O. Bruton Smith still remembers the sleepless 78 hours leading up to Charlotte Motor Speedway’s debut on June 19, 1960.
Halfway through the first World 600, Smith finally was able to close his eyes.
“I went to sleep after half-way — I felt comfortable after that point,” Smith said. “I hadn’t slept Friday or Saturday night, so I went to sleep in the ol’ control tower here. I was sitting on a stool and just fell asleep.
“Going home that night after the race — I fell asleep at the first traffic light. I heard horns blaring and wondered if someone had wrecked and realized it was me.”
Since breaking ground — and granite — for Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1959, Smith’s dedication to the fan track experience is unparalleled. The 86-year-old Chairman of Speedway Motorsports, who witnessed his first stock-car race at the Charlotte Fairgrounds when he was 8, has revolutionized the modern racing stadiums over the last half century.
For Smith, it wasn’t enough to offer patrons a seat in the stands. He was committed to elevating each race into an event. While others may deserve credit for the innovations, nothing would have been implemented without Smith underwriting the projects.
Charlotte became his proving ground. Sitting in CMS’ Speedway Club as Smith samples the soup, he recalls the very first capital improvements to the facility.
“I started planting some flowers,” Smith said. “I figured we got to make the place look better. We needed to attract more women. When I built this place, only about 10 percent of our attendees were women.
“So now we had to build better restrooms — and more of them to accommodate the women. If the women come, the men will follow. So that’s what I was after. Today, we’re so ahead on our bathrooms. It’s a major service that fans want and we give it to them.”
And as the audiences grew, Smith found new ways of enhancing the infrastructure. The first Turn One condos appeared at the speedway in 1984.
“We wanted something bigger and better than plain ol’ tailgating, so we built the condos,” Smith said. “You could invite 30 guests and then have it catered if you wanted to, or you have full kitchens to prepare your own meals.”
Smith added the Speedway Club four years later. Charlotte also became the first superspeedway to race under the lights with The Winston All-Star Race in 1992. Five years later, when Texas Motor Speedway debuted, Smith incorporated all of his best advancements into the track and added a spa and health club for good measure, and a “two-fer deal” restroom system — two women’s stalls for every man’s.
“You never see any lines for women’s restrooms,” Smith said. “We have more seats in the restrooms at Texas than they do at Carnegie Hall. And I’ve researched that.”
Smith has invested millions of dollars on shower facilities outside of the race tracks to make camping as convenient as possible.
His most recent piece de resistance is the 16,000 square-foot HD video screen that was constructed in 2011 — and the envy of every track promoter on the circuit.
“We keep on building,” Smith said. “We’re not done yet. We serve so much up to the fans. But we can never do too much for the race fans. We have to constantly work on that. And when they come to the track they won’t forget they were here.”
But for some reason, the NASCAR Hall of Fame nominating committee forgot about Smith and his contribution to the sport — until this year. On Wednesday, Smith will be one of 25 nominees on the Hall of Fame ballot, joining fellow newcomers Maurice Petty, Rex White, Larry Phillips and Dale Jarrett.
“Sometimes, when a guy is still there every week, you may overlook the fact of how many years someone like Bruton has put into the sport,” said NASCAR President and Hall of Fame Nominating Committee member Mike Helton.
“Well, before many of us might remember. Bruton is a good example of that. His efforts many, many, many years ago and particularly in this marketplace and this area were instrumental in the growth years of NASCAR and we shouldn’t overlook that.”
Perhaps Smith’s take-no-prisoners approach initially rubbed the Hall of Fame committee the wrong way. But Smith has worked with three generations of NASCAR’s founding France family — Big Bill, Bill Jr. and now Brian. He still laughs about an early conversation with Bill France Jr., who oversaw the sanctioning body from 1972 to 2000.
“The first go-around was just getting NASCAR off the ground,” Smith said. “We had our differences along the way, but I guess the big thing was when we were in New York sitting on the couch at the Waldorf and Billy says, ‘I want you to help build NASCAR’. I replied, ‘What the hell do you think I’ve been doing all these years?’ ”
Smith’s SMI NASCAR portfolio has expanded to eight racetracks with 12 Sprint Cup dates. Eddie Gossage, who started at Charlotte as public-relations director and was promoted to president of Texas Motor Speedway when the track originated 17 years ago, says the greatest lesson he’s learned from Smith is “Always do right by people. Principle is far more important than anything else.”
During the sport’s progression, Smith credits RJ Reynolds’ tenure as sponsor of the Cup Series as “the biggest and best thing to ever happen to NASCAR.” The same could be said of Smith’s contribution to the evolution of race tracks.
NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who spent his formative years around Charlotte Motor Speedway, likes Smith’s chances of being voted into the Hall.
“Yeah, I think he deserves to be in there. I think that he probably has a real good shot, too. He’s going to get a lot of exposure, probably more exposure than some of the other names on the list, through the press and through the media, building up to the voting for the five. So, I think he’s got a good shot.”
Not surprisingly, he’s previously been inducted into the International Motorsports, National Motorsports Press Association and North Carolina Business Hall of Fame. Smith acknowledges, “It’s a worthy thing.”
“It makes you feel very proud for what you’ve been able to do and the people that support you,” Smith said. “I’m sure this will be the biggest of what’s happened to me before if that occurs.
“We were just going down the road and helped to build this great sport that I love and have been involved forever, it seems like. My first entry into it was when I was 17 and bought my first race car. So I’ve been around here for a while.
“If I’m inducted at a later date, I’ll do whatever I can to help grow the facility in Charlotte and continue to help grow the sport.”