On Monday I took an unofficial poll north of Charlotte, NC, cradle of the NASCAR world. My question was simple but the answers were not.
What do you think of Bruton Smith?
I ran into a group of Roush Fenway crewmembers in the Concord Mills Mall food court and they said the owner of the Lowe's Motor Speedway was a "mad genius".
A couple of fans at the track gift shop, standing just a few floors below Smith's office and the packed-up belongings of just-ousted track president Humpy Wheeler, said the 80-year old mogul's racetracks were "fan-friendly palaces".
Meanwhile, a Concord, NC-based electrician said that Smith still owed him money for a job he did two decades ago; a gas station attendant claimed that Smith once drove off without paying for a tank of fuel; and a fast food clerk said the only time he'd ever laid eyes on the billionaire was at 2:00 AM with a girl that "I guess was his niece or something." Some folks were being honest while others were clearly making stuff up. But everyone had an opinion one way or the other.
However, it was a Cabarrus County Sherriff's Deputy who seemed to sum up Smith in a way that captured all at once what everyone else was trying to say. "He's a redneck like me," the cop said with a point toward the massive turn-one condominium tower. "But he's the only redneck I know of that's worth a billion dollars."
Actually, he's worth $1.5 billion, good enough to rank 317th on last year's Forbes 400 list, and along the way he's angered nearly one associate for every one of those dollars earned.
With last month's purchase of the Kentucky Speedway, he now owns seven big league racetracks (eight if you count abandoned North Wilkesboro) and 175 car dealerships. He's been hailed as an innovator and been told to go to hell for being a shyster.
In the last four years alone, he has:
Been suspected of silently backing two antitrust lawsuits vs. NASCAR (one filed by Texas-based investors in his Speedway Motorsports Incorporated, the other by the ownership group in Kentucky). He denies it.
Freaked out the NHRA with a failed takeover bid.
Backed the entire city of Concord into a corner to build a drag strip and pulled such a Jedi mind trick on them that they not only backed down, they named a boulevard after him.
Bought the Kentucky Speedway, New Hampshire Speedway and was accused of starting whisper campaigns to try and pressure the owners of Dover and Pocono to sell. He denies that, too.
Responded to questions from Mecklenburg County (Charlotte) municipal officials about his treatment of several hundred county trees by clear-cutting them.
Was reported to have been involved in both the rising cost of Middle East oil prices and the Rachael Ray terrorist iced coffee scarf controversy … Okay, I made that up, but for a second you believed it, didn't you?
The latest member of the angry army is Wheeler, who was shown the door during Charlotte Speedweeks when he'd clearly expected to be around for one more year. The two initially agreed that Wheeler's resignation would be announced the week after the Coca-Cola 600, but Wheeler instead trumped his boss and leaked the mess to the press one week early.
How did Smith respond? With a smile.
Was anyone surprised at that reaction? No, especially those who might have been driving a bulldozer in Concord around June 1960.
That summer, Smith and fellow racing ruffian Curtis Turner were in the process of building a 1.5-mile speedway north of Charlotte, the track we now know as Lowe's. They'd raised only $450,000 of the $600,000 needed, but promised the construction crews that they would get paid as soon as the inaugural World 600 was run and the ticket money rolled in. But in the weeks leading up to the track's opening, those contractors were beginning to lose faith.
One of those contractors decided he'd had enough and started loading up his earth-moving equipment just a few days before the track's completion. Suddenly, a car rolled up and several men got out, eventually convincing the contractor to stay. Of course, that wasn't a hard job considering they were all brandishing firearms.
Among the men who came heeled was one O. Bruton Smith. And guess what? His track got built and his race got run. When asked to recall the story last week he did what he always does—denied it, then smiled.
All the way to the bank.