Bruton Smith on Racing's Past, Present & Future
Among the many things Smith has built is Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of the May 21 NASCAR NEXTEL All-Star Challenge and the May 29 Coca-Cola 600. The NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series events continue a tradition which began in 1960 when NASCAR's premier division first visited the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Never one to hold back an opinion, Smith recently sat down with Jerry Gappens, Charlotte Motor Speedway's vice president of marketing and public relations, for a question-and-answer session, and the topics ranged from dirt-track racing to the need for a monorail at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
Q: What got you interested in stock car racing?
Smith: "The first race I saw was when my dad and older brother took me to the old Charlotte Fairgrounds. I was about 8 years old-and man it was exciting. Unbelievable! And from then on, I've loved racing, absolutely loved it. When I was 17, I bought a race car and decided to be a professional driver. One time I actually beat Buck Baker and Joe Weatherly. So I knew when I beat them I could be a contender, right? But my mother had another idea. She had been asking me not to race and then she started fighting dirty. She started praying I would stop. You can't fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving."
Q: What and where was the first race you promoted?
Smith: "No one will know about this. It was an old sorry dirt track in Midland, N.C. The car owners talked me into promoting a race. I was still a teenager."
Q: Why did you decide to build a superspeedway in the Charlotte area?
Smith: "I was promoting three to four races per week at various facilities in the region, which I didn't own. Everything regarding these promotional efforts centered on my effort, and if I got in a wreck or was laid up for six months I'd be totally broke. I had no security. I decided Charlotte needed a serious speedway. I had a wealthy brother-in-law and talked him into backing me financially. Then I decided I needed someone to help me on this promotion. Curtis Turner was a major name in stock car racing. So I went to see Curtis and of course, he was 'oh yeah, yeah let's do it.'
Then, one day I looked in the paper and he and two other guys had decided to build a speedway here. And I thought well, man, I can't let that happen after I had taken him in my confidence. So I had to put that fire out and Curtis finally woke up to that fact that two speedways couldn't survive. We bought the other gentlemen out and continued with our original plan."
Q: Why the location?
Smith: "That's simple. There was no other location. I wanted to be within 15 miles of Trade and Tryon (center of downtown Charlotte). I checked every main artery in Mecklenburg County, every main artery coming and going out of this county (Cabarrus) and there was not a piece of property large enough, regardless if it was for sale or not. So, the only piece of property I could find was the current location. Of course we have U.S. Highway 29 and that was a major highway in 1960."
Q: Why did you choose 1.5-miles for the size of the track?
Smith: "I had been to Indy a number of times. Indy is a 2.5-mile track and if you went to Indianapolis, you had to listen to it on the radio. You couldn't see it, or hear it, because it was so big and spread out. I thought it was just too big. It took the action too far away from the fans. I compare it with an airplane flying past your window. If a Piper Cub flies by your window at 90 mph, you'd run over and say 'look at that crazy fool.' On the other hand, if you see a jet at least two miles from you and he's going 700 mph, you ignore it. The event was too far away from people, and that's the reason I selected the 1.5-mile length."
Q: What was the thinking behind a 600-mile race instead of the standard 500 miles?
Smith: "Bigger is better. I just thought it would be unique to run 600 miles, starting 60 cars. It made it a bigger, more demanding event."
Q: What was the hardest part of promoting races in the 1950s and 1960s?
Smith: "Lack of media attention. Back then, the media didn't want anything to do with it, didn't pay any attention to it. I remember the newspaper in Florence, S.C., would run something on a horse race that happened 1,000 miles away, but it wouldn't run anything on stock car racing and Darlington was right in the paper's backyard."
Q: What is the hardest part of promoting a race today?
Smith: "I don't see it as very hard today. I think you need to be unique in your world, but I don't see the same degree of difficulty as during the early days. The media has now embraced the sport and major media outlets have NASCAR 'beat' reporters. Now, as a promoter, you have to be aware of being fan friendly. I think today our fans are far more sophisticated than they used to be. They demand things today that they didn't years ago. They want more and they are getting more."
Q: Of everything you have built, what gives you the biggest sense of satisfaction?
Smith: "I like seeing positive reports on what I've been able to do in helping move the sport to where it is today. It makes me feel really good that the drivers, car owners and fans are complimentary about what I've been able to accomplish."
Q: What has been the biggest surprise about the growth of the sport?
Smith: "On the positive, the media coverage and the network television package has helped increase fan interest across the country. It wasn't that many years ago, you couldn't watch much racing on television, especially live flag-to-flag coverage. Also, the expansion into new markets with great facilities has helped spur this growth.
"One negative during this growth-and I don't like it-is the cost. I think our costs have accelerated far beyond anything I'd ever expected. I would fault NASCAR for allowing that to happen. Racing's on-track progress has always improved by going backwards. And we need to de-tune these race cars and it would be a lot better."
Q: You say LMS continues to be a work in progress. What ideas do you have for the future?
Smith: "Ultimately I would like to see a monorail where we move people gracefully and comfortably, and to make it the ultimate fan-friendly sporting place. With the size of the crowds we have today, we need to start planning a monorail. We are consuming about 2,000 acres. People don't want to walk two or three miles. They are doing it, but they don't like it. I know monorails are expensive-but forget that for a moment-I ultimately think that's what we need."
Q: What needs to happen for NASCAR to compete with the NFL?
Smith: "We need to eliminate greed, which entered this sport in the late '90s, and is a very harmful thing. The costs related to the sport have just skyrocketed. Owners, because of wealth, ego or pressure from sponsors have driven the cost of these cars right through the roof and that's not necessary. For tracks, sanction fees, purses, insurance and other expenses have escalated at alarming levels compared to revenue and our drivers are making lots of money, most of them are multi-millionaires, which a few certainly deserve, but others I'm not so sure.
"We have to be careful and not go the way of baseball. A prime example is Yankee's owner George Steinbrenner. Is there anything he hasn't done to win a championship? He paid the most for free agents, hired and fired more managers than anyone. Our car owners are driven to win and if they have to spend another $50,000 to gain a tenth of second on the track, they'll spend it by hiring another engineer, testing or going to a wind tunnel-all at great expense. Baseball fans got turned off when the players started making these huge, multi-million dollar salaries and not giving anything back to the fans or the sport, and then striking for more.
"Just like the NFL, stock car racing was born from blue collar roots. We can't forget where we came from and who helped get us here."
Tickets for all May events at Charlotte Motor Speedway can be purchased by calling 1-800-455-FANS or online at www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.