Bruton Smith was a ‘visionary’ in retail and racing

“She started fighting dirty,” laughed Smith in a 2005 interview with “You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving.”

During his teenage years, 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 of it 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 into the military, briefly interrupting his career as a promoter and car salesman as he served two years as a paratrooper stateside during the Korean War. When he was released from active duty, he resumed selling cars and promoting races governed by the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

In the years that followed, Smith found success in dealerships. His first store, opened in 1966, was Frontier Ford in Rockford, Ill., where he married and started a family. While growing his retailing business, Smith’s passion for auto racing never wavered.

For years, Smith maintained a modest office at Town and Country Ford in Charlotte near Sonic’s headquarters.

In 2007, Smith described taking dealerships public as the “wave of the future.”

“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 stay involved in his companies. 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.

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