After amassing his fortune on cars -- selling them and building places to race them -- Charlotte billionaire Bruton Smith shows no signs of slowing down.
Between the Sprint All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600, his Lowe's Motor Speedway is the epicenter of NASCAR this month. Work continues on a dragway that sparked a tussle with the city of Concord last fall and will host its first major races in September.
Along with Speedway Motorsports' seven major tracks -- counting one in New Hampshire bought this year -- Smith's empire includes Sonic Automotive, a Fortune 500 outfit with 166 dealerships nationwide. He hopes to add another prominent dealer, Beck Imports of Charlotte, to the fold this year.
Both Speedway Motorsports and Sonic Automotive have been touched by the current economic slump.
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Smith, 81, remains confident. He manages his companies from a 12-by-14-foot office at Town and Country Ford on Independence Boulevard. On the walls hang American Indian art, a few plaques and a flat-screen TV for tracking stocks.
Comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. What's the state of the racing industry today?
Pretty good. I've been in this ever since I've been an adult.
The thing we've done -- NASCAR shares some guilt here -- is sterilize the sport too much.
In March of last year, Jeff Gordon got out of his car and pushed another driver, and they fined him 10 grand. I'd have given him an award. That's what we need.
Our sport was built on people showing some emotion. We've got to have that. We've got to have drama. I think NASCAR has been getting away from hurriedly trying to fine somebody because they showed some emotion, and that's good.
The best thing that could happen is if four or five drivers get out of the cars and had a fist fight. If that happened, I'd have to hire more ticket sellers out there for the race. We need more of that.
Q. Is this related to NASCAR's struggle to hold onto its Southern roots while expanding to new markets?
I think it is. We're still Southern, but I'm in business in about 24 states, and every place I go, they love our sport. I'll be in California in June for our races at Infineon, and we'll have people from Portland, Ore., and Canada. They love these race drivers.
There are two big things that happened. The biggest was when R.J. Reynolds came into our sport. They taught us a lot. I learned more from them than anybody on marketing.
The second was when I took racing to Wall Street. It wasn't just employees of a manufacturing facility coming out to our sport. The owners started coming. We just got people from all walks of life.
I remember one time there was a big story in National Geographic. I thought, gee whiz, who would have thought we would ever end up there?
Q. Who's your favorite driver?
Depends on what day it is.
I have a great neighbor, Jimmie Johnson. And, of course, Jeff Gordon's going to soon be my neighbor. Jeff has been a good friend for a long time. I know him and his dad, and I've met his wife.
Q. Are you still interested in buying the National Hot Rod Association?
I had a strong interest, and after things slow down after this month, I'm sure we'll probably be talking again.
I like drag racing. It's the one motorsport that we can say is really growing. We've made a big commitment. Maybe one of these days we'll be able to accomplish something. But so far so good.
Q. What's been the key in Speedway Motorsports becoming what it is now?
I don't know that we've ever had a plan. I like what we do in motorsports, and I like growing a business. If we can't grow it, it becomes very dull. I don't want to be dull. I like to be exciting.
In two major companies, we have about 15,000 employees, and every chance I get to address them, I say, "Have fun."
Q. How has the economy affected Speedway Motorsports?
I'm very satisfied. Bristol was sold out, Las Vegas was sold out. Overall, I give it an "A."
If I was looking at the biggest culprit, I would say the price of gasoline. I'm hoping our president will do something about it.
Maybe we could incentivize these small companies to reopen oil wells that were closed when it was $10 a barrel. I've owned oil wells. We weren't doing very well at that point. The best months, we made a lousy $39,000 dollars. I thought, "This is the oil business?"
Or we can go off the coast of North Carolina. We already know there's oil out there. We've got some people who say "Oh, we'll kill some fish." How many? 10? 100? We've already built a lot of these platforms out in the ocean, and the fish seem to breed naturally and are fine.
In Washington, we've got some people who are not worthy of their positions. If you give me a few days to go up there and fire a bunch of them and put some more people into place, I think we can solve this thing.
Q. Why don't you charge for parking, and why do you allow people to bring their own food and drink to races?
We started that way. If you change that, it would be like slapping these race fans in the face with a wet diaper.
Another thing, when you're stopping people to collect for parking, that slows up your traffic, and our desire is to get everybody parked.
Let's suppose you traveled 300 miles, and you get there and there's a big line for parking. I don't think we ought to irritate these fans any more than we already are.
Q. How is the economy affecting Sonic Automotive?
For five years in a row, it was the fastest growing company on the New York Stock Exchange. You can't keep up with that, but I was very pleased with that.
We've seen a bit less business with the vehicles that burn too much gasoline. It's only been in the last two months at the most.
I have very few domestic dealerships. We've had several record months in other parts of the country, particularly in Texas. Then you go to California and say, "What happened here?" Right now, I would not want to own a domestic dealership in California.
We're very big in BMW, Mercedes, Honda. We're selling, and it's great. I think we're just kind of lucky at this point in time.
Q. How did Sonic get so big?
I was not trying to keep up (with other companies). I enjoy negotiating and buying businesses. I've bought hundreds of businesses, hundreds of businesses. I've bought as many as 33 at one time. I enjoy that challenge of competing.
The biggest thing that gives me personal satisfaction is that I've made a lot of people a lot of money. I've made hundreds of people millionaires. That, to me, is something I was able to give back, because life has been so doggone good to me.
Q. Any good piece of advice that helped you?
My mom, she was a very strong member of the church. She taught all of us that you're judged by the company you keep. Oh, did she drill that in our head. I took that as serious as you'd expect anybody to do.
Q. Forbes magazine said you're a billionaire. What's it like being a billionaire?
I don't pay any attention to it. I honestly do not. I've lived basically like anybody else -- two or three meals a day, sleep primarily in one bed. I didn't even talk to them. They just find out the public information they can.
They don't know my net worth. I don't know my net worth. I don't know that I live differently than 20 years ago.
Titles: Chairman and CEO of Sonic Automotive; chairman and CEO of Speedway Motorsports.
Net Worth: Forbes magazine, in its annual ranking of billionaires, placed Smith's net worth at $1.2 billion, making him 962nd on this year's list.
2007 compensation: Roughly $4.4 million; $2.6 million from Sonic Automotive, almost 13 percent more than in 2006; $1.8 million from Speedway Motorsports, down 11 percent from 2006.
Company performance: Shares in Sonic Automotive dropped more than 30 percent from early January 2007 to Dec. 31. Shares in Speedway Motorsports dropped more than 19 percent over the same period.