Bruton Smith died of natural causes Wednesday. He was 95.
One of NASCAR’s most legendary figures, Smith, pictured above in 2010, gave up his dream of being a race car driver to become a force to be reckoned with on the business side.
Credited by Roger Penske as a man who brought “so much to NASCAR,” the founder and executive chairman of Sonic Automotive, Speedway Motorsports, and Speedway Children’s Charities did everything big. From condominiums at racetracks like Atlanta Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway to the world’s largest HDTV screen (Big Hoss), “Colossus” at Bristol, or the 160,000-square-foot HD screen at Charlotte, Smith will be remembered as a visionary.
In 1949, Smith was running his own racing association, called the National Stock Car Racing Association (NSCRA). The competition was NASCAR, run by Bill France Sr. The two were in talks to merge when Smith would be drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War in the 1950s.
Upon his return home, Smith found his organization had shuttered. By 1954, however, he was promoting races at the Charlotte Fairgrounds and soon found his way into NASCAR.
He built Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959 with NASCAR Hall of Famer Curtis Turner, which would become the first intermediate facility to feature lights. Today, Speedway Motorsports owns and operates 11 facilities under the direction of Bruton’s son Markus G. Smith, who became CEO in 2015.
“When you think about the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire and Sonoma and Atlanta, he’s been the best,” Roger Penske told NASCAR.com in 2016. “There’s no question. He set the bar.”
The Colossus screen at Bristol Motor Speedway exemplified the larger-than-life amenities championed by Bruton Smith. Rusty Jarrett/Motorsport Images
Diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in mid-2015, Smith would undergo successful surgery. Late that year, he was declared cancer-free.
Inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame class of 2016, Smith was the highlight of the night.
“I’ve got to tell you all a little bit because you probably all don’t know how easy it was to build the speedway,” Smith said during his Hall of Fame speech. “Don’t ever try it. But in building Charlotte, first off, I had to check all over the entire county for property — where are you going to build a speedway? Couldn’t find a place to build it because we didn’t have Interstate 85, we didn’t have Interstate 77. We had Highway 29, Highway 74, and there was another highway you all don’t even know anything about, but 21. So that was it.
“Now, you’ve got to worry about when you’re in this business, ingress and egress, so I was worried about that, so finally I decided we’re going to have to get going here and build it anyway. I bought 551 acres of land and got it all cleared.”
Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1984 and in addition to being a NASCAR Hall of Fame member, he 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).
Two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Gordon Johncock got to know Smith during his forays into NASCAR in the 1970s and was among those to pay tribute.
“He was a good guy, I liked him a lot,” Johncock said. “When I’d run NASCAR races down south he’d always make a point to say hello and thank me for racing with them. He was a great promoter and always made even the smallest things exciting for drivers and fans. He really was one of a kind. I was very, very sorry to hear he passed. I’m sad for his family and friends.”