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Bruton Smith, auto retail and racing pioneer, dies

Ollen Bruton Smith was born March 2, 1927, in Oakboro, N.C. His passion for cars started at an early age; Smith sold used cars from his front lawn as a teenager and bought his first race car at 17. His time on the track was limited, though, as he gave up time behind the wheel because of his mother’s worries and requests.

Smith sold his first car, a 1939 Buick sedan, for a small profit and continued to sell cars from his mother’s front yard. The young entrepreneur also promoted his first race before he was 18 years old.

“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 “You can’t fight your mom and God, so I stopped driving.”

It was during his teenage years that 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 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 and served two years as a paratrooper stateside during the Korean War, briefly interrupting his career as a promoter and car salesman. When he was released from active duty, he resumed selling cars and promoting auto races featuring the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.

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

In 2007, Smith described taking the 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 remain involved with the business. His son 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, N.C., in fall 2018, David Smith said.

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