Bruton Smith, a longtime car dealer and pioneer in public automotive retail, as well as NASCAR hall-of-famer, racetrack owner and philanthropist, died on Wednesday.
He was 95 and died of natural causes, according to Sonic Automotive Inc., the public dealership group he founded.
Smith launched Sonic Automotive of Charlotte, N.C., as a public company in November 1997 with 20 dealerships. It is the seventh-largest U.S. auto retailer today with 111 dealerships and 25 automotive brands, after completing the mega acquisition of RFJ Auto Partners Holdings Inc. in 2021. It also owns and operates the EchoPark standalone brand of used-only vehicle stores.
Smith, a giant in racing circles who helped support and promote stock car racing into a multi-billion dollar business, started Speedway Motorsports Inc., which became the first motorsports company to go public in 1995 [it later went private in 2019]. He also was the first track owner to erect and shine lights on the course for a night race in 1992.
Smith remained active overseeing Sonic and Speedway Motorsports’ operations in his 90’s as executive chairman of both companies, titles he had held since 2015. He previously served as CEO of the companies.
He started Sonic with one of his sons, Scott Smith, who took over as CEO in 2015. In fall 2018, Scott Smith stepped down and another of Bruton Smith’s sons, David Smith, was appointed to the top spot. In 2015, Bruton Smith turned day-to-day duties of Speedway Motorsports over to another son, Marcus Smith.
Ollen Bruton Smith was born March 2, 1927, in Oakboro, N.C., and grew up on a farm His passion for cars started at an early age; Smith sold used cars from his front lawn as a teenager and bought his first race car at 17. His time on the track was limited, though, as he gave up time behind the wheel because of his mother’s worries and requests.
Smith sold his first car, a 1939 Buick sedan, for a small profit and promoted his first race before he was 18 years old.
“I bought a race car for $700. The whole idea at that time was that I was going to be a race car driver,” Smith once explained. “I learned to drive, but that career didn’t last long.” His mother had other ideas and prayed to a higher authority. “She started fighting dirty,” laughed Smith in a 2005 interview with Motorsport.com. “You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving.”
It was during his teenage years that Smith began to promote dirt-track races. He later would run the National Stock Car Racing Association and launched Charlotte Motor Speedway, which opened in 1960. When the speedway went bankrupt after a few years, Smith went back to selling cars, buying his first dealership in 1969. But along the way, Smith quietly began acquiring shares of the speedway and ultimately won control again.
“There was a whole lot of unrest with the drivers and car owners at that time,” Smith recalled. “We had a meeting and I was unlucky enough to be appointed a committee of one to promote a race. I had never done that, but I promoted a race in Midland, North Carolina, and I made a little bit of money, so I thought I’d try it again.”
In his early 20s, Smith was drafted and served two years as a paratrooper stateside during the Korean War, briefly interrupting his career as a promoter and car salesman. When he was released from active duty, he resumed selling cars and promoting auto races featuring the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
Smith opened his first new-car dealership, Frontier Ford, in 1966 in Rockford, Ill., where he was married and started a family. And for years, Smith maintained a modest office at Town and Country Ford in Charlotte near Sonic’s headquarters.
“These things require so much money today that you almost have to go public,” he told Automotive News. “Or you have to have eight or 10 rich uncles that pass away and leave you a huge inheritance.”
Smith’s work ethic was admired, and he was vocal about wanting to remain involved with the business. His son Marcus Smith told The New York Times in 2008 that his father loved to be “in the thick of things” and would jump in to help sell a vehicle or direct traffic if he spotted a traffic jam at a speedway.
In a June 2019 interview with Automotive News, David Smith said his father remained active in the business and “would probably call any minute.” Bruton Smith was credited with selling the first car at Sonic’s EchoPark store in Charlotte, in fall 2018, David Smith said.
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.”
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.