The inimitable Bruton Smith....and once again why isn't he in the NASCAR Hall of Fame? Maybe he's just too outspoken and outrageous (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Is there still one more legendary campaign to be launched, one more great hurrah, one more really, really big, big NASCAR project?
Well, Bruton Smith, unlike a lot of people in this sport, still has that fire in the belly. So what can we find to pique his interest....
"I just like the sport," he says. "I've been a part of it since I was eight years old."
And Smith's love of the outrageous is just as strong.
How about a pre-race show featuring drivers throwing helmets? Tony Stewart's anger management moment at Bristol drew a perfect helmet shot on Matt Kenseth's car. Maybe there's marketing potential here...
Maybe throw in some Top Shot' twists, like spinning the drivers before they can throw, or having them throw while riding a merry-go-round or Ferris Wheel. Think there is one of those over in Eddie Gossage's No Limits garage.
"We need more helmet-throwing. I like that idea of a helmet throwing contest," Smith ponders.
"I'll be we could have gotten $10,000 for Tony's Bristol helmet in a charity."
Bruton Smith, as Uncle Sam, or is that Santa Claus? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Back again here for another pre-race warm-up gig, Smith, who owns this track and Las Vegas, Bristol, Charlotte, Sonoma, Atlanta, New Hampshire and Kentucky, and would like to buy a couple more for his stock car racing portfolio, was both predictably outrageous and brutally honest here.
The snapshot bullet points:
-- The state of racing in NASCAR: Smith says it needs to be "more exciting." How? "Slow the cars down." And? Mandatory six caution flags per race, like TV timeouts.
-- Any interest in buying the Indy-car series, to save that struggling tour? Nope. Smith was very interested in doing that, including Indianapolis Motor Speedway in the package, a few years ago. But no longer. The sense here: Let Indy-car die.
-- NASCAR's Truck series? Smith says bluntly "It just doesn't work." And he questions whether that series can even survive.
-- What does Smith think about that new NASCAR TV package?
Fox has signed for its 13 Cup races including the Daytona 500, through 2022, and NASCAR continues negotiations with NBC and ABC/ESPN. The Fox package is for about $23 million a race weekend (which compares with the new National Football League TV package, which will give the NFL about $300 million a game weekend).
"I don't know if I'm happy with the package. We're hoping NASCAR will rethink how it shares the TV money. Too much goes to Daytona... and we've talked about that."
Bristol: awesome speedway, great racing, but outrageous hotel bills. And that's not the only place where NASCAR promoters maybe ought to pressure politicians for anti-gouging laws. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- The race weekend price tag for NASCAR fans and families is increasingly outrageous, largely because of travel expense, particularly hotel rooms. So why don't NASCAR promoters go to their state capitals and persuade legislators to pass anti-gouging laws to protect fans from usury hotel rates?
Don't fans really need cheaper hotel rooms, and wouldn't that be a big plus for Sprint Cup attendance? "You're right," Smith concedes.
"Bristol -- I love Bristol. But have you been tested up there with a hotel room? It's amazing how they gouge the people.
"But you the media have more power in that regard than we do."
-- BTW, those mid-summer track changes at Bristol, after a disappointing crowd for the spring race? "Bristol is leading everybody on ticket sales," Smith boasts. "That tells me they liked what they saw.
"But if we need to tweak it, we will."
-- Any worries about the new Austin Formula 1 race stealing attention from his own 1-1/2-mile oval monster here on the north Texas plains? Not a bit: "Formula One has never been anything in this country. Go back as far as you want to and check it.
"Formula One has never worked in this country. They had one in Phoenix years ago.....the same day as an ostrich race, and the ostriches drew more people."
Guess Bernie Ecclestone isn't on Bruton's Christmas card list....
Bruton Smith has been at this racing gig since he was eight years old. So when he speaks, it's with authority....and sometimes wildly tongue-in-cheek humor (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
It's been more than 50 years since Smith promoted his first NASCAR race, and yet he's still on the warpath.
And this track, on the north Texas plains, is smack-dab in the middle of one humongous interstate highway construction zone.
"I'll bet there is more highway construction going on in Texas than in any five other states," Smith says proudly. "This construction around here is awesome. I like it. It will make our race traffic a lot better.
"When I bought this place, it was a two-lane road. I said 'We've got to do something,' and they did."
The highway right in front of Texas Motor Speedway is a NAFTA highway, "runs all the way to Mexico."
Then, tongue firmly in cheek, he rips off:
"When I see a Truck, I think it ought to be hauling something. Maybe to enhance this Truck racing, maybe we can put a 200 pound hog in the back.
"We could build a nice harness for him, strap him down.
"And at 'halftime,' if you're leading, we can split the hog.
"That would be very exciting for the fans, and the crew members.
"PETA? I don't think they've ever seen anything liked.
"And if we put a hog in that truck, it would be exciting.
"Help me sell this to NASCAR: 'Put a hog in the Truck.'"
This was after Friday night's Truck race here...in real wild West trucking country, where state law requires everyone to own a pickup.
Let's see, if NASCAR mandated these Trucks carry a 200-pound hog in the back bed, would it have to be strapped down with a HAMS device? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Smith, deadly serious, says the Truck series "needs some help.
"It's hard to sell Truck racing.
"We didn't run a Truck race at New Hampshire this season, because we couldn't draw enough people.
"They (NASCAR) have elevated that series to where it just doesn't work."
Will the Truck series survive?
"I guess they could force it," Smith says. "Sometimes people are just so eager to run an event that they would actually lose money. I've never understood that."
Do all Smith's NASCAR events make money? "If they don't, then we don't run them."
Did Smith make money on the Friday night Truck race here? "I don't know. Ask me Monday."
Smith says NASCAR racing needs more fireworks....on the track, not just over it (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Smith certainly isn't happy generally with the shape of competition on NASCAR tracks this season. "I think we can do better."
April's 500 here was decidedly boring, and that event focused considerable attention on the decline of the good ol' bump-and-run and hard, angry rubbing in this sport this season....a decline that has continued with way too many gas mileage races.
"We can make the racing more exciting," Smith says firmly.
"I think the racing would be more competitive if we'd slow the cars down, if they were running 10 to 15 mph slower. There would be more action, more rubbing, more racing. That would be the first thing.
"And I think in our sanctioning agreements we ought to have a mandatory six caution flags during each race. Like football's TV timeouts."
When Smith earlier this year first proposed such TV timeouts for Sprint Cup races, the suggestion was curtly dismissed by Brian France, almost derisively.
Texas puts on some of Indy-car's greatest racing, but Bruton Smith doesn't speak very highly of the series (Photo: Texas Motor Speedway)
-- Smith isn't interested in the Indy-car series, not a bit. That may be surprising, considering this track has boasted some of the best Indy-car races in history. That may be surprising too in that seven or eight years ago Smith was quite interested in buying the Indy-car series, to the point of serious discussions with then-boss Tony George.
Not any more, though. The family that owns the namesake track and the series is apparently too fickle to do much business with.
The future of the Indy-car series has been put in doubt with the family's firing of Indy-car CEO Randy Bernard, for reasons not all that clear.
The popular Bernhard has worked to try to revive the Indy-car series two years now, and just put Pocono back on the calendar.
Now there appears to be some fan backlash at Bernhard's firing.
Smith himself says he's just not paying that much attention to the struggles of the Indy-car series.
"No sir, I'm not," Smith says, rather curtly. "I thought maybe we'd give time for the dust to settle and they might come up with something.
"They could stand an awful lot....but I'm just going to sit back and see what happens next."
Would Smith be interested in buying Indy-car? What would he do if he were to buy Indy-car?
"If you'd called me and asked that question eight or 10 years ago, I'd have said 'Yes, I'm in the market, I want to buy it,'" Smith says.
"But now, no.
"What was built there, what was there (at Indianapolis) in the eyes of the world, they've torn it down.
"What do you want to do -- spend $1 billion to build it back? That's not much fun.
"If I owned it, and if I wanted to make quick changes, I'd change the car. I'd want to think of the race fans first, and the advertisers."
Perhaps the Indy-car series simply needs a wide-open promoter, a guy who could pump things up....like Texas' own Eddie Gossage?
Would Smith consider putting Eddie Gossage in charge of Indy-car if he were to buy it?
Gossage is one of racing's most successful and innovative promoters, and boss of Texas Motor Speedway.
"Oh, no, no. I like Eddie," Smith said with a laugh. "Now if I disliked him enough..."
When Eddie Gossage (L) and Bruton Smith (R) go nose to nose on an issue, maybe it is better to stay out of the line of fire, as Las Vegas' Chris Powell (C) figures (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- The heart of this sport, Smith says, is drivers rubbing fenders, hard, and more: "I wish we had a couple more drivers who had a mean streak. It would add a great deal to what we do if we had more drama. Maybe a driver, when he gets out of the car at the end of the race, he hits somebody.
Well, looks like Denny Hamlin, for one, may be taking that to heart, considering that run-in with Austin Dillon late in Saturday night's Nationwide race here.
"Some of the things NASCAR has done over the years have proven to be great," Smith went on. "Double-file restarting is one of the greatest things.
"But we can do better, and we need to work at it diligently."
What exactly is missing?
"Maybe they're not as eager," Smith says of the drivers.
"Look at Bristol -- if you're a race driver, when you go to Bristol, you have a lot of friends....and when you leave you don't have any friends.
"That's racing. That's the way racing ought to be.
"That's what's missing. We used to have a lot of that....a lot.
"I think A.J. Foyt started that. He'd beat you on the track, and then when he got back to the pit area, he'd get out and whip you again.
"We need some more drama...fisticuffs or whatever. Let the drivers express themselves."
Well, that hasn't worked that well, it could be argued, for Kurt and Kyle Busch.
Smith concedes as much.
"I see where they're promoting Kurt Busch as 'Outlaw.' I hope that comes off alright...but right now I'm wondering about that. Is that going to do Kurt Busch harm?
"He is a talented driver. And sometimes I think we make too much of what he says."
Bruton Smith 'fixed' Bristol. Can he help fix NASCAR? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
-- Fixing NASCAR?
"Maybe we're running some races we shouldn't run," Smith says.
But Smith didn't really clarify his thinking on this point.
Do the chase playoffs work for the sport or against it? Drivers fret that some are 'gaming' the sport by stroking for points just to make the playoffs, preferring not to make mistakes rather than gambling for a win.
However Smith insists "I think the chase has been good for the sport, I really do."
-- The symbiosis between NASCAR and Detroit -- Sunday racing and Monday sales -- is front-and-center these days, particularly with the 2013 push by the two powers.
And Smith himself is more than just a big NASCAR track owner/promoter. He also is one of the country's biggest car dealers. "We sold some 240,000 last year, and this year we're going to sell 300,000." His Sonic Automotive (NYSE: SAH) is a Fortune 500 company with some 15,000 employees.
So when pressed about the 'car culture' gap in the current generation of males 18-29 -- read THIS, Smith insists he's not worried. "Week before last we had the GoodGuys car show in Charlotte, and had about 3,000 cars on display.
"And I saw more and more young people out there looking at what was on display. So maybe that is coming back.
"I don't think we'll ever get away from 'the car, the car, the car.'"
Remember when cars were king, and car culture was big in America? Bruton Smith says the turnout for his car show at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago shows cars are still hot stuff (Photo: Charlotte Motor Speedway)
-- On a quite different note:
While the Hurricane Sandy disaster is filled with tragedy and heartbreak, and a rebuilding game plan has yet to be put into play, it should be noted perhaps that Florida's Hurricane Andrew in 1992 proved the spark of opportunity for the building of Homestead-Miami Speedway as part of the recovery effort.
While it might be unlikely for Sandy to lead to any such NASCAR reconstruction project, it could be noted that not so long ago New Jersey and New York politicians were eagerly courting Smith to bring a big stock car speedway to that part of the world. And remember fellow speedway boss Lesa France Kennedy and her $110 million bid to construct a three-quarter-mile Richmond track on Staten Island.
NASCAR has long lusted after the New York City market. But the closest it plays is Pocono Raceway, 90 minutes west of Manhattan, and the Pocono crowd is typically non-New Yorker.
Might Hurricane Sandy and long-term recovery projects offer any opening for this sport?
Remember the proposed New York City Speedway on Staten Island....(Image: ISC)
Smith offers this big picture NYC-market recap:
"My first venture up there was about five years ago. Long Island, where they offered to give me 4,000 acres of land. Because the government had given it to the city, and the city gave me a phone call.
"I'd never been up there...left the hotel (in downtown New York City) and the driver took me out there. It took us 55 minutes out there. I quickly figured out that the most people you can get out there for a race would be about 20,000...so I folded the tent and came home.
"My next one was with the then governor of New Jersey, Christine Whitman. I had five meetings with her. I was looking at Atlantic City. Lost $100,000 on that. I signed for a piece of property, an old horse track that I was going to tear down to build a speedway.
"We ran into an asbestos problem. It would cost us $5 million to remove all the asbestos. We ran from that.
"Then the governor said she wanted me to buy the Meadowlands. The state was losing $15 million a year running the Meadowlands. I wanted to look at the Giants' contract. Took me four months to get a copy, which made me highly suspicious. And when I read it, the Giants emphatically controlled it all, and you couldn't build anything without their permission. So we had to go home again. The Giants would have never allowed us to build a speedway there.
"The next thing was Staten Island. I was there three times. And it was obvious it was a mess, as far as trying to comply with all the rules. But I could have bought it for $55 million. I have never understood why someone else would have paid $110 million for it.
"It's back on the market now, for $80 million. And, no, I'm not interested...."
Which may bring this whole discussion back full circle: Does this sport need new leadership? People who can come up with big ideas, people who can knock home runs?
"Yes, I agree," Smith says slowly, a smile broadening.
"Take this crazy idea about the hogs. I know it's way out...but just imagine that we did it. It would be a whale of a success. I'd buy a ticket to see that. Wouldn't you?"
Bruton Smith's bumper sticker?