In a sport driven by characters that sometimes seemed more than life — Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, Richard Patty among them — Smith always seemed one of the best at taking advantage of their appeal to the masses. Yes, the drivers were stars. But to be stars, there had to be an audience that loved them.
It was this audience that Smith continued to provide and use throughout his life, whether in motorsport, the automotive business, or charity. Smith died Wednesday at the age of 95but his Hall of Fame legacy will always remain.
I never had a close personal relationship with Smith during my career in motorsport. I’ve certainly interviewed him many times and watched from the sidelines as he once or twice poked at NASCAR, the French family or even the local government.
But I never felt close to him. Looking back now, I think it was my own fault. Smith, of course, was a person, but he always seemed to be that imposing, tall figure who kept the world at hand. Maybe I felt a little scared. He always seemed to me someone who wants to do his best – better, more and more outrageous.
While at NASCAR this may have sometimes caused annoyance with the sanctioning authority, or with drivers typically benefiting racing fans. He was in many ways their champion.
Think of some of the things Smith brought to NASCAR. He built a condominium and dining room on the Charlotte Motor Speedway, bringing fans closer to a sport they loved more than ever before. He introduced night racing to the NASCAR event – something that until 1992 was usually reserved for local short tracks. His company Speedway Motorsports became the first to be publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, showcasing NASCAR for core business.
He has continuously updated amenities for fans (and media) on his tracks, turning to areas from restrooms to parking to new and innovative food for sale. It debuted at the time the world’s largest HDTV screen on the Charlotte Motor Speedway in 2011 and then built a larger screen on the Texas Motor Speedway in 2013.
And when racing fans seemed to be disappointed with the quality of the races on the intermediate oval tracks, he introduced the “Roval” in 2018, turning Charlotte’s autumn oval race into a road race. Road tracks are now one of the most popular races of every season.
Smith has introduced the Charlotte Roval race to the 2018 schedule, a popular addition to the Cup schedule
Photo: Matthew T. Thacker / NKP / Images of motorsport
These are the things – and more – why Smith’s legacy is likely to be so enduring in NASCAR. Could today’s NASCAR be without the courage, foresight and even perseverance of Bruton Smith? It’s hard to see how.
Maybe someone didn’t like the way Smith ran the business, but the results are hard to argue with. He once said that the two things he is most proud of are his children and the fact that “of many people he has made millionaires”. He never shied away from trying to get a better deal for himself or his company, but someone else usually shared the benefits, and many times it was racing fans.
NASCAR racing these days is as good as ever, but the sport certainly lacked the “characters” that helped define it from childhood. Smith may be gone, but his desire to do more, better and bolder is something NASCAR desperately needs to keep taking.
Photo: NASCAR Media