O. Bruton Smith, who stepped out of a North Carolina farm and harnessed his love of motorsports into a Hall of Fame career as one of the largest racetrack owners and most successful promoters in the history of motorsports, passed away Wednesday. He was 95 years old.
His death was announced by Speedway Motorsports, which cited natural causes.
On Tuesday, his son, Marcus, current president and CEO, posted a tribute to his dad on social media: “You had a wonderful Father’s Day weekend. I’m so grateful to be a dad, and you have an amazing dad,” said the post, accompanied by photos of Smith surrounded by his family.
“Race enthusiasts are and will always be the lifeblood of NASCAR,” NASCAR President Jim France said. “Few know this better than Proton Smith.” “Bruton built his race tracks using a simple philosophy; give face fans memories to cherish for a lifetime. In doing so, Bruton helped increase NASCAR’s popularity as the preeminent spectator sport.”
Olin Broughton-Smith was born on March 2, 1927 on a farm in Oakboro, a small town 30 miles east of Charlotte, the youngest of nine children. He watched his first race when he was 8 years old during the Depression and bought his first race car at 17 for $700.
“The whole idea at the time was that I was going to be a race car driver. I learned to drive, but this career didn’t last long,” Smith said of his early start, claiming that his mother was praying for him to find his latest passion. “You can’t fight your mother and God, so I stopped driving.”
Instead, Smith became an entrepreneur—he promoted his first race at the age of 18—and became one of the giants in motor racing. Speedway Motorsports, the company he founded, was the first motorsports 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 Hampton, Georgia; Bristol, Tennessee; Concord, North Carolina; Loudon, N.H.; Sonoma, CA; Fort Worth, Texas; Dover, Delaware; Nashville, Tennessee; North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; Sparta, Kentucky and Las Vegas.
NASCAR races this weekend at the Nashville Superspeedway, a track purchased by Speedway Motorsports late last year.
Smith said in 2008, “My parents taught us what business is all about. When I look back, it was a gift, though I certainly didn’t think it was at the time. A lot of people don’t have that gift because they didn’t grow up working. But if You work on a family farm, that’s what you do. Everything is hard work.”
Speedway Motorsports also owns and operates a number of subsidiaries. Smith founded Sonic Automotive in early 1997 and announced it 11 months later; In 2000, it was recognized as a Fortune 500 company and has hundreds of dealerships in more than 20 states.
Smith was on the ground floor where motor racing grew in popularity, beginning in the Deep South. Smith joked that he was “unlucky enough” to be hired by a panel of frustrated racers and car owners to start promoting racing.
He partnered with Curtis Turner in 1959 to build Smith’s first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. It opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest in NASCAR history. The Coca-Cola 600 is to this day the crown jewel of the NASCAR calendar.
Smith was known for building state-of-the-art facilities that embraced the fan experience. Its tracks contain apartment complexes and Speedway clubs that offer fine dining and giant HD video screens.
Smith said in 2015: “I love the racing industry. I want to contribute more and more. You hear us preach about the ‘fans.’ I think that’s what motivates me to do more things. I enjoy the contributions I’ve been able to make to this sport.”
He often quarrels with NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and his successor, Bill France Jr., and battled NASCAR leadership for decades in an effort to bring Elite Cup Series racing to his property. The nation’s top racetrack operators have rarely seen eye to eye, but Smith, in his tinted gold-rimmed sunglasses and wild sport coats, never holds back.
NASCAR Hall of Fame Fellow Dale Earnhardt Jr. “Bruton’s contribution to motor racing is hard to measure,” “his ambitious vision has created growth and opportunities for which I am forever grateful.”
Eddie Gusage, who worked for Smith in Charlotte before he left to help open and steer Texas Motor Speedway through its first 25 years, paid tribute to his former boss.
“I’ve met American presidents and scientists. Astronauts and artists. World-renowned musicians and athletes. But the greatest man I’ve ever met was Proton Smith,” said Gusage, who retired last summer. “We had so much fun working together. He always treated me as equals because he taught me lessons about work and life.”
Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 for his contributions to motorsport. He was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2007 and the National Motorsports Association Hall of Fame the previous year. Jim Frances Smith described him as a “sport giant”.
“Everyone knows what he’s done for motorsport, NHRA and NASCAR,” said the great Drag Racing great John Force. “He was like a second father to me. I met him when he opened Bristol. I absolutely loved him. I will miss him. His legacy will live on.”
Smith is survived by sons Scott, Marcus and David, daughter Anna Lisa, mother Bonnie Smith, and seven grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were pending.