Racing promoter and entrepreneur Bruton Smith finally made it into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame on Wednesday, and to do so he got an assist from the family that he feuded with off-and-on for decades.
Smith had a 50-year rivalry with the France family, which rules NASCAR with a tight grip that Smith often tried to pry loose, one finger at a time.
But on Wednesday afternoon, before 57 hall of fame voters cast their ballots in Charlotte, current NASCAR CEO Brian France spoke positively about Smith and said he deserved to be in the hall of fame.
Suddenly, the mood in the room changed. Within a few hours, Smith had become the leading vote-getter of the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2016 – and that was after Smith hadn’t been among the top eight vote-getters in 2015.
“I think some people might have been surprised,” said Ned Jarrett, both a member of the hall of fame himself and a voter. “Brian France showing his support was important.”
Said Humpy Wheeler, who ran Smith’s Charlotte Motor Speedway on a day-to-day basis for three decades: “It was really important. Brian obviously carries a lot of weight when he comes out for somebody.”
Smith, 88, has built an empire of tracks with his Speedway Motorsports Inc. that stretch across the country, starting with Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1960. He certainly is deserving of a hall of fame spot and should have gotten in a couple of years ago.
But his feud with the France family was legendary in NASCAR circles – not with Brian, who Smith once told me he “likes very much” and talks with often, but with Brian’s father Bill Jr., and his grandfather Bill Sr.
There were fights about money. Lots of them. The France family not only runs NASCAR but controls various racetracks, too, and so it was almost inevitable there was going to be conflicts with the other primary racetrack owner in the sport.
There was a long dispute about whether or not Smith’s speedway in Texas deserved a second date on the NASCAR schedule. There was even a longstanding rumor that Smith would split off from NASCAR entirely, buying off some of the best drivers and developing his own race series at his own tracks.
“I think that was just one of those ‘Let’s get Bill France four feet off the ground’ type of things,” Wheeler said of the rumored split.
Said Jarrett: “I think that maybe some voters might have thought the rivalry might have been too much of a hill to climb over (for Smith to ever make the hall of fame.) ... But I think NASCAR realizes that whatever rivalry there was between Bruton and the France family, it was good for the sport.”
When France announced the five new inductees Wednesday night – Smith was joined by former drivers Terry Labonte, Jerry Cook, Bobby Isaac and Curtis Turner – Smith wasn’t in the room. NASCAR said he wouldn’t be immediately available for interviews.
Charlotte Motor Speedway did issue a statement from Smith in which he said in part: “I’m a frustrated builder who had a knack for promoting races, and it’s been fun to always try to push the sport to greater heights for the fans. From the first World 600, I’ve always wanted the fans to leave with something spectacular to remember about their experience.”
He has certainly done that. Humpy and Bruton had a messy breakup in 2008, but Wheeler said a lot of nice things about his former boss Wednesday.
“It’s like a good marriage that didn’t end the best way,” Wheeler said. “But we had a great time. We did a lot of great things together ... Between Bruton and I, we conked Billy France’s head a whole bunch of times, but he was hard-headed enough that he’d let us have it back. Rivalries are what make sports.”
And Brian France’s decision to speak up for Smith Wednesday, Wheeler said, was in character.
“Brian has never been confrontational, like his Dad was and his grandfather was,” Wheeler said. “He’s more ‘Live and let live and let’s move on.’... I think we found out today that one of the great things about this business is you can bury the hatchet and everything’s fine.
“Yeah, Bruton was controversial. Yeah, he did a lot of different things. But he moved the needle. And the France family understood that.”
Fowler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @scott_fowler