O. Bruton Smith, who in 1998 purchased Las Vegas Motor Speedway from hotel owners Ralph Engelstad and William Bennett and ultimately transformed it into one of NASCAR’s most popular destinations, died Wednesday of natural causes. He was 95.
“He was quite a visionary, and he absolutely loved this town,” said Chris Powell, president of LVMS — one of 11 tracks owned and operated by Speedway Motorsports Inc., the company founded by Smith.
“He saw what nobody else saw, and that’s what this speedway could be not just on one or two weekends a year, but what it could be 52 weeks and 365 days a year.”
Other SMI tracks include Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Kentucky Speedway — a high-octane empire that Powell said speaks to Smith’s business acumen as well as his vision and promotional skills.
“He was so vivacious in doing business,” said Powell, who had known Smith longer than he had worked for him. “He yearned every day to work. His idea of going on vacation was going out of town to work.”
Smith was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2016 after overcoming Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. By that time, his son, Marcus, had begun to take a more active role in running his father’s company.
“It’s no secret that he had been in declining health over the past several months,” Powell said in noting Bruton Smith’s presence at last September’s South Point 400 NASCAR playoff race at LVMS. “But he lived one tremendous life. No question that today is the end of an era.”
In addition to introducing innovations such as on-site condominiums, speedway clubs featuring fine dining and superspeedway lighting that helped bring NASCAR to prime time — the idea to finish races under the green flag to increase fan excitement also is credited to Smith — the North Carolina native also founded Speedway Children’s Charities in memory of his late son, Bruton Cameron Smith, in 1982.
The nonprofit organization has distributed more than $58 million over the years.
Though Smith spent untold dollars in turning LVMS and his other tracks into polished, profit-turning jewels, Powell said he also had a frugal side — one of a million thoughts running through his head about the times the two had shared.
Before the Earnhardt Terrace was built in Turn 4, Powell said he and Smith were riding around LVMS in a passenger vehicle when his boss heard a persistent hum. He told Powell to stop the car so he could flip the lever on a circuit box that was causing the irritating noise.
“I said ‘Bruton, you might have just turned off the electricity to the entire speedway,’ ” Powell recalled.
They continued on their journey around the property and talked at length in Powell’s office before Smith said he was heading back to his hotel. But about 30 minutes later, he poked his head back in Powell’s office where the lights still were on.
“He said ‘Hey, boy, I think I saved you some money on your electric bill today.’ ”