CHARLOTTE, N.C. – A visionary and transformative figure in both business and entertainment, Ollen Bruton Smith, the founder and executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports and Speedway Children’s Charities, died Wednesday (June 22) of natural causes. He was 95.
Born March 2, 1927, Smith was the youngest of nine children and grew up on a modest farm in Oakboro, North Carolina. With an inspiring determination and relentless optimism, Smith built a business empire through the automotive and motorsports industries and left a legacy to inspire generations of his family, friends and colleagues.
“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’s career as promoter and car salesman took a turn when he was drafted by the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Smith served two years stateside as a paratrooper, then returned to selling cars and promoting auto races featuring the burgeoning National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR). Through a rough era for the sport, Smith was one of the first professional promoters to pay good purses, tend to the needs of the fans and find unique ways to promote events at speedways he leased around North Carolina.
“I’m a frustrated builder who had a knack for promoting races and it’s been fun to always try and push the sport to greater heights for the fans,” Smith told the Associated Press in 2015.
In 1959, he partnered with NASCAR driver Curtis Turner and built his first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track opened in June 1960 with a 600-mile race, the longest ever in NASCAR’s history.
In the years that followed, Smith found success opening several automotive dealerships. Opened in 1966, his first dealership was Frontier Ford in Rockford, Illinois, where he married and started a family. While growing his automotive business, Smith’s passion for auto racing never wavered.
“I love the racing business. I want to contribute more and more,” Smith said in 2015. “You hear us preach about ‘fan friendly.’ I think that is a driver for me to just do more things. I enjoy the contributions I’ve been able to make to the sport.”
Under Smith’s innovative direction, Speedway Motorsports facilities were the first in racing to add condominiums, fine-dining Speedway Clubs, superspeedway lighting and giant high-definition video screens.
“When you think about the Charlotte Motor Speedway and Bristol, and tracks like New Hampshire and Sonoma and Atlanta, he’s been the best,” 2019 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee and fellow automobile dealer Roger Penske told NASCAR.com in 2016. “There’s no question. He set the bar.”
“His mind is racing all the time; he’s done so much for the sport,” said Rick Hendrick, an auto dealer and fellow NASCAR Hall of Famer, in a 2016 interview with NASCAR.com. “He’s so brave to step out and try things that have never been tried before. He helped build this sport.”
Following a 2021 victory at zMAX Dragway, John Force dedicated the win to Smith.
“I love this guy and everything he’s done for our sport,” said the 16-time NHRA champion. “I’m excited I get to send this trophy home to somebody I love—a guy who built our sport.”
“I learned from my own experience that when people go to an event – like a big race – they may know who won the race, but all the other stuff they don’t remember,” Smith once said.
“I want to put something on so regardless who won the race, it will be a memorable experience. We’re here to entertain fans, and I want them to go home with a memory that will last forever.”
Among his accolades, Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s 2016 class. In 2007, he was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame and he became a member of the National Motorsports Press Association Hall of Fame in 2006.
“You have trophies, you have championships, you have wins, but friends are what really make the difference,” fellow NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Darrell Waltrip said about Smith in 2019. “Bruton Smith has been one of my heroes since I started racing in NASCAR in 1972.”
In addition to his business interests, Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 as a memoriam and legacy to his son, Bruton Cameron Smith, who passed away at a very young age. Given his experience, Smith became passionate about wanting to help children in need and Speedway Children’s Charities was created to focus on serving communities surrounding Speedway Motorsports race tracks. Speedway Children’s Charities chapters work with organizations to identify and resolve pressing issues ranging from learning disabilities and broken homes to hunger and childhood cancer.
Under Smith’s leadership, Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed more than $61 million to local organizations across the country that improve the quality of life for children in need.
Survivors include sons Scott, Marcus and David; his daughter, Anna Lisa; their mother, Bonnie Smith; and seven grandchildren. Information regarding funeral arrangements will be released at a later date.