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Bruton Smith always got the last word
The legendary racetrack owner died this week at age 95. In an interview, his right hand man talks about what it was like to work with a larger-than-life North Carolinian who wasn't afraid of a fight.
When I heard that Bruton Smith died on Wednesday at age 95, I immediately thought of a clip from eight years ago. In it, Smith, whose company Speedway Motorsports owns Charlotte Motor Speedway and 10 other NASCAR tracks, was taking part in what most people thought would be a fairly innocuous event: The declaration of Motorsports Month in North Carolina. But, in front of Richard Petty and a horde of TV cameras, Bruton proceeded to playfully extort a sitting governor right there in broad daylight.
"While you're here, I've got to find some time to talk to you," Bruton told then-Governor Pat McCrory. "We want to spend about $100 million here to improve our situation and I certainly would like to have you to say 'you know well that's a good thing'."
McCrory awkwardly made a joke, and Bruton played along, but then got right back to the pressure campaign. He asked whether McCrory wanted to set up an appointment, or whether they could talk about it "right here in front of God and everybody else."
Bruton’s son Marcus then tried to hand the microphone to Petty, who shook his head and said “I’m outta here.”
Smith is one of the most important people in NASCAR history, and is probably the biggest reason why Charlotte became the capital of stock car racing. But he didn’t get to where he was by being gentle. He was born poor in Oakboro, bet big on building a speedway in Charlotte, ushered in the modern NASCAR era, and became one of the sport’s biggest innovators. He also was not a man that you wanted to cross. His threats, and his put-downs, were legendary.
To understand more about what he meant to NASCAR and to North Carolina, I turned H.A. “Humpy” Wheeler. For decades, Wheeler worked with Smith as the president of Charlotte Motor Speedway before they had a public falling out. They reconciled, and when Smith watched his last NASCAR race, Wheeler was at his side.
Full disclosure: Humpy Wheeler is one of my favorite people to interview, and he’s helped inform a big chunk of my NASCAR reporting over the years. In this conversation, we talked about Bruton Smith’s vision, his aggressiveness, and the sport that he helped take from Main Street to Wall Street. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Rabbit Hole: Can you tell me about the impact that Bruton Smith had on NASCAR?
Humpy: Well, he and Bill France Sr. go back to the very beginnings of it. Of course, Bill France was starting NASCAR and Bruton was one of the early promoters, and he had a knack of putting on big events and being successful. And as time went on, Bruton stayed interested in NASCAR. But his real forte was in the retail auto business. And he was equally or more successful in it. There's not many people around that can start two big companies. Speedway Motorsports was one. Sonic Automotive was the other. Sonic Automotive is, of course, a national chain of retail auto dealerships. And he didn't put all his eggs in one basket. As a matter of fact, he actually spent the majority of this time in the retail auto end of it.
As far as NASCAR's concerned: Without him, we definitely would not be where we are today. He had a tremendous knack and ability to see things a little ahead of their time. And he was the first to really modernize speedways, and put tremendous amounts of seats in places like in Charlotte and Texas. He was the first to put condos in.
Before the 1990s, speedways could not borrow money. Not NASCAR speedways. Indianapolis could ‘cause Tony Hulman owned the bank! But we couldn't, because banks did not think NASCAR was going to be around that long I guess. And Bruton convinced what is now Bank of America to make the first major loan anybody ever made to NASCAR track. We ended up repaying it.
But his real forte was taking Speedway Motorsports public on the New York Stock Exchange in the early ‘90s, and that broke the world open not only for NASCAR, but racing in general. Because all of a sudden, it was on Wall Street and it was doing well. So that was a tremendous thing that he did. But I think more than anything else, it was his foresight in modernizing the speedways as we know them. Better restrooms. Better seats. Better sight lines. And fancier surroundings for the fans.
Rabbit Hole: Would NASCAR still be a southern regional sport had Bruton Smith not come along and done what he did with the modernized speedways?
Humpy: No question about it. He helped take it from a lower-middle class sport to an upper middle-class sport. Not upper class, but upper middle class. And also, one other thing that was big was women. In 1975, only 15% of NASCAR fans were female. It's over 40% today. And that can be totally attributed to the better facilities. Better restrooms, better parking, better ingress and egress, better seating and all that kind of stuff.
He was not afraid to gamble. I know that for an absolute fact, ‘cause I've been sitting there when we hardly had any money left, and the next thing you know, he calls me and said, “Well, we need to have 10,000 seats. Let's go.” I said, “Where we going to get the money?” He said “Don’t worry, I'll find it.” And he did. And we put the seats in, and we sold them. He was not afraid to gamble at all.
Rabbit Hole: You worked very closely with him. What kind of a personality did he have, and what was he like to work with?
Humpy: Well, he and I got along quite well, because we argued every day (laughs). We were opposites in a lot of ways, but that worked out well. But he always let me have my say so, and I always respected him. So that worked out fine.
He was aggressive beyond aggressive. He was Rocky Marciano in the business aspect. He never stopped punching. He just kept going and kept going and kept going. Hard work was fun to him. He would not necessarily get up early in the morning, but he would work until late at night. And it just kept going on and on and on, and it proved successful. And he also just had a brilliant mind, and I think that certainly helped him a lot.
Rabbit Hole: The biggest thing that I can remember was him threatening to move a race from Charlotte Motor Speedway because he wasn't getting what he wanted. The local county commissioners in Cabarrus County went from taking a very aggressive stance toward him to naming a road after him. How aware was he about his public persona, and how did that factor into what he was doing?
Humpy: He always knew exactly what he was doing. Sometimes he might have misjudged the ramifications of some of it, but he was very smart. He understood things. And also, you have to remember that he came up the really, really tough way. He was born on a farm in Stanly County. He had a tough life. He was a paratrooper and he got involved just like I did in a sport that was not highly regarded from a social standpoint. In the lower middle classes—among the cotton mill workers—it was a popular thing. But as you went up the chain, it was not. And all of us, like him, had to live with this all the time. It got pretty tough, and you had to be tough to be successful in it. In the early days, it was loaded with ex-bootleggers, conmen, people like that. I had to deal with them on a constant basis. He was able to rise above all that.
Just look at what he did with publicity head shots of athletes. Drivers back in the early days didn't have uniforms, they wore t-shirts or whatever. And so he had a photo session of top NASCAR drivers and put them in sport coats. He gave them several different sport coats and a tie and a white shirt. And all of a sudden, he's sending these out. Nobody could imagine race drivers looking like that. But that's the kind of thing he would do to try to get the sport up a little bit and increase it in stature.
Rabbit Hole: In any sport, there's the game, and then there's what surrounds the game. So for him, how important was it to command attention and be unique to try to elevate NASCAR and, by proxy, elevate Speedway Motorsports?
Humpy: Tremendously, because there's roughly 300 race teams of all types within 80 miles of Charlotte. This has grown in stature and employment, and it has reached a point where it's become pretty significant in the state. Mooresville has become kind of the epicenter of a lot of this. It used to command quite a bit of income from textiles and furniture, and that's all gone. Racing's replaced it. If Bruton hadn’t built Charlotte Motor Speedway, racing would probably be in some other section of North Carolina or the South. So the speedway enabled stock car racing to establish an epicenter in this area. That was a big thing.
Rabbit Hole: How long did you work as the president of the speedway?
Humpy: 35 years. He and I had known each other years before that. So we had an association going way back.
Rabbit Hole: And so are there some stories, some small moments to you, that really explain the bigger things that he did?
Humpy: Well, yeah, there’s one I can particularly remember. We just bought Sears Point in California. It was the first race there. As we were riding out to the speedway, traffic just got terrible. I looked at him, he looked at me, and he said, uh oh, if it’s bad here and we're 10 miles from the track, what's it going to be like if we ever get there? We finally got there by driving down the shoulder. And when we got there, he said, “Well, these people need some help. Let's go help.” And so, we got out of the car and started directing traffic. That's what he and I had to do when we were running dirt tracks back in the day. And so he didn't hesitate a bit to jump right out there and get traffic moving and people would recognize him and say “Hey Bruton,” and they’d stop the car. I said “Bruton, you need to leave because you're holding traffic up!” (laughs). He just laughed and he kept doing it.
Rabbit Hole: I'm curious to know what your thoughts are, because NASCAR was one way before Bruton, before the era of the superspeedway. Then it became a much bigger thing while he was in it. And I feel like it's in a different phase today. So, where do you think NASCAR has gone since he became less active?
Humpy: I think that as he became more active, it accelerated, and that was particularly true of that period from 1980 to 2003. That's when it really busted loose, and he was right in the middle of it the whole time. Now as we got past there, a number of things happened. Dale Earnhardt got killed. He was the biggest star we had. He was our Elvis, our Ali. Also, Bruton got more involved in the car business. And, it might have gotten to a point where maybe racing got a little bit too fancy for a while, not because of him. But when you try to upgrade something, you’ve got to be careful you don't over-grade it.
And you know, we lost Junior Johnson and Cale Yarborough and Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt and the Allisons. They all left. All sport thrives off its stars, and our stars changed dramatically. We no longer had the old bootlegger who made good: Junior Johnson. Or the ex baseball pitcher who did well: Fireball Roberts. They were replaced by drivers that had come along at an early age. Richard Petty was 21 before he started racing. Harry Gant was 25. Chase Elliott was 8. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. was 12 or 13. So the current crop started much earlier and therefore their backgrounds were totally in racing and nothing else. They weren't ex-bootleggers, they weren’t ex-mechanics and all that kind of stuff. They were ex-drivers who… became drivers. So it became a different time and therefore the driving forces of the sport changed. I don't know that any of us who were in the forefront of promoting NASCAR could have stopped that. It was just the natural evolution of things.
You may not have the predominant personalities today that we had before. We don't have Earnhardt. We don't have Darrell Waltrip. There's a lot of guys that sold a lot of tickets that aren't there anymore. And they’ve been replaced by more businesslike drivers that may not have the personality that those stars that came before them had. But that all could change quickly. You never know.
Rabbit Hole: Something that I noticed a while ago when I was researching a story: I looked back at Speedway Motorsports’s financials when they were still a public company. When they first went public, the biggest chunk of money that came in was from ticket sales. Toward the end, the biggest chunk of money that came in was from television rights.
Humpy: That's right.
Rabbit Hole: If that's where the money is coming from, what changes?
Humpy: You know it all depends on who's what kind of management you’ve got at these tracks and at NASCAR. While TV revenue is at the top of the tree, spectator revenue is still a major factor. Without that, you don't have concessions, you don't have souvenirs and all that. And everybody's wondering right now where this whole TV thing’s going, whether it's NASCAR or the NFL. TV is in such a disrupted state today. It's incredible. And it's a perilous thing to even predict where that TV thing is going to go. What’s going to happen? We don’t know. Nobody knows. It's probably the most perilous time in sport as far as broadcast revenue predictions that there has ever been. Because everybody's ratings are down for established sports. New sports are always up. So where's it all going? No one knows, but we’ll certainly miss having Bruton around because he had a penchant for being able to see where that whole picture was going.
Rabbit Hole: When was the last time you talked to Bruton?
Humpy: Last week. He has not been in good shape for a while and he was pretty much bedridden.
I went to the Coca Cola 600 and I found out that he wasn't there. He thought he had a virus. So I left the race and went and watched it with him on TV and that's the last meaningful time that I had with him. He pretty well went downhill after that.
Rabbit Hole: What was it like to watch the 600 with him?
Humpy: Well I sat there and I thought: Here's the guy that started it in 1960. Full of tea and vinegar at the time. And now he's bedridden and here it is all these years later. It’s kind of sad to see it happen, but that's life. And life goes on and it will. But it'll go on without him and he'll be greatly missed because of the type of person he was.