© 2023 WFAE
90.7 Charlotte 93.7 Southern Pines 90.3 Hickory 106.1 Laurinburg
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

Bruton Smith made NASCAR bigger, even if it wasn't always for the better

When I heard that Bruton Smith died, the first thing I thought about was the monorail.

It was 2005, and a couple of things were happening: Charlotte was bidding to be the home of the NASCAR Hall of Fame, and the city was just beginning construction on its first light rail line. So Smith had an idea for a combo platter. He wanted somebody to build a monorail from the proposed Hall of Fame uptown out to UNC Charlotte, then beyond to Charlotte Motor Speedway and Concord Mills.

He said he’d even throw in the first $50 million to get it started, which seemed only fair, considering Smith owned the speedway.

It was never going to happen. Monorails are not a thing anymore, despite that episode of “The Simpsons.” But you had to give it to Bruton. He was never short on big ideas.

Here’s a big idea, or maybe more of a big debate topic: Was Bruton Smith good for NASCAR?

In some ways, absolutely. He and his longtime general manager, Humpy Wheeler, were promotional geniuses. They created massive prerace shows with fireworks, concerts and stunts. They also invested tons of money in better restrooms, more comfortable seats and lights for night racing. The point was to make the race memorable even if the racing wasn’t, and to make the tracks more attractive to upscale crowds.

And when NASCAR hit it big in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Smith rode the wave. His company Speedway Motorsports bought tracks from Atlanta to Sonoma and built a new one in Texas. He became maybe the sport's most important figure. He also became a billionaire—partly from the tracks, and partly from his car business, Sonic Automotive.

He had come a long way from going bankrupt in the ‘60s, just a year after he built Charlotte Motor Speedway.

But there was a cost to the sport he loved. All the wheeling and dealing he did to build new and bigger tracks forced out a lot of NASCAR’s history. Smith bought the legendary tracks in Rockingham and North Wilkesboro basically so he could give their races to other tracks he owned.

That was all fine when NASCAR was at its peak. But along the way, it has become a different kind of sport. Most current NASCAR drivers have been pros since they were teenagers. They don’t have the compelling backstories of the drivers who grew up as moonshiners or mechanics.

Formula I racing is gaining ground in America because that sport has a better narrative—the drivers and team owners are rich and weird, but at least they’re interesting. These days NASCAR is not as rich and not as weird and not as interesting. NASCAR spent years building status but lost some of its soul.

Bruton Smith is part of the reason for that, but I’m not sure it was exactly his fault. Growth was his nature. The guy who wanted to build a monorail was never going to be satisfied with Rockingham.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.