Ollen Bruton Smith

June 22, 2022

Businessman, Philanthropist and NASCAR Hall of Famer Bruton Smith Passes Away
A loving father and pioneering businessman, Ollen Bruton Smith, the founder and executive chairman of Sonic Automotive, Speedway Motorsports and Speedway Children’s Charities, died in his Charlotte home on Wednesday, June 22, of natural causes. He was 95.
Born March 2, 1927, as the youngest of James and Mollie Smith’s nine children, Smith grew up on a modest farm in Oakboro, North Carolina. A member of the Greatest Generation, Smith learned the value of hard work early in life. With an inspiring determination and relentless optimism, Smith built a business empire through the automotive and motorsports industries.
“My parents taught us what work was all about,” Smith said in 2008. “As I look back, that was a gift, even though I certainly didn’t think so at the time. A lot of people don’t have that gift because they didn’t grow up working. But if you are on a family farm, that’s what you do. Everything is hard work.”
Smith’s first job outside the family farm came at age 12 when he went to work at a local saw mill. Two days after graduating from Oakboro High School in Stanly County, Smith took a job in a hosiery mill, before he eventually made a purchase that would lead him to two successful business careers.
“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.” Smith’s 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.”
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.
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 motorsports to promote events 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 at the age of 32, he partnered with NASCAR driver Curtis Turner and built his first permanent motorsports facility, Charlotte Motor Speedway. The track opened in June of 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, Ill, where he married and started a family. While growing his automotive business, Smith’s passion for auto racing never wavered.
After decades of establishing Charlotte Motor Speedway as a pioneer in motorsports entertainment and purchasing Atlanta Motor Speedway, Smith founded Speedway Motorsports by consolidating his motorsports holdings in December 1994. In February 1995, he made it the first motorsports company to trade on the New York Stock Exchange.  Today the company owns and operates 11 motorsports entertainment facilities: Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Sonoma Raceway, Texas Motor Speedway, Dover Motor Speedway, Nashville Superspeedway, North Wilkesboro Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
“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. He also brought elaborate pre-race shows, concerts and celebrities to the venues.
“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.”
A true race fan at heart, Smith would make his own memories on race weekends by attending nearly every NASCAR race at his race tracks across the country for five decades. Smith enjoyed entertaining guests at his races, but after the green flag dropped, he was more interested in what was happening on track, often playfully trying to make side bets with friends and co-workers on who he thought would win. During the summer, Smith could often be found on Tuesday nights at The Speedway Club enjoying his favorite entrée, southern fried catfish, while Legend Cars raced below in the Summer Shootout Series at Charlotte Motor Speedway. 
Even with his many accomplishments in motorsports, Smith often commented that the auto retail business was his first love. He maintained his primary office at Town & Country Ford, his flagship dealership in Charlotte, throughout his distinguished career. While his executive office was upstairs, Smith spent nearly every working day in a smaller office on the first floor. There he could keep one eye looking out the window as customers arrived in the parking lot, while his other eye was trained on salespeople working the showroom floor.
In January of 1997, Smith founded Sonic Automotive and took it public on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE:SAH) in November of the same year. In just a few years, Smith grew Sonic into one of the nation’s largest companies, and in 2000 it was first officially recognized as a Fortune 500 company based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Sonic Automotive is now a Fortune 300 company and one of the nation’s largest automotive retailers with over 160 retail dealerships in over 23 states, representing 25 automotive brands. Since inception, Sonic Automotive dealerships have received many nationally recognized awards and accolades for exceeding customer satisfaction and automotive retail brand performance standards.
In 2014, Smith’s passion for automotive retail continued with the creation of EchoPark Automotive. A subsidiary of Sonic Automotive, EchoPark Automotive is the company’s high growth segment rooted in providing high quality pre-owned vehicles, while delivering a world-class guest experience. The company currently operates over 40 EchoPark Automotive locations nationwide.
Smith took great pride in employing thousands of people from coast to coast through his companies and giving hard-working people an opportunity to excel and support their families. When asked what he was most proud of amongst his many accomplishments, Smith would say “my children,” who all worked in family businesses.
Through his dedication to helping others, Smith founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 as a memoriam and legacy to his son, Bruton Cameron Smith, who passed away as an infant. Given this traumatic experience as a father, Smith became passionate about helping children in need, and Speedway Children’s Charities was created to focus on serving communities surrounding Speedway Motorsports race tracks. Since inception, Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed more than $61 million to local nonprofits across the country dedicated to improving the quality of life for children.
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. 
Smith was a believer in Jesus Christ and lifelong admirer of evangelist Billy Graham. His family takes comfort at this time knowing that Bruton is now in heaven. Survivors include sons Scott, Marcus and David; his daughter, Anna Lisa; their mother, Bonnie Smith; and seven grandchildren. 
A public funeral service will be held Thursday, June 30, at Central Church’s Charlotte campus located at 5301 Sardis Road at 1 p.m. Guests are asked to be seated by 12:30 p.m. A private burial with the family will follow.  The Church service will be available on  the Charlotte Motor Speedway YouTube channel.
In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Speedway Children’s Charities at www.speedwaycharities.org. 
Arrangements are in the care of Kenneth W. Poe Funeral & Cremation Service, 1321 Berkeley Ave, Charlotte, N.C. 28204; (704) 641-7606. Online condolences may be shared at www.kennethpoeservices.com. 

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  • Eva m. Coleman

    I'm the daughter of Mace t. Coleman. Back in 1978 we move to charlotte,nc so we move to Foxcroft. So in that time they met, they went to the races along with his celebrity friends. An my mom too. Good friends. Sweet dreams