Bruton Smith was a man of big dreams for stock car racing, having been involved with NASCAR as both a friend and a rival since its inception in 1949. Over the next seven decades, he helped the sport reach new heights as the leader of Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016. On Wednesday, SMI announced his passing from natural causes at the age of 95.
While Smith’s career as a driver was brief, he became one of the most influential promoters in all of motorsport. After starting his promotional life as a competitor to NASCAR with the National Stock Car Racing Association, he built the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959, on which NASCAR began racing with what is now the Coca-Cola 600 a year later. Speedway Motorsports, founded in 1994, owns nine tracks currently on the Cup Series schedule (Charlotte, Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway; North Wilkesboro Speedway and Kentucky Speedway are also SMI properties), along with subsidiaries like the Performance Racing Network and Motorsports Authentics.
The great Richard Petty recalled in a statement offering condolences, “I remember first meeting Bruton in the fifties at a dirt race where dad (Lee Petty) was racing and Bruton was the promoter at the time. Since then, Bruton became so much more than a track owner and promoter. He was a pioneer of our sport and instrumental in building it to what it is today. His vision and passion to make the sport better was seen and felt across many decades and generations of fans. From race tracks to Speedway Children’s Charities, Bruton touched the lives of everyone he met.”
Beyond owning tracks, Smith was a prominent figure in the industry who spearheaded ideas like adding lights to his tracks for night racing and transforming Bristol Motor Speedway into its stadium design. While some of his proposals or ideas proved controversial or never got off the ground like the influx of 1.5-mile “cookie cutter” tri-oval tracks, the downfalls of North Wilkesboro and Rockingham Speedway, and even suggesting to split the Cup Series into two divisions in the 1990s, one cannot deny his love for racing and his hopes of sharing that love, whether it be turning races into events to attract more fans or getting involved with other series like IndyCar and NHRA.
A NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2016 inductee, Smith has also been enshrined in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, North Carolina Business Hall of Fame, and Stock Car Racing Hall of Fame.
“Race fans are, and will always be, the lifeblood of NASCAR. Few know this truth better than Bruton Smith,” stated NASCAR Chairman Jim France. “Bruton built his race tracks employing a simple philosophy: give race fans memories they will cherish for a lifetime. In doing so, Bruton helped grow NASCAR’s popularity as the preeminent spectator sport. His vision and legacy inspired many, and his fan-first mentality remains today through his son Marcus. On behalf of the France family and all of NASCAR, I offer my deepest condolences to the family and friends of Bruton Smith, a giant of our sport.”
Smith’s impact expands outside the racing world with companies like Fortune 300 company Sonic Automotive and EchoPark Automotive. In 1982, he started Speedway Children’s Charities to support youth communities near SMI circuits.
He is survived by his ex-wife Bonnie, sons David, Marcus, Scott, daughter Anna Lisa, and seven grandchildren.
“I’m filled with gratitude for the outpouring of kindness my family and I have received today from so many friends and colleagues,” tweeted Marcus Smith, who currently works as SMI’s CEO and President. “Thank you! While we mourn the passing of my father, we also rejoice for the life he lived and for the amazing legacy he left to inspire us all.”