My first dance with Bruton Smith was in 2004.
The man who built Charlotte Motor Speedway had gotten into it with Char-Meck GuvCo for clear cutting close to 400 trees around a parking lot. He said he had permission. I pressed him for a yes or no answer to a simple question: “Did you have written permission to cut the trees?”
He threatened to hang up if I didn’t stop. I didn’t, so he did.
Bruton replaced some of the trees but he got his way over the parking lot. While some said, “Hey, it’s his land,” others said brute force was Smith’s style. Over the years, I came to call him The Emperor of Brutonia.
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Yet, his hang-up was far from the last time we spoke. The fencing seemed to trigger his fancy. He’d come on my show when he had some little bomb to drop. Once, he told me he’d just gotten off the phone with his good friend, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid. They were cooking up a plan to dole out billions in tax dollars so people could trade-in junk cars for new ones.
“Cash for Clunkers,” Bruton called it with a chuckle. I told him he was nuts. He wasn’t.
Big ideas and bigger bluster, that’s Bruton; chopping down trees, literally and metaphorically. Or dynamiting rock, in what would better have been a quarry, in a field where the scrappy racing promoter envisioned a track. With his ideas, other people’s money, and a guy with a shotgun, Bruton begat the speedway.
It bears not his name or even Concord’s, but Charlotte’s. Though he may not be the Uptown Crowd’s genteel vision of itself, Bruton Smith has done more to put the Queen City on the map than most of that group; certainly more than her name-sake woman with the statue at the airport ever did. My first time here in 1988 all I knew of Charlotte was the Speedway.
I hadn’t spoken with Bruton in awhile but was thinking about him when the speedway recently hosted its All-Star race, and the Coca Cola 600 – the race that blasted him, the Speedway, and Charlotte into a whole new orbit. Though NASCAR faces challenges the Speedway had its biggest May in years.
About the same time, the Observer reported Charlotte had lost its precious title as “Number Two Banking City” in the United States. Uptown Crowd hearts seized.
“Who will we be now?” I could imagine them frantically panting. A communications strategist wrote brightly in this space that the news presented the city “an excellent opportunity to rebrand.”
Maybe what Charlotte needs to do is not look to rebrand. Maybe what Charlotte needs is for once not to go for the trendy new angle. Maybe Charlotte needs to learn the lesson of another girl who felt unappreciated – the one from Kansas who realized if she went looking for her heart’s content and had to go any further than her backyard, she hadn’t really lost it.
I spoke with Bruton Monday. He said he’s committed to bringing major league soccer to Charlotte but hasn’t heard a word from the city about his stadium plan. He’s still thinking about buying the Panthers.
Charlotte should stop searching over the rainbow.
And maybe put a statue of Bruton at the airport.
Observer contributor Keith Larson can be heard on “The Larson Page” which airs weekdays at Noon on ESPN Radio Charlotte (730 AM) , and TheLarsonPage.com.