A look back on Bruton Smith's life, and his impact on NASCAR

There is little coincidence NASCAR’s rise in popularity in the 1980s and 90s came at the same time Bruton Smith was rattling off some of his biggest accomplishments.

A look back on Bruton Smith's life, and his impact on NASCAR
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In a sport driven by characters that at times seemed larger-than-life – Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Petty among them – Smith always seemed to be among the best at capitalizing on their appeal to the masses.

Yes, the drivers were the stars. But to be stars, there had to be an audience that adored them.

It was that audience that Smith continued to provide for and tap into during his entire life, whether in motorsports, his automobile business or his philanthropic endeavors.

Smith, 95, died Wednesday but his Hall of Fame legacy will always remain.

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I never had a close personal relationship with Smith during my motorsports journalism career. I interviewed him many times, of course, and watched from the sidelines as he poked NASCAR, the France family or even a local government a time or two.

But I never felt I got close to him. Looking back now, I think that was likely my own fault. Smith certainly was personable but he always seemed this imposing, towering figure that held the world at his fingertips.

Perhaps I felt bit intimidated. To me, he always seemed like someone who wanted to do things better than everyone else – better, bigger and more outrageous.

While in NASCAR that may have caused acrimony at times with the sanctioning body or with drivers, it was usually race fans that stood to benefit.

He was in many ways their champion.

Bruton Smith

Bruton Smith

Photo by: NASCAR Media

Think of some of the things Smith brought to NASCAR:

He built condominiums and a dining club to Charlotte Motor Speedway, bringing fans closer to the sport they loved than ever before.

He introduced night racing to NASCAR events – something that until 1992 was generally reserved to local short tracks.

His Speedway Motorsports company became the first to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, showcasing NASCAR to mainstream business.

He continuously updated fan (and media) amenities at his tracks, addressing areas from restrooms to parking to new and innovative food items for sale.

He debuted what was then the world’s largest HDTV screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2011 and then had a bigger one built at Texas Motor Speedway in 2013.

And when race fans seemingly grew frustrated with the quality of racing on intermediate oval tracks, he introduced the “Roval” in 2018, turning Charlotte’s fall oval race into a road course event. Road courses are now some of the sport’s most popular races each season.

 

Those things – and a whole lot more – are why Smith’s legacy is likely to be so lasting in NASCAR.

Could there even be today’s NASCAR without the courage, vision and even stubbornness of Bruton Smith?

It’s difficult to see how.

Some may not have liked the way Smith conducted business, but it’s hard to argue with his results.

He once said the two things of which he were most proud were his children and the fact he “made a lot of people millionaires.”

He never shied away from trying to get a better deal for himself or his company, but someone else usually shared in the benefits and many times it was race fans.

NASCAR racing these days is as good as ever but the sport has certainly missed the “characters” that helped define it from its infancy.

Smith may now be gone but his desire to do things bigger, better and bolder is something NASCAR desperately needs to continue to embrace.

Through the years of Bruton Smith's legendary career 

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-ever 600-mile NASCAR race at the newly built superspeedway.

1982: Bruton Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities to support children in need through deserving 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-ever 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-ever 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.

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