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Bruton Smith has seen it all, talks about it

By Scott Fowler
Scott Fowler is a national award-winning sports columnist for The Charlotte Observer.

A conversation with Bruton Smith is always an entertaining prospect, especially on the eve of the two biggest race weekends in Charlotte.

Smith is a billionaire auto dealer who also was one of the founders of Charlotte Motor Speedway. He remains a primary force behind Speedway Motorsports, the company that also owns seven other tracks across America and hosts 13 of the biggest races in NASCAR’s top series.

After four straight snubs, Smith finally was added to the 25-person finalist list for the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s class of 2014. That class will be voted upon and announced Wednesday.

Smith still goes into his Charlotte office at Town and Country Ford five days a week. He said he will also attend every key race at the speedway over the next 10 days. While Smith always laughingly states his age as “39,” most records indicate he is 86.

Our 30-minute phone conversation this week veered from Danica Patrick to Kyle Busch, from ticket-sale issues to Elizabeth Taylor issues and from what car he drives to work every day to the NASCAR Hall of Fame’s induction process.

Some highlights:

Q: Who is the best driver in NASCAR today?

Kyle Busch. He seems to be able to do things that others can’t, or at least that others don’t want to do. He is highly competitive, and he can drive the wheels off a race car.

Q: The NASCAR Hall of Fame will vote in its fifth class on Wednesday. This is the first time you have made it onto the list of finalists. What do you think your chances are?

I don’t know. I’m very busy with the races. I don’t have the time to even worry with it. If I’m voted in, I am. If not, I’m not. I’m not really that concerned.

I do wish that voting panel was very, very independent. That’s where it should have started out. Very independent, with no people or entities that control the voting. It needed to be a very independent body, and it’s not. They should have found people who are not connected with anybody but who want to do the right thing. I just hope people vote their conscience.

Q: If it were a more independent group, with fewer NASCAR executives on both the nominating and voting panels, who would be in the hall that isn’t in there now?

That’s a doggone good question, but I don’t believe I should go there.

Q: You don’t have a vote on the 54-person panel (with the 55th vote a combined overall vote of NASCAR fans). Will you watch the results on TV?

I’m not sure. I will be at the speedway that day. I may just leave it up to one of my assistants to give me a call when it’s over.

Q: What do you think of Danica Patrick?

I like her a lot. She has the most talent of any woman who has ever entered our sport and has proven it over and over. She keeps getting better in stock cars. One thing I really believe is that the girl has no fear. She’s led very important races.

Q: How are ticket sales for the all-star race Saturday night and the Coca-Cola 600 on May 26 at the speedway? A lot of tracks around the country are having trouble filling all their seats.

A: I wish I could tell you it’s sold out, but it’s not. We are working diligently to try and accomplish that. Assuming that you can guarantee us great weather, we’ll have a huge walkup for the all-star race.

As for this weekend, we are very proud of the all-star event. We’ve worked real hard on building it. We’re always adding something. It’s great. I won’t be happy until tickets are really hard to get to all our events, though. We’re working toward that.

Q: Why do you think NASCAR ticket sales at many places around the country seem to have plateaued?

We do not have a great economy. And the other thing is that last year in particular, I thought the quality of the racing had deteriorated. We’re having to live that down now. We’re also having to be more creative and make it a greater experience for the fans.

We really are fan-friendly at all our tracks. We have concerts to go along with the races. If you go to the speedway, you can kind of close your eyes and open them back up and feel like you’re at a big state fair. We want to replicate that experience. We’ve added a lot of things outside the fence, so to speak, to entertain people. And the racing this year is better so far than it was last year. The car is better, too, and more recognizable. NASCAR is putting a lot of effort into that, and that’s good.

Q: You say that your many auto dealerships sold 231,000 cars and trucks last year?

That’s right. The auto business is fabulous right now.

Q: So you’re a man who can drive anything. What do you drive?

A black Mercedes – a new one with 620 horsepower. I love that car. It’s got tremendous power and just drives so well.

Q: How is your health these days?

It’s great. Thanks for asking.

Q: What’s a race day like for you now?

I might spend a couple of hours on a golf cart, shaking a lot of hands and seeing people I might not see too often. At race time, I’m going to be somewhere in the stands or in a suite, entertaining maybe 70-80 guests and friends. I am very fortunate. I meet more VIPs at one event than most people meet in a lifetime. I do enjoy that.

Q: You’ve had a lot of celebrities come to the races at Charlotte over the years for one reason or another. Who were a couple of the most memorable?

Zsa Zsa Gabor and Elizabeth Taylor. Zsa Zsa was just a delight. A pleasure. But Elizabeth (who was the grand marshal of the 1977 World 600)?

Elizabeth was a handful. Bless her heart, she was drinking quite a bit during her three days with us. I had put her up in a condo, and the night before the race she called me at midnight and said she needed a hairdresser at 8 the next morning.

I made a phone call and got her one. I also had to station eight guards to look after her on that Saturday night, because she had such a strong fear of being kidnapped or robbed. There were a few other things that happened, too. She was a major handful.

Q: What are your favorite all-time all-star races in Charlotte?

The first one (in 1985). It was so exciting, mostly because it was the first. Darrell Waltrip won that. And then the one that Davey Allison won and then got knocked unconscious doing it (in 1992 at the first night all-star race). He turned out to be OK, so that one was great.

Scott Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @Scott_Fowler
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