhile, Smith moved to Illinois to run an auto dealership. He also began buying up blocks of stock in the Speedway, ultimately acquiring enough to regain control of the track in the mid-1970’s. And he forged an owner-general manager relationship with one of racing’s (read sports) keenest promotional minds, Howard A. “Humpy” Wheeler.
The 70’s also saw Smith acquiring more auto dealerships. His $8.9 billion in annual sales dealership group, Sonic Automotive, numbers 100 dealerships today!
The 1980’s brought grandeur to Charlotte Motor Speedway in the form of the fine-dining Speedway Club and premium-priced Speedway Towers Condos.
The 1990’s brought a lucrative corporate sponsorship to the Speedway in the name of Lowe’s Home Improvement. He also acquired more race tracks to go along with tri-oval speedways he already owned in Atlanta and Texas. These days Bristol, New Hampshire, Las Vegas, Sonoma and Kentucky all operate as Speedway Motorsports International (SMI) entities. In 1995, Smith shocked the motorsports world by launching a successful Initial Public Offering for SMI! Sonic Automotive went public in 1997!
His philanthropic effort, Speedway Children’s Charities has donated millions to child-related causes.
My favorite conversation with Bruton Smith took place over a hamburger and iced tea in one of his speedway-fare infield restaurants. Bruton and his son were enjoying lunch one day when my late old friend “Big Paul Franklin” Fuller and I happened into the place. We said “Hello” and he invited us to sit down with him!
We thanked him for the opportunity for our radio station to broadcast from his facility and complimented him on his vision back in 1959 to build a 1.5 mile tri-oval race track, since that had become the default configuration for nearly every track on the NASCAR circuit!
He said, “Back in 1959, I wanted to build the longest race track I could where a fan with decent seat could see every inch of the surface. If you go to Daytona – 2.5 miles – it’s fast! But the fans can’t see the whole thing. It turned out 1.5 miles in a tri-oval layout, gives the race fan with a decent seat the best possible view of everywhere the cars are racing!”
That, friends, was true racing vision of Bruton Smith!
We’ll miss him! And we thank him for what he left behind for us to enjoy!
His legacy impacted many, and the words from many after his death prove just that: