Will Bruton Smith really do it?
Did a zoning dispute so hurt his feelings that the automotive and motorsports tycoon would close Lowe's Motor Speedway, devastate the city of Concord and spend a hunk of his self-made fortune to build a new track?
Don't bet against it.
In rising from farm boy to billionaire entrepreneur, Smith, 80, has shown no fear of making bold moves to build his business. He'll spend money to make money, and to make his point.
"I don't think he's bluffing," said his son Scott Smith. "He says what he means."
Friends and relatives call Smith a visionary, a rural Stanly County native who forged a nationwide business empire from little more than his own wit, grit and strong will.
Smith declined to be interviewed for this story. But he has said he is 90 percent certain he will walk away from the track that helped put him in the fast lane to fortune more than four decades ago.
Humbled Concord city officials are begging him to stay. They hired a plane to fly a banner proclaiming their love to Smith, and they moved to rename Speedway Boulevard in his honor.
And yet, talk of a new track won't go away. On Friday, as Smith announced that he is paying $340 million in cash for New Hampshire International Speedway, he still wouldn't say what he will do about Lowe's.
Some suspect he's bluffing his way to tax concessions.
If he is, it's not the first time he's used hard-nosed brinksmanship to outflank opponents.
If he isn't, Cabarrus County stands to lose about $169 million in annual tourism spending and $1.7 million a year in tax payments.
For now, others can only guess what's in the heart and on the mind of one of the Charlotte area's most colorful, confrontational and dynamic businessmen.
"He can be very, very forceful when somebody gets under his skin," said Charlotte lawyer Bill Diehl, who has known Smith for two decades. "But he's careful. He's not irrational. He's very methodical, he's logical, he's persuasive, and he's got a great insight into the situation."
Others suggest -- with carefully chosen words -- that Smith can be a difficult man to deal with.
"You have to talk straight to Bruton. If Bruton senses any weakness, he'll take advantage of it," said former Mecklenburg County commissioners Chairman Tom Cox.
"I like him. I enjoy being around him. But I wouldn't want to spend a weekend camping trip with him."
Et tu, Concord?
Concord knows just how tough Smith can be. Last month, the City Council rezoned his speedway property to ban drag strips, citing concerns about noise and claiming that Smith started work on the project without the necessary permits.Smith believed the city's zoning code allowed him to build the strip; he was outraged when city officials changed the code's wording to block him.
Fine, he said. He'd take his strip -- and his speedway -- elsewhere. City officials quickly changed course. Too late.
"His feelings were hurt," Scott Smith said. "He takes it very, very personally."
People who know Smith say he's generous, smart, funny and charming. Scott Smith said his father's children's charity has raised almost $30 million in the past 25 years. He doesn't smoke, drink or even curse. "A big teddy bear," the son says.
But some of the same people who laud his virtues also issue this warning: Don't cross him.
When Smith feels wronged, he's as unyielding as a speedway wall.
"Don't get him mad," says Tom Sadler, a retired Air Force major general who runs Smith's Speedway Children's Charities. "If he thinks he's right, he'll go to any extreme to prove it."
`Las Vegas style' negotiator
Smith had already shown how he can react when local government tells him no. Three years ago, Charlotte and Mecklenburg County clashed with him over more than 100 trees the speedway cut down near the track.
Smith said Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory and Cox, then head of the county commissioners, had given him permission.
Cox quipped: "I think somebody's gotten too close to some gas fumes."
Smith, furious, replied that if Cox couldn't recall the conversation, "he's got some sort of a mental problem. It may be something serious."
McCrory demanded the speedway replant the trees and write a letter of apology.
Instead, Smith sold the land.
Today, McCrory calls Smith a savvy businessman who relies on a "Las Vegas style of negotiating in which the winner takes all. ...It is both a visionary and at times confrontational style."
The mayor thought for a few seconds, then added: "Often, with very successful results."
The art of the bluff
Max Muhleman, a prominent Charlotte sports marketing executive, met Smith more than four decades ago when Muhleman was a young newspaper reporter covering stock car racing and Smith was a dirt-track promoter.Back then, Muhleman said, the racing scene was a rough, sometimes seedy landscape, "more like armory wrestling" than today's multibillion-dollar NASCAR operations.
Drivers were sometimes former moonshine runners. After races, some promoters took off with the purse. Negotiations often involved guns and lug wrenches.
Smith could handle it. He grew up on a small cotton farm and got his first job at 12 in a sawmill. It didn't hurt that he had a muscular build and the guts of a high-stakes gambler.
"He could bluff with the best of them," said Muhleman. "He could look you in the eye and say something, and you'd be afraid he was deadly serious. And then he'd bust out laughing."
He started building the speedway in 1959 despite the fact that he didn't have enough money. He has equated it to building a $200,000 house with only $130,000 in hand.
A messy bankruptcy case followed in the early 1960s, and Smith lost control of the track. By the mid-1970s, he'd won it back.
As NASCAR's popularity grew, so did Smith's fortunes. Over the years, he has added tracks in Atlanta, Tennessee, Texas, Las Vegas and California.
His bottom line got a bigger boost as he bought car dealerships in places such as Illinois and Texas; by 1979, he owned 10. Today, he runs more than 170.
With the addition of the New Hampshire track, Smith's Speedway Motorsports will own seven tracks. He has become such a powerful force, and his rivalry with NASCAR's ruling France family so public, that there has been talk for years of him starting his own race circuit.
Won't happen, he said during a news conference called Friday to announce the New Hampshire deal.
In a 1997 interview with the Observer, Smith said he is too invested with the sport's leading circuit to leave it.
"Who has done more to build NASCAR than Bruton Smith?" he asked. "Can you think of anybody? I can't think of anyone."
A relentless passion
As his fortune grew, romance blossomed.
He married Bonita Harris in 1972. She was an interior designer. They met after she bought a car from his Rockford, Ill., dealership.
Bonnie Smith, now his ex-wife, told the Observer recently that she was taken by Smith's intelligence and his sophisticated wardrobe.
"He always finished getting dressed," she said. "French cuffs and windsor-knotted ties, tailored suits and alligator shoes. He's not a tennis-shoe-and-blue-jeans kind of person."
He brought to romance the same persistence that propelled him in business. As he wooed Bonnie, Smith called her every day for seven months, she says.
They divorced in 1990.
A judge in 1991 ordered Smith to pay Bonnie $21 million. (A month earlier, Ivana Trump had won $14 million in cash in her divorce settlement with Donald Trump.)
Both Smiths appealed the ruling, and kept fighting until they reached a $19.4 million settlement in 1994, believed at the time to be the largest of its kind in state history.
Bonnie Smith says today that she and her ex-husband have "a fairly good relationship." They spend holidays and birthdays with their four adult children.
She said she hasn't spoken with him about the possible closure of the Lowe's speedway. She added that he's not one for idle threats.
"If he's decided to have a new dream, he'll go for it."
Loving what he does
Today, Smith, ranks No. 317 on the Forbes 400 list, with a net worth pegged at $1.5 billion.He owns an 11,000-square-foot home in south Charlotte with an assessed tax value of $2.1 million. Scott Smith says his father lives there with his dogs, a big bull mastiff and several German shepherds.
Even though his Sonic Automotive has become one of the nation's largest auto retailers -- with $8 billion in annual revenue -- Smith still reports to work most days at one of his Charlotte dealerships.
Sadler, head of the speedway's children's charity, said Smith's office is a simple room, measuring about 20 feet wide by 20 feet long. It holds a nondescript desk and a couple of chairs, Sadler said. The only hint of luxury is the flat-screen TV Smith uses to track the markets.
Scott Smith, Sonic Automotive's president and chief strategic officer, said his father's office is so close to the showroom floor that customers' children often wander in.
A forceful personality
Smith acts firmly according to his strong sense of right and wrong, friends say. And Diehl, his attorney, says Smith feels wronged by Concord's now-aborted move to block his drag strip.
"It was punitive toward their best corporate citizen," Diehl said. "It made no sense whatsoever."
Diehl and Scott Smith said they don't know what Smith plans to do, but the controversy has brought him new offers he feels duty-bound to evaluate. Smith has said it would cost him about $350 million to shut down Lowe's and build a new track. He has also said he's been exploring upgrades for Lowe's, and that they could cost about $200 million.
The financial gap between the two options would shrink if, as one commercial real estate agent has said, Smith can get $50 million or more from the sale of the Lowe's property.
The extra spending for a new track, Diehl said, might well be worth it to Smith if it meant he didn't have to put up with "borderline irrational behavior" by Concord officials. Scott Smith said his father is studying all his options, as he always does.
Still, some say Smith couldn't seriously be considering launching a new track project at his age.
But Smith shows few signs of slowing down. Last week, he voiced interest in radio station WBT-AM (1110) and other broadcast properties Lincoln Financial may sell.
Asked about retirement Friday, Smith said, "I don't even know what it means."
Diehl said Bruton Smith still has the drive of a man who feels he's got something to prove. Those who feel certain Smith has no intention of closing the speedway could be in for a surprise, the lawyer suggested.
"This guy knows how to play poker. And generally, if he raises you, he ain't bluffing." -- Staff writers Jefferson George and david poole, and staff researcher Marion Paynter contributed.
-- Eric Frazier: 704-358-5145.
Bruton's business in the news
About seven years ago, planning officials in York County, S.C., delayed the opening of a Sonic Automotive car dealership off I-77. They said the company promised to save hundreds of trees and then ripped them down. Smith said he wasn't involved in the dispute. His signature, however, appeared on documents in the county case files.
In 2003, the Tennessee county that hosts Bristol Motor Speedway was considering raising money through an entertainment tax that would apply to race tickets. After Smith threatened to pull his NASCAR races from the track, Sullivan County leaders backed away from the idea.
In 2004, Smith got into a public name-calling match with Charlotte and Mecklenburg leaders over whether they had given him permission to cut down hundreds of trees that the track had promised to save.
In 2006, N.C. Attorney General Roy Cooper announced Sonic Automotive would reform sales practices at its six Charlotte-area stores, ending a state investigation launched after a 2003 hidden-camera expose by "Dateline NBC." Sonic did not admit any wrongdoing, but said it would refund almost $1 million to thousands of customers it charged for a warranty they did not request; limit the fee it charges to arrange a car loan; and improve the way employees explain pricing to customers.