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Family, loved ones and admirers of Bruton Smith paid their final respects to the businessman and NASCAR Hall of Famer on Thursday. He dedicated his life to speedways and improving the racing experience for fans everywhere.
Smith died June 22 of natural causes. He was 95.
He is survived by sons Marcus, Scott and David, daughter Anna Lisa, their mother Bonnie Smith as well as seven grandchildren.
The service for Smith — the Charlotte Speedway builder, race promoter and billionaire auto dealer — was held at Central Church of God and was a celebration of the life of the Oakboro native and Charlotte resident. While photos of Smith with his family, friends and colleagues filled the church, hundreds poured in to pay their respects to the racing icon.
Under the guidance of choir director Dennis Livingston, the Central Church Choir’s soft hymns started the 1 p.m. service. More than two dozen flower bouquets lined the front of the church as the choir stood shoulder-to-shoulder, below an illuminated cross mounted on the wall.
NASCAR team owner and former NFL coach Joe Gibbs was one of three service speakers. He recalled sitting at the Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 and thinking, ”How could someone dream of something like this? And then make it happen.”
“It tells you something about the legendary drive that Bruton had,” Gibbs said. “God made Bruton. He watched all that he did on Earth. And I wouldn’t be surprised if he is sitting with God and telling him about the new project he wants to do.”
Bill Evans, a Charlotte business owner and former Jaguar car salesman, said before the service he found Smith’s life and career “unbelievable.”
“To come from a small Carolina town and amassing all the accomplishments that he did. It’s not just the money. Look at all he did in building a world-class motor speedway and automobile dealership,” Evans said.
Bruton Smith’s life, business
A lover of people, racing and charity, Smith founded and was CEO of Speedway Motorsports, Inc., which owns and operates 11 tracks across the country, including Charlotte Motor Speedway. His Sonic Automotive Group ranks among the nation’s biggest auto dealerships.
He founded Speedway Children’s Charities in 1982 in memory of his late son Bruton Cameron Smith, who died as a child. Since its inception, Speedway Children’s Charities has distributed more than $61 million to improve the quality of life for children in need.
Smith played a major role in transforming American motorsports into the consumer-friendly product it is today. For his lifetime of dedication and innovation, he was inducted to both the NASCAR Hall of Fame (2016) and the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (2007). A year before his NASCAR Hall of Fame induction, he overcame a case of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and was deemed healthy after surgery during the summer of 2015.
As a young man, Smith thought he’d be a racer. To the delight of his mother, those ambitions did not last long. Instead, he moved to the business side of sports and promoted his first race while still a teenager.
Years later he partnered with Curtis Turner in 1959 to build his first permanent motorsports facility, the Charlotte Motor Speedway, which would come to host NASCAR’s longest race at 600 miles. He lost the speedway eight years later due to financial reasons, but managed to get it back in 1975.
“He made an extraordinary impact on the industry and lived such an impressive life,” David Morton, a member of the North Carolina Motorsports Association, said before the service Thursday. “It was important for me to come and pay my respects to him.”
Gibbs, NASCAR Hall of Famer and executive Jim France and Rick Hendrick, a businessman who’s a NASCAR team owner and founder of Hendrick Automotive Group, all delivered words of remembrance during the hourlong service. After Pastor Livingston led the congregation in signing “Amazing Grace,” France spoke first, remembering his friend’s “full and well-lived life.”
“I think we all hope that our time on Earth is of meaning and purpose, and will make a positive difference in the lives of our families, friends, folks we work with, our country and society. Bruton checked all those boxes,” France said. “Bruton was a builder. He built successful businesses. He helped build our sport. And along the way, he helped a lot of families build better lives.”
France said Smith is one of the pioneers of NASCAR. He helped grow it from its “humble southern roots” to a major league, national sport.
Hendrick followed France and discussed his friendship with the Smith family. Hendrick spoke about his deep love for Smith, rooted in their farm boy upbringing and obsessive passion for cars and racing.
“When you think of the things Bruton accomplished, they are unbelievable and we will remember them forever,” Hendrick said. “What people don’t realize about Bruton is that he had a rough edge but a big heart.”
Logos for Charlotte Motor Speedway and Sonic Automotive Group during the funeral service Thursday stood beside Smith’s casket, which was topped with a collection of white roses and lilies. More than two dozen flower bouquets lined the front of Central Church.
As a rendition of “I Can Only Imagine” by soloist David Culberson concluded, Smith’s casket was carried out of the church by pallbearers Bryan Smith, Marcus Smith, David Smith, Scott Smith, Wyatt Smith and William Brooks.