Bruton Smith’s love of racing changed NASCAR

He changed NASCAR as we know it.

There are few people who impacted the sport at the level of Bruton Smith in his lifetime. Smith died June 22 at the age of 95, himself a racing fan for 87 years, and fans don’t remember a NASCAR without his influence.

While it wasn’t Smith’s purchase of a rival series in the late 1940s (early 20s) that forced NASCAR’s hand in creating what is now the Cup Series, his influence did felt throughout the sport in the form of the racetrack empire he eventually built.

It all started in Charlotte, when Smith funded the construction of a 1.5-mile quad-oval track near Concord. What is now Charlotte Motor Speedway was the first such track in the sport, and it both started and nearly ended Smith’s racing efforts.

Charlotte hosted the first World 600 in 1960. The race remains the longest in the Cup Series and one of the most coveted victories by its riders. At the time, it was the ultimate test of rider and machine.

The track almost cost Smith everything. When it went bankrupt in 1961, the court awarded control of the track to other investors, and Smith left his home state of North Carolina to pursue other, more stable ventures.

But he never gave up on Charlotte. As he grew in wealth, Smith began buying stock in the track, until he had a majority stake.

Smith took over the track for good in 1976 and installed Humpy Wheeler as president and promoter-at-large.

Smith’s timing was exceptional. NASCAR’s popularity was beginning to grow in the late 70s. Smith updated the CMS to accommodate a growing fan base and in the process, to make the fan experience memorable. Luxury boxes, expanded concessions and more restrooms came with extra seats.

Smith made headlines in 1984 when CMS built and sold a bank of turn 1 condominiums that overlooked the track but provided year-round living for residents, a first for a major sports venue.

In 1992, Smith revolutionized NASCAR by taking on a project many thought was impossible: installing lights in Charlotte and bringing night racing to the Cup Series. Other tracks followed suit, with night racing gaining popularity among fans for the comfort of cooler nights and the excitement of racing under the lights.

Smith’s racetrack empire expanded in 1990 to include Atlanta Motor Speedway, which was later reconfigured as Charlotte’s sister track. He named his company Speedway Motorsports in 1994 and eventually added Texas Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, North Carolina Speedway at Rockingham, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway and Dover Motor. Speedway to his wallet.

Its tracks have become known as fan-friendly facilities, and Smith has turned them into entertainment venues, providing fans with concerts and shows on race weekends in addition to other racing and non-racing events all over the world. ‘year. Smith also made sure the garages, media centers and other facilities were welcoming and comfortable.

Smith didn’t just acquire prominent NASCAR facilities – Speedway Motorsports tracks have and continue to host IndyCar (Texas Motor Speedway only) as well as other types of racing, from Bandoleros to motorcycles. He expanded the track complexes to include drag strips for NHRA races. He also created a charitable foundation in Speedway Children’s Charities.

Smith’s contributions to NASCAR are immeasurable. He played a major role in transforming the sport from a regional pastime to a national pastime. He gave fans night races and dirt races. Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 for his role in turning the sport into a national obsession.

NASCAR fans owe much of the modern racing experience to Smith and his vision.

But it wasn’t all sunny and rosy.

Smith played a part in the demise of North Wilkesboro Speedway, buying the track in partnership with Bob Bahre and taking one of two races at his new Texas track (Bahre took the other to New Hampshire, which Smith took also later purchased, giving it full ownership of North Wilkesboro).

This track sat dormant until renewed fan interest prompted Smith’s son Marcus, who has run Speedway Motorsports for the past few years, to take notice. The track is being renovated with plans to host races starting later this year, but when or if NASCAR will return has not been established.

Smith also sealed what appears to be North Carolina Speedway’s ultimate fate, purchasing it from International Speedway Corp. from NASCAR in 2004 after a gruesome lawsuit over a second date for Texas. The track’s only remaining date went to Texas, closing the track affectionately known as “The Rock” for its location in Rockingham. Despite a few ownership changes since then, the track has failed to capture the magic.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that many of Smith’s tracks fit a similar mould: 1.5-mile tri- or quad-ovals, they gained a reputation as “cookie cutters” and fell out of favor with fans, as many got their dates from more unique pieces.

But Smith’s company made some concessions, closing Kentucky and leasing the Circuit of the Americas, radically changing the surface of Atlanta and adding a second date in favor (ironically, after the lawsuit) of Texas. Bristol hosted a pair of dirt races. The company Smith started has never stopped innovating, even though all of its decisions were not ultimately the right ones.

Racing fans today can’t escape Bruton Smith’s influence, and despite some moves they’ve questioned, most wouldn’t want him to. Speedway Motorsports facilities have evolved with the fans, adding and subtracting equipment to meet demands. These facilities helped move the sport out of the South and into the hearts and televisions of millions.

Bruton Smith became a racing fan at age eight. For the next 87 years, he used his love of sport to make sure others loved him too. And on that, he succeeded.

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