O. Bruton Smith turned racing into a spectacle

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

CONCORD, N.C. Before it was built, architects and engineers said the Lowe's Motor Speedway wasn't possible.

But they didn't understand how banking influences racing. They didn't realize the importance of smooth transition areas that help drivers charge off the corners and down the straightaways. They couldn't think on a grand enough scale.

"So I hit the books and learned about that kind of stuff myself," said O. Bruton Smith, the man trying to build the raceway 44 years ago. "I was determined to make it happen, and I did it myself.

"I think it's withstood the test of time."

Lowe's Motor Speedway now stands as a testament to Smith's vision not only for his own business success, but for NASCAR as well.

The speedway, located about 15 minutes from downtown Charlotte, is considered home to about 90 percent of the Craftsman Truck, Busch and Nextel Cup teams. It has evolved from a meager existence in 1960, survived bankruptcy and blossomed into a racetrack that revolutionized the industry.

Smith married stock-car racing with a carnival-like production that would make P.T. Barnum proud.

Always the showman, Smith was the first to put a photograph from NASCAR in one of the daily newspapers in New York. He built an elevator at Lowe's the first in the sport and he had it operated by a man wearing a tuxedo. That photo was so unusual it made the papers long before stock-car racing made its own name in the media capitol of the world.

"We created an image," Smith said. "That's what it's all about."

Twenty-five years ago the NASCAR circuit was comprised of raceways that offered little more than simple bleachers. Fans were thrilled by the action on the track, but the rest of the experience was fettered by poor food, dirty restrooms and traffic jams.

"I told Bill France 15 years ago our sport is no better than its facilities," Smith said. "If we were going to take it to the level it's supposed to be, we all needed to upgrade our facilities. It takes a lot of money to run one of these speedways."

Smith started with an elevator to the upper levels of the grandstands. He followed with the sport's first luxury suites. Then he added condominiums overlooking the first turn and a business complex and social club along the frontstretch. He added restrooms, brought in outside vendors to supply food and built massive parking lots some complete with restrooms and showers for fans who camp out.

Suddenly, racing was indeed a happening.

Other speedways have followed in the last 15 years and racing has become a major league sport. Now the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series trails only the National Football League in television ratings and it's first in average attendance.

Smith bought tiny Bristol Motor Speedway and turned it into one of the most popular racetracks in the sport.

Smith's Speedway Motorsports Inc. also owns and operates the Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Infineon Speedway in Sonoma, Calif. But his greatest accomplishment is the Texas Motor Speedway near Fort Worth.

"That was the only speedway that started with a blank sheet of paper and a lot of big ideas," Smith said. "We took the best of every one of our tracks and incorporated them into one track."

He is quick to say there are 4,700 toilets at Texas more than all the toilets on the schedule 25 years ago.

And another image.

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