CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Bruton Smith just can’t help himself sometimes.
The eccentric track owner this week suggested he might move a race away from Charlotte Motor Speedway at the exact same time a committee is considering electing him into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
When the 54 voters cast their ballots Wednesday, it will be impossible to overlook Smith’s most recent headline-grabbing stunt. He told Charlotte television station WBTV on Monday there’s a “70 percent chance” he’ll move the October race at Charlotte to his Las Vegas property.
He backtracked Tuesday in a statement that indicated his comments were out of anger in his fight with Cabarrus County over taxes.
“No final decision has been made regarding any race date move, and I have not discussed this with NASCAR,” he said, before listing $100 million in improvements at CMS the past six years. “We’ve done this without asking for a handout from the government, like we’ve seen from so many other sports facilities, teams or franchises, and yet at the same time property values are falling during the recession, our Cabarrus County taxes have doubled since 2005.”
Smith was left off the list of 25 nominees the first four years of the Hall of Fame. He maintained he didn’t care, but when his name was finally added last month to the list of nominees, the overwhelming congratulations made him realize the magnitude of the honor.
“It wasn’t something I was particularly concerned about,” Smith said in a recent interview from the office he works out of at his Ford dealership. “But then I was nominated and became a candidate and all the people around me told me how wonderful it was. So it was wonderful.”
The public tax squabble could jeopardize his chances to become a first ballot Hall of Famer. But that’s who Smith is — he says what he thinks at the moment and doesn’t much worry about consequences. He also likes to bluff, and the game is much easier when you’ve got as many chips as the billionaire owner of Speedway Motorsports Inc.
It’s a game he’s long played with NASCAR, dating to the early days when founder Bill France Sr. was still building his regional stock-car series. Smith has been hooked since his family took him as an 8-year-old to the old Charlotte Fairground for his first race.
“I loved it so damn much I needed another set of eyes because I couldn’t see enough,” said Smith, who was driving cars at 11 and figured out by 16 the vehicles he had access to didn’t go fast enough for his liking.
His plan wasn’t to become a race promoter; Smith maintains he was “talked into that” during a driver meeting. But he agreed to give it a shot, and despite heavy rains the day of the race, made enough money on his first event that his interest was piqued.
So Smith tried to promote a second race and made a little more money, correcting the mistakes he’d made in his first outing. By the time he promoted his third event, he was hooked.
“Making money can be quite habit forming,” Smith said.
He soon began working with France in promoting races for the fledgling National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing, and Smith built his first permanent motorsports facility — Charlotte Motor Speedway, which opened for business in June 1960 with NASCAR’s first 600-mile race.
“It was hot. God it was hot,” Smith said when asked his memory of that first event. But he also takes pride in that when he opened Charlotte, he did it with a bang.
“The World 600 was the longest race, there’d never been anything like it,” he said. “It had the largest purse, $100,000, and nobody had ever heard of a purse of $100,000 for a stock car race. But we wanted to be the biggest and we wanted to be something special. So that’s what we did.”
Only he was $400,000 in debt to his creditors after building the track and Smith was unable to get any loans. He said he went into bankruptcy reorganization, and SMI emerged debt-free.
He was off and running from there, building a portfolio of eight tracks that currently host 13 races on the Sprint Cup schedule. And SMI has set the gold standard in amenities and fan experience because of the vision Smith has had.
Smith pours money into his tracks, paying for upgrades at outdated facilities and finding ways to enhance the fan experience. He was the first promoter to install permanent lights for a NASCAR race, and he bought Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee and transformed it into a must-visit event.
Smith made enemies along the way, and sparred often with Bill France Jr. during his reign as head of NASCAR.
He told The Associated Press his greatest regret in racing is letting France Jr. roll over him at a time they could have formed a partnership. Smith claims the late France Jr. asked to speak to him during an event at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and asked Smith “to help me build NASCAR.
“I said to him, ‘Billy, what the hell do you think I’ve been doing all these years?’” Smith said. “I’ll always regret that I did not drive a harder bargain with Billy. I helped him with no compensation.”
As a result, Smith’s status in NASCAR has never changed: He’s viewed as just another track promoter. Only he’s got the biggest mouth, the fattest checkbook and the ability to push every button in the NASCAR hierarchy.
The at-track experience is what it is today because of Smith, and the initiatives SMI has taken has pushed NASCAR sister company International Speedway Corp. to up its game, too. And that’s what is most important to Smith.
“I wanted race fans, when they come to a race, a year or two later they may not remember who won that day,” Smith said. “But they are going to remember the pre-race show, they are going to remember their experience at the track and what was good and what worked and what didn’t work. That has always been our goal to make sure the fans had the time of their lives at the track.”