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Bruton Smith follows fate into a legendary career
RELATED: Best photos from 2016 Hall of Fame induction CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Bruton Smith didn't make good on the opportunity to become a legendary race car driver. So he did the next best thing. He became a promoter. He ran race tracks. And then he built and bought speedways. And then he improved those speedways. And then he improved them some more. Folks noticed. And pretty soon, everyone else was scrambling to catch up. Smith , along with drivers Curtis Turner, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Jerry Cook, was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Saturday. It was fitting – Smith had dealings of some sort with each of his fellow inductees through the years. Higher powers got him out from behind the wheel. A savvy business sense put him on the road to success operating race tracks. "I wanted to be a race driver," Smith , 88, said during his induction speech inside the Crown Ballroom of the Charlotte Convention Center. "I had a real strong desire to do that so I bought a race car for $700 ... that's a lot of money then. ... "So I started driving, and I learned how to drive, and it was not as difficult as I thought it was. I thought, 'OK, now I've got my career going.' His father, he said, didn't have an issue with his career choice at the time. His mother felt differently. "He just said, 'Be careful, boy.' I was, but my mom had a problem with it," Smith said, "And she said, 'I wish you wouldn't do that,' and I heard that a dozen times, I guess, and my mother was a very religious person, and my mom started praying I would quit. "Well, I knew then when she did that it was time for me to quit because I was not going to compete with that. That's when I quit, and I went over on the other side, and I started promoting races." Today Speedway Motorsports, Inc., owns and operates eight tracks that host 12 of the 36 annual premier series points races on the NASCAR schedule. Charlotte Motor Speedway , built by Smith and Turner in 1959, also hosts the series' annual all-star (non-points) event. MORE: NASCAR Hall of Fame inducts Class of 2016 CMS was the first facility to offer condominiums overlooking the track, and was the first intermediate track to feature lights, allowing races to be run at night. Atlanta and Texas Motor Speedway , both SMI properties, also feature condominiums; there's "Big Hoss," the world's largest HDTV screen along the backstretch at TMS and a 16,000-square-foot HD screen at CMS. Among the many features at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the Neon Garage to get fans close to the action, while Bristol Motor Speedway officials are constructing the world's largest outdoor, permanent, center-hung digital display. RELATED: Bristol to get 'Colossus' for 2016 "I've told people before that he doesn't do things to get awards," son Marcus Smith said. "He doesn't really relish a victory as much as he does a challenge, and that's probably something in common with a lot of Hall of Famers, I would guess. "He's certainly someone who just relishes the challenge, loves the climb and when he achieves a goal, he quickly moves to the next opportunity and the next challenge." Saturday's induction ceremony, delayed one day by Winter Storm Jonas, was the seventh since the Hall opened in 2010. Smith , who grew up east of Charlotte in tiny Oakboro, North Carolina is the third non-competitor (driver, owner, crew chief or engine builder) to be inducted. NASCAR founder William H.G. France and son Bill France Jr., were among those in the inaugural class. " Bruton should have been in the Hall before now," NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick said earlier this week. "I remember him calling me one day, wanting me to buy a condo at the track. I said 'Bruton if I buy a condo it's going to be overlooking the ocean somewhere and not at a race track.' About two years later, I paid more to get one. "His mind is racing all the time; he's done so much for the sport. He's so brave to step out and try things that have never been tried before. It's past time for him to go in the Hall. "He's a sharp guy. He helped build this sport and it's well deserved." Fellow team owner Roger Penske called Smith "special," and "someone who has brought so much to NASCAR." "When you think about the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire and Sonoma and Atlanta, he's been the best," Penske said. "There's no question. He set the bar."
Bruton Smith builds Hall of Fame career brick by brick
RELATED: Learn more about the NASCAR Hall of Fame There's a possibility, albeit remote, that O. Bruton Smith could be entering the NASCAR Hall of Fame as a race car driver instead of a race promoter extraordinaire. Smith , at age 17, bought a race car and decided to be a professional driver. "One time, I actually beat (NASCAR Hall of Famers) Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly," Smith said in a May 7, 2005, interview with Motorsport.com. "So I knew when I beat them I could be a contender, right?" Smith's mother, however, believed otherwise and appealed to a Higher Authority. She prayed her son would change his mind. "She started fighting dirty," Smith said in the same interview. "You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving." NASCAR stock car racing became the beneficiary of the intervention. Smith turned to race promotion, ultimately creating some of America's greatest facilities. His eight-track Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), anchored by Charlotte Motor Speedway , helped boost the sport to new heights in the 1950s and was the first American motorsports company to go public in 1995. The Oakboro, North Carolina native is part of the NASCAR Hall of Fame's class of 2016 that includes Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac, Terry Labonte and Curtis Turner. Induction ceremonies will be held Jan. 22 in Charlotte, N.C. and will be broadcast live at 8 p.m. by the NBCSN. Born on a farm in rural North Carolina, Smith never considered an agricultural life. He hated the thought of being poor, which a childhood during the throes of the Great Depression appeared to suggest. "You have food, clothing and shelter but you never have any money and I never did like that. I did not like that," Smith said in a July 2003 Car & Driver story authored by Bob Zeller. "You worked from sunup to sundown, but you never did see the rewards." By 1949, Smith had his own stock car racing association, the National Stock Car Racing Association, which was a direct competitor to William H.G. "Big Bill" France's fledgling NASCAR. Both groups fought for the same drivers and neither was making much money. France and Smith discussed a possible merger in 1950 but the Korean War and U.S. Army scuttled the negotiations. Smith was drafted, served two years stateside as a paratrooper and by the time he mustered out the NSCRA was defunct. Smith began to be noticed in 1954 when he took over promotion of the half-mile track at the Charlotte Fairgrounds. Motorsports writer Russ Catlin wrote of "the genius of a 27-year-old fanatic named Bruton Smith … who took a poorly lighted, run-down half-mile track that wends around a muddy lake and built it into a spectacular speed emporium." In partnership with Turner and others, Smith built Charlotte Motor Speedway , completed in 1960 at a cost of $1.5 million. The first Coca-Cola 600 – then the World 600 – was the facility's opening event. Eventually, Smith decided just owning the 1.5-mile track wasn't enough. Boosting its profile meant adding seats, building suites and condos for VIP customers – and changing demographics of ticket buyers and sponsors. "He took a cue from the oil industry in World War II when they were trying to get women who were suddenly driving the family car to stop in and pump gas at their service stations," said CMS' then-general manager Humpy Wheeler. "What they did was clean up the stations and make sure they had a decent women's rest room." By 2000, the track's customer base was 40 percent female. "I took the position that Charlotte Motor Speedway was constantly under construction," said Smith , a statement that describes how the now 88-year-old entrepreneur views his racing empire. Fueled in part by public stock offerings, Smith acquired Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1990 and Bristol Motor Speedway in 1996 – expanding the latter from 71,000 to 160,000 seats. SMI bought Sonoma Raceway in 1996, Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1997, New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2007 and Kentucky Speedway in 2008. Smith built and opened Texas Motor Speedway – SMI's signature project – in 1997, which rose from the prairie outside Fort Worth. The track later added Big Hoss TV, the world's largest HD screen measuring 20l,633.64 square feet. SMI presents 13 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races annually, including three in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup . "He (is) such an innovator. He would think of something and do it," said NASCAR Hall of Fame voter Eddie Wood, co-owner of the Wood Brothers Racing team, in a May 20, 2015 interview with ESPN’s Bob Pockrass. NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France agrees. "He deserves to be in (the NASCAR Hall of Fame); he's made a huge impact (on the sport) obviously," France said. "He has given the fans an experience that has transformed the sport." Tickets are available for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Induction Dinner and Ceremony (limited quantities available). Individual ticket and ticket packages are available at ticketmaster.com, the NASCAR Hall of Fame Box Office or by calling 800.745.3000.
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Bruton Smith treated for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Bruton Smith , the founder of Speedway Motorsports Inc. and a 2016 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee, battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma earlier this year, according to quotes provided by SMI officials. Smith , 88, is Executive Chairman of SMI. The company owns eight facilities that host 13 of this year's 38 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series events. Smith is on hand this weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway, site of Saturday's Irwin Tools Night Race . It is his first appearance at one of his company's facilities since late May. "The doctors said I probably needed a bit of rest and I got that," Smith said. "And I probably needed it." Smith's son, Marcus, was named Chief Executive Officer for SMI earlier this year, with the elder Smith named Executive Chairman. Marcus Smith said the family discussed publicly addressing his father's illness but noted, "We're private about personal matters." Now that his father's prognosis is positive, Marcus Smith said the family decided to explain his father's recent absence. "I'm really excited about this weekend because Bristol was a goal. … The time was such that it was a good goal to try to hit to be healthy and strong," Marcus Smith said. The most recent reports concerning his father's health "have been really good," Smith said. "He's progressed beyond expectations they all had and we're very thankful about that … and they have given a really good prognosis on his health." In May, Bruton Smith was selected as one of five members for induction into the Hall next January. Others tabbed for induction are drivers Jerry Cook, Terry Labonte , Bobby Isaac and Curtis Turner. "I hate to miss any of our races," Bruton Smith said. "I really do. It's kind of heartbreaking really. I like to be there and see what's going on. "I enjoy what I do. I like the automobile business ( Smith's Sonic Automotive is one of the largest automotive retailers in the U.S.). I'm into that. I love the racing business. I want to do more and more and more. … I just like what I do."
Bruton Smith in the Hall, with support of Brian France
Longtime track mogul was voted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame Wednesday The selection of race track mogul Bruton Smith to the seventh class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Wednesday came with a groundswell of support among the 57 votes that were cast. One of Smith's most vocal boosters came from what might be considered an unlikely source. Helped by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France's stumping, the 88-year-old Smith was Wednesday's top vote-getter, leading the 2016 list of inductees with a 68 percent approval rating in his third year on the ballot. The selection comes four days before the 56th annual running of the Coca-Cola 600 , an endurance race that Smith created as the hallmark event for the track he helped create decades ago -- Charlotte Motor Speedway . Though Smith's contributions to the sport as a tireless promoter and innovator in the realm of track ownership are immeasurable, so is his history of being at loggerheads with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and his son and successor, Bill France Jr., over how best to help the sport grow. That same adversarial relationship seems to have skipped a generation, according to 2011 Hall inductee Ned Jarrett, who said he named Smith on his ballot Wednesday. "I already had him in my mind before then, but I think that might've made a difference overall," Jarrett said of Brian France's statement. "I think some people might've been surprised with his support. Bruton and Brian have always gotten along real well, and just I think him showing his support was good." H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, a longtime Smith associate at the Charlotte track through a period of tremendous growth for the sport, said he was present for many of the former struggles between Smith's Speedway Motorsports, Inc., group and the first family of NASCAR, noting how conversations frequently went with Bill France Jr.: "We conked his head a whole bunch of times, but he was hard-headed enough that he let us have it back." Wheeler said he believed the younger France's push for Smith carried plenty of sway with the voting panel Wednesday, but beyond that, it may have also smoothed over any lingering hard feelings between the two factions. "Brian has never been a confrontationalist -- never -- like his dad was and like his grandfather was," Wheeler said. "He's live and let live, and let's move on and get this thing going like we're supposed to be, et cetera. It looks like he's got a pretty good way of doing things because a lot of things he's done have worked … "I think we found out today that one of the great things about this business is you can bury the hatchet and everything's fine. And the hatchets were flying so much 20 years ago, and you were wondering, when am I gonna get one right in the skull? I used to wonder and think I'm going to put a helmet on, but you've just got to learn to live and let live and bury that hatchet." Though the relationship between Smith and the Frances was at times antagonistic, the net result was to take the sport to new levels. Smith introduced luxury suites, condominiums and other modern features that were soon incorporated into speedways nationwide, and the expansion of the sport to new markets was a mutual goal for both the Frances and SMI. Friendly or not, the competition was healthy, and many innovations sprang from its intensity. "He was, I think, a big challenge to NASCAR and the France family along the way," Jarrett said, "and I think that's one of the best things that could happen to the sport because he made them better and make them do things better. It was good that they had that rivalry going on." Jarrett said his respect for Smith stemmed from a long-ago victory at a half-mile dirt track Smith had promoted in the Charlotte area. When Jarrett went to the pay window, he said that Smith was there to help explain that he could not pay out the purse. Since the attendance that night was more than adequate, Jarrett said he asked for reasons why, only to be told that the IRS had seized that night's gate to offset Smith's early financial struggles. Jarrett said Smith wrote him a check for his Friday night winnings -- $150, he recalled -- but was told there was no guarantee that it would clear Monday morning. It didn't, Jarrett said, but Smith vowed that he would make the situation right. Jarrett said he stuck to his word, an unusual circumstance in the sport's earliest days, when crooked promoters often skipped town with that night's proceeds. "Then the rest is history as far as all the other speedways and things," Jarrett said. "I mean, he has made major, major contributions to this sport." With contributions and recognition for seven decades in the sport come the setting-aside of any long-ago grudges. In a statement released Wednesday evening by the speedway that he bet the farm on back in 1960, Smith thanked not only the voting committee, but also NASCAR's fans -- the lifeblood of any track owner. Though he might not have known the behind-the-scenes process that potentially helped spur his induction, Smith could also give a tip of the cap to NASCAR's chairman, who opted not to let bygones cloud the panel's voting judgment. "Rivalries are what makes the sport," Wheeler said. "But sometimes, you've got to put the peanut butter back in the jar and put the lid on it." 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Food City-Bristol partnership roots run deep
RELATED: Bristol quick facts " Full weekend schedule BRISTOL, Tenn. – It began with a promotion to help former series sponsor RJ Reynolds sell product. Today, 25 years later, the Food City sponsorship of Bristol Motor Speedway 's spring NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event is as strong as ever. It is the second-longest race entitlement in NASCAR – trailing only the Coca-Cola sponsorship of the 600-mile May race at Charlotte Motor Speedway . "We started in 1992, followed up the Valleydale 500," Steve Smith , Food City President and CEO, said Thursday at BMS. "That was back when it was still Winston Cup. We worked with RJ Reynolds on a promotion ... that was the whole genesis of us getting involved in racing." Initially, it wasn't a long-term deal, but by the time the next season had arrived, officials with the grocery chain were ready and willing to return. "We signed the (initial) agreement and we had a great first race," Smith said. "Alan Kulwicki actually won our first race in 1992; I remember that well. We were off and running." Kulwicki, an owner/driver, went on to win the series title that season. Tragically, the following year he was killed in a plane crash while en route to BMS to defend his Food City 500 title. Smith said his company, founded by his father Jack, became involved at the right time in the sport, when the fan base was on the upswing, TV coverage was gaining traction and sponsorship dollars were flowing. "What happened with Bristol was really indicative of what was happening with NASCAR, it was just growing and growing," he said. "Five years later Bruton ( Smith , Speedway Motorsports Inc. founder) bought the track and things just really started to escalate here with the amenities and the things that they did for the race fans. ... Folks love coming here, they love the racing environment, and they love, I think, the southern hospitality. "We try, as a sponsor, to do a lot of things to get them in here a little bit early, whether it's Food City Race Night or other events to really make it a full week of fun for the race fan." In addition to the Sprint Cup race sponsorship, the company also sponsors the August NASCAR XFINITY Series event at Bristol. While there have been times that spending money on race entitlement rights might have been questionable, Smith said "I don't think there's ever been a time when we really thought about dropping the race. "Now, we've negotiated pretty tough with Speedway Motorsports because obviously the fan base dropped a little bit, the viewership dropped a little bit, but when you've got folks like (former BMS General Manager) Jeff Byrd and (current GM) Jerry Caldwell that you know are going to do everything they can to give the race fan, our customers, that experience, it makes it pretty easy to continue to spend the dollars and continue to keep our associates that work in our stores involved in racing, and that's a big part of it, too." The return for Food City, he said, comes in many forms. No. 1 is name recognition. "We're a relatively small regional company -- we're in four states, 135 stores, 16,000 associates," Smith said. "It sounds like a lot but in the scheme of things compared to some of our competition, it's not. But it's a sense of pride for our associates, our customers who know we sponsor racing. "NASCAR fans are very loyal, they're loyal to the brands that are involved whether it's Food City or other consumer products sponsors. We think it helps us sell more products and bring more people in to our stores." In February of 2014, Food City and BMS officials announced a five-year extension for the naming rights of the track's spring Sprint Cup race. "At the end of the day, it's hard to put a financial statement together that proves that it's a great spend, but we've been doing good ever since we been sponsoring racing so we don't want to stop there," Smith said.