Bruton Smith: Track owner, truth sayer
Bruton Smith has never been shy about sharing opinions. And he usually gets what he wants. He said he’d like to see NASCAR shift its year-end banquet to Las Vegas, and it happened. He wanted a Cup date for Kentucky Speedway, and he got it.
Smith, whose Speedway Motorsports Inc. owns and operates nine Cup tracks that next season will host 12 races, recently talked to Yahoo! Sports about the state of NASCAR, whether or not drivers are too soft and what’s next on his agenda.
1. Y! Sports: What’s No. 1 on your list of things NASCAR needs to do to be better?
Smith: Personally, I think they’re doing a pretty good job, because the racing is better, better, better. We had a fabulous race – couple of ‘em – in Atlanta this weekend. I don’t know how it gets any better than that. It was fabulous, and the crowds were very big Saturday night at the Nationwide and huge crowd Sunday night.
Being an owner of speedways, we like to sell tickets. What the race fans witnessed there does sell tickets.
2. Y! Sports: Is the Cup schedule too long?
Smith: No sir. Here again, we’re not baseball where you play baseball five or six times a week. We don’t do that. So, it necessitates going deeper into the year with our sport.
Yeah, I think we spend too much time in Daytona in February. That used to work, but today it doesn’t. It’s very expensive for everybody because of the hotel rooms at Daytona. You go down there and you have to pay for five or six days, you may stay for one. The hotels/motels down there have proven not to be our friends. I was hoping that maybe ISC (International Speedway Corporation) or NASCAR could do something about that, but I don’t know whether they are working on it or not.
3. Y! Sports: You have invested a lot of money in building and bettering your race tracks. I’ve been to ISC tracks and there is no comparison. Yours are a lot nicer. Do you think ISC and by extension NASCAR are holding up their end of the bargain?
Smith: Well, I can’t comment on that because we work together. I get along with Brian [France] quite well, thank you, and I enjoy working with him.
Of course, they do what they do. I’m sure it’s an expense control that they like to have. And of course, that’s what it is. They do a lot of the right things as far as safety. And they’ve worked on that real hard.
We preach all the time ‘fan friendly,’ and we work very hard on making it fan friendly. We want to make it better for the fans all the time. And you’ll notice whenever you go to any of the Speedway Motorsports speedways, you’ll see that we’re working hard at that.
We build a lot of these million-dollar shower houses and things like that to make it better for the fans, and they love it. I get reports from them all the time.
4. Y! Sports: What is your take on Auto Club Speedway and racing in Southern California in general? Why hasn’t it worked and can it work?
Smith: Assuming that you made straight As in history, and it was one of my favorite subjects, but if you look at history, automobile racing in Southern California has never been great. You can go back and look at the old road course that was there for such a long time, it never ever drew a lot of people. So I think that’s what they’re up against.
Y! Sports: Should NASCAR be in Los Angeles?
Smith: I think it would be great, but then again it would be even greater if you could draw people in. And it’s been proven that you can’t draw a lot of race fans there. I think the people there in Southern California, they spend a lot of time ignoring what we do.
5. Y! Sports: You’re not a fan of points racing. How would you do away with it?
Smith: Number 1, I would put more emphasis on winning. I would put half that point fund money and I’d put it on the races. As a race fan, I’m sitting up there and if there’s $200,000 or $300,000 difference between first place and second place, I know that when we get down to 20 or 30 laps to go, I know we’re going to see a heck of a race, because if there’s that much difference between first and second, whoever is in second is going to try to win because of the money.
Someone coined the phrase, “Follow the money.” I guarantee you race drivers, that’s why they do it. That’s the reason they take the chances, drive 200 mph. They want to win, they want to win a lot of money.
So that’s what I would do. I would take half that point fund money and put it on the purse.
6. Y! Sports: You’re not in favor of ending the season at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Why not?
Smith: Let’s clear it up a bit. I did not start that. The media, the news media started it. The news media started that they didn’t want to be going to Home-and-Stead for that final race of the year, and they brought up the fact that it ought to be in Vegas, ought to be in Vegas.
Well, of course, I had to say, ‘Yeah, let’s go for it.’ But I didn’t start it. And I’m not trying to stop it, but the likelihood is somewhere between slim and none. But yeah, it would be great if we ended the year in Vegas.
7. Y! Sports: Are today’s drivers too soft – too corporate?
Smith: I think that’s right. Number 1, our drivers are making more money right now than they’ve ever made in their life. That kind of money does change your attitude. It changes what you do. So that’s what you’re seeing. You’re seeing drivers that are more corporate and they’re listening to their sponsor and they have to be very careful. I mean, freedom of speech goes out the window when you start looking at those contracts. They can’t say exactly what they think at times.
Going way back before we had sponsors and all that and before drivers had these big contracts, a driver would say whatever was on his mind. It may not be of good color, but he said it and he meant it. I think the race fans like that more.
8. Y! Sports: You had a vision early on that NASCAR races were going to become a very big deal, and that hosting them would be a lucrative business. What led you to that conclusion?
Smith: Number 1, when I saw R.J. Reynolds enter our sport, I said, ‘Wow.’
Here you’re in a business and all of the sudden you don’t have to spend any money to advertise your business because RJR was doing it with the Winston Cup. They were spending so much money, they could have bought every speedway in the United States with all the money they poured into the sport.
So with a giant like that and the big dollars that they threw at the sport, I just said, ‘Hey, I want to hang on for the ride, because it’s going to be fabulous.’
They have been the No. 1 thing that built this sport.
I will say that I’m very pleased that I’ve read many, many times that the second-biggest thing that happened to our sport was when I took racing to Wall Street [when he took Speedway Motorsports Inc. public in 1995]. I have read that, and of course I haven’t denied that and I think it’s great that someone noticed.
When I took racing to Wall Street, that changed a lot of things. Number 1, it moved us into the Wall Street Journal, a lot of magazines. I saw a story in National Geographic. All of the sudden we’re talked about in the boardrooms.
9.: The next thing on my to-do list is …
Smith: My big, big thing next is Kentucky, and of course we’re sooo looking forward to the inaugural [Cup] race there July 7, 8 and 9 next year. We’ll have a triple-header there. Our intention is to absolutely sell it out. We’re selling tickets now. People are buying tickets. They’re reserving camping, and we’re 10 months out.
We’re working now on what can we do for this inaugural. What can we present to the fan that they can buy and hang on and pass on to their kids? Like a souvenir magazine. We’ll have all sorts of things there representing the inaugural event.
We’ve got a lot of work going on up there. I’ve got 72 pieces of equipment working. We started the addition to the grandstands. I’m adding 12 more elevators.
We’re going to have this place as a showplace, and don’t miss it. If you don’t have tickets now, go ahead and call and get tickets.
9½: What I’m most proud of in my career …
Smith: It would sound a little bit corny, but it’s the truth. I’m most proud of my kids. I have four super-great kids. Marcus being one of them. You know him. He is now president of Speedway Motorsports and he’s doing a fabulous job. He’s made a tremendous turnaround here. He’s also president of Charlotte Motor Speedway. I like seeing him grow in the business. I like seeing what he’s doing, and how all the associates there joined the team so to speak. I just really enjoy seeing what he’s doing.