Commentary

Track mogul Bruton Smith keeps busy

Updated: July 7, 2011, 4:09 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bruton Smith is discussing Saturday night's inaugural Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway when one of his employees at Town and Country Ford walks in unannounced.

"Are you qualified for this?" Smith jokes as he pulls out an electronic garage-door opener and begins prying at the latch with a letter opener.

The employee laughs and asks Smith whether he needs to simply replace the battery. Smith playfully pokes the letter opener at the employee's belly, drawing an "ouch" more out of reaction than from contact.

"Wait, you're not bleeding," Smith says, continuing to work awkwardly with the opener.

This small, somewhat cluttered office on the first floor just off the dealership showroom is where Speedway Motorsports Inc.'s 84-year-old chairman, who a few years ago ranked 207th on the Forbes 400 list of the wealthiest Americans, is most at home.

Smith has a larger, more pristine office on the second floor. He chooses to be here, where through the glass walls he can see everything, where everyone from a salesman to a reporter to the guy who changes the battery in his garage opener can walk in without going through red tape.

"I like to be where the action is," Smith says.

[+] EnlargeBruton Smith and Fonty Flock
ISC Images & Archives/Getty ImagesBruton Smith, left, has been in NASCAR a long time, here talking to famed driver Fonty Flock in an undated photo from the 1950s.

This week the action is at Kentucky Speedway. Smith, at some point during the litigious past four years of securing a Cup date there, made a crucial decision from this office, whether it was to spend $78.5 million on the 1.5-mile facility or to move a Cup date from Atlanta to make the weekend possible.

"That's where he likes to be," says Jerry Carroll, the founder and former owner of Kentucky Speedway who has visited Smith's Charlotte office. "He likes to be around the action. He likes to be diagnosing, seeing that everything is done properly."

Take Tuesday, for example. During a ride around the track with Carroll, Smith stopped and told workers they needed to clean the mud off their golf carts.

"He pays attention to every little detail," Carroll says. "I started this dream here when only one person around here had the vision to do it. And Bruton is the only person I knew outside of NASCAR people capable of finishing it."

Says Smith, "I like to build things."

Smith has built SMI into one of the most powerful entities in NASCAR, spending by his estimate more than $4 billion in purchasing and upgrading the company's eight tracks that host 12 Cup events. He introduced condominiums, VIP suites and clublike restaurants to tracks, raising them to the standards of facilities in other sports.

He has forced other tracks to keep up. He most recently introduced the world's largest HD screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway that is sure to be copied.

One easily could argue that Smith should have been among the 25 nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame the past three years. Darlington Raceway founder Harold Brasington should have been on that list as well, by the way.

Smith says he doesn't care about being recognized but suggests that the reasons he's not on the list are the same reasons NASCAR never has given him a Cup date without taking one from one of his other tracks.

Fear and jealousy.

"Probably, probably," Smith says with a wry smile. "Why don't you ask them? You're chicken if you don't."

I did have to ask after that -- one of what Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark calls Smith's "magical" ways of getting people to move.

Here's what NASCAR chairman Brian France says: "Looking at the list of nominees for the first three classes, the focus seemed to be on driver and team owners. We saw the first track owner -- H. Clay Earles [Martinsville] -- earn a nomination this past year, so I would expect Bruton's name will surface soon."

While France was on the spot, he was asked how he would characterize Smith's contributions to the sport.

"Bruton Smith clearly is one of the most accomplished track owners in the sport, and his contributions have been significant," France says. "He oversees some of the greatest, most anticipated events on our schedule. Clearly his contributions have had a profound influence on the sport."

Fair enough.

A lot of people have a perception of Bruton that don't work with him. His real drive in this whole thing -- and we're all here to make a profit -- is to elevate the sport. Nothing will please Bruton more this weekend than for people to show up at Kentucky and say, 'Wow, look at what they've done to this place.'

-- Atlanta Motor Speedway president Ed Clark

But clearly Smith should be on the list. One could argue that after NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. and son Bill France Jr., he should be the next non-driver/team owner voted in.

What Smith has done at Kentucky Speedway is a prime example. He has taken a track and turned it into a showplace that already has sold more than its 107,000-seat capacity when sellouts are rare.

Clark and Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage admittedly are biased as Smith employees, but as Hall of Fame voters, they, too, don't understand why their boss isn't on the list.

"I don't think there is any doubt on anybody's mind Bruton deserves to be on the list," Clark says.

So why isn't he? One could debate it's the same reason it took Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough three years to get enough votes to make the Hall.

Politics.

Smith has what you might call baggage from rubbing some, particularly in the governing body, the wrong way. That representatives of NASCAR and sister company International Speedway Corp., whose 12 tracks are in competition with SMI, make up almost half the 21 that determine the Hall list might figure in as well.

There have been times during the process of getting a Cup race at Kentucky when Smith has come off boastful and arrogant, but that's when he's in front of an audience trying to make a point or send a message to NASCAR.

In the confines of this office he's unpretentious, almost humble. He easily could be mistaken as one of the salesmen, and that's the way he likes it.

"A lot of people have a perception of Bruton that don't work with him," Clark says. "His real drive in this whole thing -- and we're all here to make a profit -- is to elevate the sport. Nothing will please Bruton more this weekend than for people to show up at Kentucky and say, 'Wow, look at what they've done to this place.'"

This coming from a man who lost a race date so Kentucky could have one. That could be the ultimate compliment to Smith.

"I'm still not real happy that it happened," Clark says. "But it was a business move. I know it was difficult for him."

Smith actually deliberated for almost a year, exploring every option he had before taking a date from Atlanta. Had the politicians in Georgia been more proactive, Smith might have gone in another direction.

"They spent too much damn time looking at their stick and ball," he says. "They needed to look at us a little more."

Yes, Smith likes attention, at least the kind that gets him what he wants. When political leaders fought his building of a drag strip near Charlotte Motor Speedway, he threatened to move the speedway.

They eventually saw his way of thinking.

Smith doesn't mind a good fight. He has by his estimate 250 lawyers in 24 states behind him. He has taken on NASCAR more than most, although he gets along better with Brian France than his predecessors.

Smith actually was on good terms with Bill Jr. until what he calls a "betrayal" over the purchase of North Wilkesboro and the promise of a date for Texas. Had it not been for that, which landed him co-ownership of North Wilkesboro instead of full, Smith says that track might still have a Cup date.

"People know what I've done," Smith says. "You can't take that way, so that's good enough for me."

Smith won't say this, but he'd like to someday be in position of running all the tracks in NASCAR.

"Merge with ISC?" Smith asks. "No. Never would. Now, if they get tired of doing what they're doing and want to sell, then I would be a buyer. Would that be good for the sport? That would have to go through the test.

"But I think it would be. I know it would be if we ended up with it, because we would make it that way."

There's that arrogance that makes Smith a fun interview and a persuasive businessman. You can almost picture him stepping outside this office and selling a car, as he recently did to a buyer from California.

"I started in this dealership down here as a salesman," Smith recalls. "I was pretty good. I worked really hard."

Smith still works hard, harder than most his age. Recent back surgery may have kept him from attending a Speedway Children's Charities function in May -- he doesn't like to look as though he needs help -- but that's about all that has slowed him lately.

He's already thinking about future plans at Kentucky, from constructing a new garage like the one he built at Las Vegas to adding seating.

But as busy as Smith gets, he still has time to tinker in his office with garage openers and employees who fix them. This one returned the opener with a new battery and a backup.

"I can get a lot done down here because there are so many people that come in," Smith says. "We're on the street level."

Where the action is.

Where Smith thrives.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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