Success in the racing world also led Smith to rub elbows with celebrities. He once sold a Ford Mustang convertible to actress Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Smith was outspoken and known for a few tussles in the racing business. One big feud came in the early 2000s with the France family, which controls NASCAR. Smith wanted to secure another race date for his Texas Motor Speedway, and legal action commenced. Eventually, Smith secured the dates, but he had to agree to buy a North Carolina racetrack from International Speedway Corp., a rival company controlled by the France family.
Today, Speedway Motorsports owns and operates NASCAR tracks including Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway and since late 2021 Dover Motor Speedway and Nashville Superspeedway. It also owns North Wilkesboro Speedway.
With race promotion and auto dealerships, Bruton Smith’s fortunes grew, and for several years he was ranked among the top billionaires by Forbes. Before dropping from Forbes’ list of billionaires, he ranked 1,940th as recently as 2017.
Smith also founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982, in memory of his young son, Bruton Cameron Smith, who died. Smith was chairman of the nonprofit’s board of officers. The Concord, N.C., charity has donated more than $60 million since its inception to nonprofits that help children.
Smith was a mentor to his children and to others in the auto business.
Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports and chairman and CEO of Hendrick Automotive Group, hailed Smith as “a visionary and a true original.”
Smith was on hand in 1983 at City Chevrolet in Charlotte, when Hendrick announced plans to form a new NASCAR team that would become Hendrick Motorsports. “He was someone you wanted on your side because he was tough as nails and never backed down from a fight,” Hendrick said Wednesday.
Jeff Dyke, now president of Sonic Automotive, recalled Smith’s calmness during the 2008-09 recession and automotive downturn. Sonic’s sales dipped, the company’s stock price sunk below $1 a share and bankruptcy was discussed as auditors doubted Sonic could continue as a “going concern.”
“He never even blinked during that whole thing. It was just a nonevent for him,” Dyke told Automotive News in 2018. “Whether behind the scenes he was concerned or whatever, you would never see that out of him. He was just so strong. For us, it gave us a lot of strength, a lot of confidence, a lot of courage, and we plowed through and came out the other side a cleaner, leaner company.”
In 2015, Smith confirmed that he had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and underwent surgery to treat it. The next year, he was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Sonic Automotive ranks No. 7 on Automotive News’ most recent list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., retailing 103,486 new vehicles in 2021.
Leslie J. Allen contributed to this report.