NASCAR Hall of Famer Bruton Smith dead at 95

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NASCAR Hall of Famer Bruton Smith dead at 95

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O. Bruton Smith, a farmland native of North Carolina who channeled his love of motorsport into a Hall of Fame career as one of the greatest track owners and most successful patrons in auto racing history, died Wednesday. He was 95.

His death was announced by Speedway Motorsports citing natural causes.

His son Marcus, the current President and CEO, posted a tribute to his father on social media on Tuesday: “I had a wonderful Father’s Day weekend. I’m so grateful to be a dad and to have an amazing dad,” he told the Post, which was accompanied by photos of Smith surrounded by his family.

“Race fans are and will always be the lifeblood of NASCAR. Few knew that better than Bruton Smith,” said NASCAR Chairman Jim France. “Bruton built his circuits around a simple philosophy: to give faces memories they will cherish for a lifetime. In doing so, Bruton helped increase NASCAR’s popularity as a preeminent spectator sport.”

Bruton Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016.

Bruton Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016.
(Streeter Lecka/NASCAR via Getty Images)

Ollen Bruton Smith was born on March 2, 1927 on a farm in Oakboro, a small town 30 miles east of Charlotte, and was the youngest of nine children. He saw his first race as an 8-year-old during the Depression and bought his first race car at 17 for $700.

“The whole idea back then was that I was going to be a racing driver. I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long,” Smith said of his early start, claiming his mother prayed he would find another dedication. “You can’t fight your mother and God, so I stopped driving.”

Smith instead became an entrepreneur – sponsoring his first race at age 18 – and became one of the giants of stock car racing. Speedway Motorsports, the company he founded, was the first motorsport company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange and currently has 11 facilities across the United States.

The tracks host NASCAR, IndyCar, NHRA and other series in Atlanta; Bristol, Tennessee; Charlotte; Las Vegas; New Hampshire; Sonoma, California; Texas; Dover, Delaware; Nashville, Tennessee; North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; and Kentucky.

NASCAR racing this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, a track bought by Speedway Motorsports late last year.

“My parents taught us about work,” Smith said in 2008. “Looking back, it was a gift, although I certainly didn’t think it at the time. A lot of people don’t have that gift because they didn’t grow up working. But if you’re on a family farm, do it. It’s all hard work.

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Speedway Motorsports also owns and operates a number of subsidiaries. Smith founded Sonic Automotive in early 1997 and took it public 11 months later; it was recognized as a Fortune 500 company in 2000 and has hundreds of dealers in over 20 states.

Smith was on the ground floor when stock car racing grew in popularity, beginning in the Deep South. Smith joked he was “unlucky” to be appointed by a committee of frustrated racers and car owners to start promoting races.

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He teamed with Curtis Turner in 1959 to build Smith’s first permanent motorsport facility, the Charlotte Motor Speedway. It opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest in NASCAR history. The Coca-Cola 600 is still considered the crown jewel on the NASCAR calendar.

Smith became known for building state-of-the-art facilities that encompassed the fan experience. Its tracks have condos, speedway clubs that offer fine dining and huge, high-definition video screens.

“I love the racing business. I want to contribute more and more,” Smith said in 2015. “You can hear us preaching ‘fan friendly.’ I think that drives me to just do more things. I enjoy the contributions I have been able to make to the sport.”

He often feuded with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his successor, Bill France Jr., and fought NASCAR leadership for decades to bring elite Cup Series racing to his properties. The country’s two largest racetrack operators rarely agreed, but Smith, with his gold-rimmed sunglasses and wild sports jackets, never backed down.

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“Bruton’s contribution to stock car racing is difficult to measure,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr., a member of the NASCAR Hall of Fame. “His ambitious vision has created growth and opportunity for which I am eternally grateful.”

Eddie Gossage, who worked for Smith in Charlotte before leaving to help open Texas Motor Speedway and guided him through his first 25 years, paid tribute to his former boss.

“I met American presidents and scholars. astronauts and artists. World famous musicians and athletes. But the greatest man I ever met was Bruton Smith,” said Gossage, who retired last summer. “We had so much fun working together. He always treated me as an equal as he taught me lessons about business and life.”

Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 for his contributions to motorsport. Jim France called Smith “a sports giant”.

“Everyone knows what he’s done for motorsport, NHRA and NASCAR,” said legendary drag racer John Force. “He was like a second father to me. I met him when he opened Bristol. I really loved him. I will miss him. His legacy will live on.”

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Smith is survived by sons Scott, Marcus and David, daughter Anna Lisa, mother Bonnie Smith and seven grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were still pending.

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