Bruton Smith, a pioneer-turned-titan in both auto retailing and motorsports, leveraged small roles selling cars and promoting dirt-track races as a youth to create two moneymaking business giants.
Smith, founder of Sonic Automotive Inc., NASCAR Hall of Famer, racetrack owner and philanthropist, died Wednesday, June 22, at 95.
Smith launched Sonic, 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 after completing the mega acquisition of RFJ Auto Partners Holdings Inc. in 2021. Sonic also owns and operates the EchoPark standalone brand of used-vehicle-only stores.
Smith, a giant in racing circles who helped turn stock car racing into a multibillion-dollar business, also started Speedway Motorsports Inc., the first motorsports company to go public in 1995. (It went private in 2019.) In 1992, he became the first track owner to erect and shine lights on the course for night races.
Penske Automotive Group Inc. CEO Roger Penske described Smith as an innovator and leader.
“We shared a passion for motorsports and for the automotive business,” Penske said in a statement this week. “Bruton helped blaze a new trail in racing through Speedway Motorsports and Speedway Children’s Charities, and his vision and leadership helped take our industry in new directions. We will miss his drive, his enthusiasm and his commitment to building our sport.”
Smith remained active overseeing Sonic and Speedway Motorsports’ operations in his 90s as executive chairman of both companies, titles he had held since 2015. He previously was 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, moved to the top spot. In 2015, Bruton Smith turned day-to-day duties of Speedway Motorsports over to a third 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 early; Smith sold used cars from his front lawn as a teenager and bought his first race car at 17. Smith sold his first car, a 1939 Buick sedan, for a small profit and promoted his first race before he was 18.
His turns on the track were limited, though, as he gave up driving race cars because of his mother’s worries.
“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.”
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.
Success in the racing world 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 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 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 dealerships, Bruton Smith’s fortunes grew, and for several years he was ranked among the top billionaires by Forbes. Before being dropped from Forbes‘ list, he ranked 1,940th in 2017.
Smith 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 $61 million since its inception to nonprofits that help children.
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.
Smith was a mentor to his children and to others in the auto business.
“He lived a truly remarkable life fulfilling his love for the automobile business, motorsports, philanthropy and most of all his family,” David Smith said in a statement. “I’m forever grateful for the countless opportunities he gave me and invaluable lessons he taught me about life, business, leadership and the importance of giving back.”
David Smith said Sonic’s work force will continue to execute his father’s vision for the company. He also praised his father’s role in his own life. “Bruton Smith was not only an amazing entrepreneur and businessman, he was an even greater dad and my best friend,” David Smith said. “I used to tell him often that if everyone had a dad like him the world would be a much better place.”
Vic Doolan, a Sonic board member from 2005 until this year, as well as a former president of BMW of North America and former CEO of Volvo Cars North America, praised Smith as an exceptional human being.
“He had a glorious career, one to be admired by all,” Doolan said in an email this week. “He was always actively involved in guiding Sonic; his mastery of strategy and detail was compelling. As was his vision and commitment to growth for the company and careers of his team. Many will attribute their career success to learning from Bruton.”
Doolan said Bruton Smith made Sonic employees feel like part of a family. “That is because Bruton understood and lived the meaning of family,” Doolan said. “It was an honor to know him and work with him.”
Rick Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports 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 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 this week.
Mark LaNeve, a former sales and marketing executive for both Ford Motor Co. and General Motors, this week called Smith “an iconic figure in both automotive retail and racing.”
“He also had an incredibly strong charitable spirit,” LaNeve said in an email. “Classic definition of a life well lived.”
Jim O’Connor, former group vice president of Ford, called Smith’s death a major loss for the automaker, the auto industry, motorsports and the city of Charlotte.
“He was a GIANT in our business,” O’Connor wrote in an email. “Everybody at Ford, during my 40 years [there], knew the name Bruton Smith. He was very well respected.”
Sonic Automotive President Jeff Dyke recalled Smith’s calm during the 2008-09 Great Recession. 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 ranked No. 7 on Automotive News‘ most recent list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., with retail sales of 103,486 new vehicles in 2021.
Jack Walsworth and Leslie J. Allen contributed to this report.