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Remembering Bruton Smith, a man who talked big and delivered

Kyle Petty (left) and CMS owner Bruton Smith. - Coca-Cola 600 - 1987.
Don Hunter Photo/CMS Archives
Kyle Petty (left) and CMS owner Bruton Smith. - Coca-Cola 600 - 1987.

We're going to reflect on a man who thought big and had a big impact on our region and NASCAR. Bruton Smith, the founder of Charlotte Motor Speedway, died Wednesday at the age of 95. The billionaire businessman helped shape the sport after building the Concord track in 1959 and went on to found Speedway Motorsports, the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange. Today, the company owns and operates 11 tracks, including Bristol, Atlanta, Texas, Las Vegas and Nashville Speedway, the site of this weekend's NASCAR races. With "All Things Considered" host Gwendolyn Glenn to talk about his legacy is WFAE's Tommy Tomlinson, host of the SouthBound podcast.

Gwendolyn Glenn: Tommy, thanks for joining us today.

Tommy Tomlinson: Thank you, Gwen, I'm glad to be here.

Glenn: So Bruton Smith obviously had a huge impact on the region. What comes to mind when you think about what his lasting legacy will be?

Tomlinson: Well, the first thing is that big old track out in Cabarrus County, just over the Mecklenburg line. Charlotte Motor Speedway at its peak could seat 150,000 people or more. It's a testament to sort of Bruton Smith's ambition. You know, it was just a hunk of dirt out there in the late '50s when he and Curtis Turner, who's an old driver, built that speedway from nothing. And their first race they had there, they called the World 600 when NASCAR only had 500-mile races, mostly at the time. And I think somebody asked him why 600? He said, well, it was bigger. And that sort of sums up Bruton.

Speedway Motorsports Executive Chairman Bruton Smith looks out over Charlotte Motor Speedway, which he built in 1960, launching his Hall of Fame career in motorsports.
NASCAR Hall of Fame promoter and track Bruton Smith has died at the age of 95. His company, Speedway Motorsports, said he died of natural causes. The company currently owns 11 facilities across the United States. NASCAR races this weekend at Nashville Superspeedway, a track that was purchased by Speedway Motorsports last year.

Glenn: And you mentioned that he made it more appealing to higher income and added condos and those kinds of things, right?

Tomlinson: Yeah. They put in the Speedway Club, they put in condos, which I think he's done in maybe one or two other tracks, that kind of thing that people, when they come to the track, see and think, 'Wow, that's pretty cool that people actually live here.' You know, the kind of thing that I think elevates the image of not just those tracks, but NASCAR in a way. And they brought in celebrities, you know, like Elizabeth Taylor and people like that came to hang out the races and that sort of thing. And they just gave it that more sort of an elevated nature and tried to make it a little different than what people had the stereotypes of NASCAR be.

Glenn: Well, by all accounts, Smith had a big personality, and some of the qualities that made him a successful businessman also made him somewhat disagreeable, according to some. Could you tell us a little about that side of him?

Tomlinson: I think disagreeable is a good way to put it. The bigger one that I think about is when he wanted to build a drag strip out across from the speedway and Cabarrus County didn't want him to do it. And Bruton basically said, I'm just going to move the track or I'm going to move the races that I have in Charlotte somewhere else if you don't let me build this drag strip. And so not only did they let him build a drag strip, they gave him something like $80 million to help do it, and they named the road in between out there, they named it Bruton Smith Boulevard. So he could drive a hard bargain. And he was not above, you know, going in with both fists.

Glenn: Did you ever meet him and was he a people person, approachable?

Tomlinson: I met him a couple of times at different races and stuff, and I think he was fairly approachable. He certainly had the sort of background of the typical NASCAR fan. He grew up on a farm in Stanly County. I think he boxed a lot. He had sort of that rough personality, but he also, I think, was a kind of a softie in some ways. He gave a ton of money to charity. He loved his kids by all accounts. As he used to say, he made a lot of millionaires in his businesses. And so I think he had a side that other people did like, too.

Glenn: And of that background that you talked about of where he grew up, what parts of it do you think most shaped his story of who he is, who he became?

Tomlinson: He grew up in a family of nine kids, used to talk all the time about how hard they worked and how he didn't like it much at the time. But that was what shaped him, that hard work ethic. Whatever people said about Bruton, they knew he worked hard.

Glenn: Well, Tommy, thanks for talking with us about Bruton Smith, who passed at the age of 95 on Wednesday.

Tomlinson: Thank you, Gwen. I really appreciate it.

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Gwendolyn is an award-winning journalist who has covered a broad range of stories on the local and national levels. Her experience includes producing on-air reports for National Public Radio and she worked full-time as a producer for NPR’s All Things Considered news program for five years. She worked for several years as an on-air contract reporter for CNN in Atlanta and worked in print as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun Media Group, The Washington Post and covered Congress and various federal agencies for the Daily Environment Report and Real Estate Finance Today. Glenn has won awards for her reports from the Maryland-DC-Delaware Press Association, SNA and the first-place radio award from the National Association of Black Journalists.
Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.