A Q&A with Bruton Smith
Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2010
Bruton Smith is controversial. Energetic. And he's on the verge of another big week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track he owns in Concord that hosts NASCAR's fastest drivers Thursday through Saturday.
The Charlotte Observer's Scott Fowler sat down with Smith in his Charlotte office Monday for a 45-minute, one-on-one interview. A billionaire in his early 80s, Smith still goes into the office five days a week while remaining active in his NASCAR and car dealership businesses.
Unlike some of the other "20 Questions" interview subjects Fowler has talked with over the years, Smith had no handlers sitting beside him listening in on the conversation. As everyone who has dealt with him knows, Smith can still handle himself.
Sharp, funny and opinionated, Smith said he planned to go to work until the day of his death and "wouldn't have it any other way."
He issued opinions on everything from who he thinks was the best driver ever to why NASCAR's ticket sales are down, from what the most misunderstood thing about him is to why Jimmie Johnson should just haul off and slap somebody.
Smith's remarks are edited for clarity and brevity.
1. You're a billionaire, long past retirement age, and yet here you are sitting at a desk at one of your car dealerships. Do you anticipate working up until the day of your death?
Absolutely. I wouldn't want it any other way. I'll never, ever, ever think about retiring.
I still enjoy it. In business, there is a challenge every day. My businesses are alive and well. I have about 15,000 employees, and I just enjoy going on down the road and doing things. I don't come in at a specific time - it depends on what's going on - but I do come in five days a week.
2. How much money does a billionaire carry around in his wallet?
Oh, I never carry money. Maybe $50 or $100. I have some credit cards and that's it.
3. Is it true that you believe today's drivers are too corporate and too soft?
Yes, I do believe that. It's because of sponsors, sponsors, sponsors. You've got corporate people trying to mold them the way they want them. We race fans - and I'm a race fan - we're not interested in that.
We want to see the real human being behind that steering wheel. We want drama. We don't have enough drama. We lack it. We used to have drama before, during and after the race.
4. I read somewhere you said the greatest thing that could happen to NASCAR would be if Jimmie Johnson got out of a race car and slapped somebody.
That's right! It would be. And it'd be great for ticket sales, too. Jimmie's such a very nice person. Just lives a block from me. He and one of my sons are very good friends.
I just think it would help him maybe get away from that vanilla part of Jimmie. He would show people the other side of Jimmie Johnson. Hey, if he needs to, he can hit me.
5. You once wanted to be a race car driver yourself. What stopped you and turned you toward owning tracks instead of driving on them?
My mother. She didn't talk me out of it - she prayed me out of it. She started praying that I would stop. As I told some of my friends, 'Mom is fighting dirty now.' I couldn't fight her on that one.
6. What was your childhood like?
I grew up in Oakboro, N.C., about 30 miles from Charlotte. I graduated from high school - didn't go to college.
We were like everybody else - poor farmers. Cotton, corn, wheat. A few head of cattle. That type of thing. I had some great parents (James and Molly Smith). They taught all of us something I think not everybody is taught anymore -- to work. Everyone works on a farm.
At the time, I didn't exactly enjoy it. But I look back and realize how important that is.
7. What did you want to be back then when you grew up?
When I was about 11 or 12, I decided I was going to be the middleweight champion of the world. I made my own punching bag. There had been a sawmill a mile and a half from our house, so I got a load of sawdust and built a bag from that. Hung it on a tree. We didn't have any real boxing gloves but we had work gloves so I used them. I punched that bag every day with the work gloves.
So I did that for about five years. I got to where I could hit very hard. Maybe knock a door down. But that was an ambition, and then it changed.
I had some crazy ideas. Don't ever tell me movies don't have an effect on you. I saw some movie and there was this tycoon and he owned a train. I said, 'Man, that's it. I'd love to own a train someday.'
I saw another movie with James Cagney and he had a trucking company and was riding around in this beautiful Cadillac convertible. I thought I wanted to own a trucking company. I never ended up owning either one.
8. Most reports have you as being born in 1927 and now in your early 80s, but you traditionally have not revealed your age. How old are you really?
9. Who was the best NASCAR driver of all time?
I think that to define the very best driver you have to know the length of race. Is it a 10-20 lap race or a 500-mile race?
One of the greatest drivers of all time on a short race, in a winner-take-all, would be Curtis Turner. He lived walking a tightrope - he was always 40 feet up there on that cable without a net. He could do more with a car than anybody I've ever seen.
But on a 500-mile race I would not pick him - a race with more strategy. There were other great ones along the way. David Pearson, Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip and of course, the king, Richard Petty.
But for a short race? I'd take Curtis Turner.
10. You have owned Charlotte Motor Speedway, lost it because of financial reasons and then regained it. But it was you and Turner who originally teamed up to build Charlotte Motor Speedway 50 years ago. What was that like?
I partnered up with Curtis. I used Curtis' name. He had a great name. He was the absolute racing hero during that era.
So I used his name to help promote what I was doing. Curtis was there at the groundbreaking and he didn't come back again until I had the speedway about 70 percent complete. But Curtis had a fabulous name, and I capitalized on it.
11. Do you still go to races now?
Yes. Probably 15-20 a year, including all of them in Charlotte. I was introduced to racing when I was 8 years old and have always liked the thrill of it all.
I love the sound of the engines. I know when I first started driving I loved to hear that engine scream. And I'm guilty of driving too fast. I told somebody jokingly one time I never drove a car faster than it would run. I think maybe a lot of your race drivers are probably from the same cut.
12. You're about as deeply immersed in car businesses as anyone could be. What do you drive yourself?
That black Mercedes (Smith gestures out his office window to where his car is parked, inches away). That's got a V-12, 620 horsepower. Without a doubt, that's the finest car I've ever driven. It just does things that all cars should do. I just love it.
13. When you drive on Bruton Smith Boulevard in Concord, do you feel like you should never have to stop at a red light?
Well I would like to have a "Get Out of Jail Free" card there if I'm speeding. I have another one in Georgia - a Bruton Smith Parkway. It's about 12 miles long - much, much nicer than this one. Oh yeah, it's only three years old. It is really nice.
14. Why are attendance and TV ratings so far down for NASCAR?
It's got to be the economy, at least 90 percent of it. The races today are great. But here again, there are a lot of people unemployed.
About four or five months ago, I said boastfully that the recession is over. I believe that. Now, unemployment is not over - that's going to take another year to 18 months. I can tell because I'm in the automobile business and we know before lots and lots of other companies know.
We've got 45-50 dealerships right now (out of the close to 200 dealerships Smith's company, Sonic Automotive, owns) that are setting all-time records. That's fantastic. The recession is over.
15. What are you proudest of in life?
I've got to say - and I hope it doesn't sound corny - that I have four very successful and remarkable children. I love my kids to death. They all work in my businesses and will keep them going long after I'm gone. That's No.1 without question.
The second thing is I'm very proud that I've made a lot of people millionaires. Hundreds of them.
16. What do people most misunderstand about Bruton Smith?
I think it may be that they think I'm tougher than I am. Come right down to it, I'm a softie kind of person. I guess that comes from business - I'm a little tough when it comes to business.
I've negotiated all my adult life in business. I've bought hundreds of businesses. And when you're doing that, you're hanging tough. And maybe that's where that misconception comes from. I don't think I'm that, but maybe I come across that way. If I do, I'm sorry - I don't mean to.
Well, I do mean to - in business. If we're negotiating, that could go on for a day, two days, a week. Then you are battling. And that's the part that drives me. I love it because here again when you're doing mental battle with a person, you want to win.
17. How many planes do you own and when's the last time you flew commercial?
I have four of them. Commercial? About 1994, I went to Europe and flew commercial.
18. If you were king of NASCAR for a week, what would you change?
I'd give Las Vegas another (Sprint Cup) date and I'd give a larger share of the TV money to Charlotte.
19. The real kings of NASCAR have long been the France family, and you've had an adversarial relationship with that family at many points during your career. How is your relationship now?
Very good. I like Brian (France, the current head of NASCAR). I respect him. He and I talk almost weekly. He listens and sometimes I'll make a suggestion and he'll actually accept it. He's his own man and I like that.
20. Should two France family members have made the first hall of fame class?
Oh now, you've put one on me. I got to answer that by saying that David Pearson deserved to be in that first class. I think you can find my answer there.