Bruton Smith: does he ever lose a battle of wits? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Bruton Smith is a work of art. Glad I don't have to battle with him over big dollar deals; he'd eat my lunch.
Pick a topic, any topic, and Bruton will give you an opinion.
Well, most any topic. But he doesn't do 'no comment' very easily.
And trying to trip him up, or slow him down, or just keep up with him, isn't easy.
He put on another display here Saturday afternoon. As the crowd rolled into Kentucky Speedway for the evening's Kentucky 400, Smith was the epitome of Mr. Cool, with those new designer shades, against the relentless 100-plus degree sun baking this place.
Yes, race day here this year, compared to a year ago, Smith says is much more relaxed for him. "We don't have traffic backed up from here to Cincinnati...
"We are totally, totally ready for this. Everyone has worked really hard to get us where we are, and I'm very pleased with what they've done."
Bruton Smith's Legends Cars....somewhere in Russia? (Photo: CMS)
This is a busy part of the NASCAR season for Smith, with Charlotte, Sonoma, Kentucky and New Hampshire in quick succession.
And then there's the sideline racing he does -- Legend Cars, those half-size replicas of classic American racers of the 1930s and 1940s, which are produced in a huge shop on the backside of Charlotte Motor Speedway and distributed around the world.
Would you believe a Legends race in Russia, on a snow-packed track, just four weeks ago?
And Smith quickly whips out pictures to prove it. "Russia is our biggest customer."
"It was 22 degrees below zero....three and a half feet of snow...and they wanted to race. They machined the snow off a quartermile, studded the tires, and dropped the green."
Stumping Smith, or beating him in a duel of wits?
-- President Obama and the Democratic Convention are coming to Charlotte in early September. But the planned kickoff shindig at Charlotte Motor Speedway was just cancelled, for some reason.
"I have no idea why," Smith says. "I didn't talk to anybody, and I don't know anything.
"But it's okay....there was a cancellation clause in the contract."
Smith smiles. So he's making money on the deal anyway....
Politicians love Bruton Smith and NASCAR, especially in an election year. Maybe Smith can leverage some of that love into major league construction improvements on Interstate-71 with Governor Steve Beshears' support (Photo: KS)
-- Speaking of politicians, will Mitt Romney be coming up to New Hampshire Motor Speedway for the July 15th NASCAR weekend?
Noncommittal: "We'll have a governor's breakfast on Friday, and there will be some politicians there.
"I don't know if Mitt will be there or not; depends on his schedule."
Smith says Romney will certainly be at one of Smith's tracks this season (Bristol is Aug. 25th, Atlanta is Sept. 2, New Hampshire has a second NASCAR weekend Sept. 23rd, Charlotte is Oct. 13th, and Texas is Nov. 4th).
"Sure, sure," Smith says. "I've known Mitt for a couple of years, and I've enjoyed sitting and talking with him. A very fine man...."
Smith, of course, is a big-league Republican, and he won't even give Obama credit for the huge, multi-billion-dollar highway construction projects in the Fort Worth/Dallas area, where Smith's Texas Motor Speedway is a major attraction. "I'll bet you that's $20 billion in highway projects...I've never seen so much of it," Smith says.
Considering that one of the big traffic problems here, on the south side of Cincinnati, is Interstate-71, particularly the one-lane junction with Interstate-75, maybe Smith ought to be talking to Obama about some highway construction funds for this neck of the woods. After all, Kentucky governor Steve Beshear is a democrat...
Smith agrees that the I-75/I-71 split 15 miles north of the track is a Malfunction Junction that bogs down race day traffic.
"I-71 is, in my opinion, the worst Interstate highway I've ever traveled. Twenty years ago it should have been four-lanes in both directions.
"There is huge traffic on 71, and a lot of truck traffic."
The rolling hills here, similar to bad stretches of I-20 between Talladega Superspeedway and Birmingham, bog down the 18-wheelers and turn the road into basically a two-lane highway
A decidedly different view of Bruton Smith's Las Vegas Motor Speedway: the electric daisy carnival, three nights of, well, wonder just what does go on over in the Cosmic Meadow? (Photo: LVMS)
-- If Bruton Smith were President, what would he do to get the unemployment rate down and get the economy really rolling?
One quick answer the long-running attendance issues at NASCAR tracks is to blame the problems on the weak economy.
"Cut taxes. That's always worked," Smith responds.
"Let's start with who hires people. This stuff that Obama's been doing, this stimulus package, that's the government hiring people; you don't want that, you want to encourage corporations to hire.
"I've got 15,000 employees...."
-- New Hampshire politicians just shot down a bill to authorize casinos in that state; across the border in Massachusetts, casinos are coming, and that could cut into New Hampshire's economy. And New Hampshire governor John Lynch (also a Democrat) will be at that track breakfast race weekend....
Smith has applied for one of those gaming licenses, with plans to build a hotel-casino near New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
"That will come up again," Smith says. "And eventually it will probably be approved.
"But I'm not going to lose sleep over it. I'm not a casino operator; I won't operate that...but I like those hotel rooms.
"You know if you want to go to Las Vegas, that city has 150,000 hotel rooms...."
Kentucky Speedway: in the rolling hills of northern Kentucky (Photo: KS)
-- Las Vegas Motor Speedway is one of NASCAR's many 1-1/2-mile speedways, and some of the racing at those tracks has been, well, boring.
Smith insists it's not a problem specific to 1-1/2-mile tracks.
"Don't say 'it's the speedway,'" Smith insists. "Bull-crap.
"What we've got is a tire problem. We have a lot of different problems. But it's not the speedways."
In fact last weekend's race at Smith's Sonoma road course could back Smith's point. The Sonoma race, which drivers had worried would be the meanest race of the season, a Martinsville on steroids, was rather boring till the final laps, with drivers more concerned about conserving their tire wear and saving gas rather than good ol' root-and-gouging racing.
Drivers seem to be gaming the points system and distracted from hard action.
"I've been promised (by Goodyear) a softer tire for the August race," Smith says. "We need that.
"And we need caution flags. I don't care what you call it, but we need those caution flags, because that adds excitement. You can't just sit there and sit there with nothing happening.
"That ruins the event; it's damaging to our sport."
So Smith is calling again for periodic cautions, perhaps like football's TV timeouts, to keep races from becoming snooze fests.
"Look at some other sports, that have mandatory time outs," Smith goes on. "We need to be creative in our sport."
A TV Timeout every 100 miles or so?
"Call it what you want, but we've got to have caution flags," Smith says.
"One of the great things NASCAR has are the double-file restarts. We need to see more of those dual restarts; and not just two or three, but you need 8 or 10 of them."
Another possible solution to boring racing, Smith says, is to slow the speed of these cars. Friday night another track record was broken. The faster speeds not only create problems for Goodyear but also lead to less side-by-side racing.
"Slower speeds -- I'd be in favor of that," Smith says.
Has Smith talked with Brian France and Lesa France Kennedy about all that?
"Not in the last week or so," Smith quipped.
More cautions, more double-file restarts, Smith says, are sorely needed in this sport.
"It adds to the show....and someone once said we're in show business.
"Let's deliver that show.
"Right now, we're not."
-- The Indy-car world is in some turmoil right now. The Indianapolis 500 this year was one of the best in history, but then the following week's stop in Detroit was a disaster, with broken asphalt. And at Texas Motor Speedway the next week, drivers rather openly griped about having to race on a track that size, in light of Dan Wheldon's death at Las Vegas last fall.
The Texas track, long an Indy-car tour fixture, has had some of the most exciting open-wheel races ever. But this summer's race may well be the last for the tour, which has been arguing with Smith's track boss Eddie Gossage.
What is Smith's thinking about the Indy-car tour, overall and at Texas?
What is Smith's basic relationship with the Indy-car world at the moment? "Strained," he says.
Will the Indy-car tour return to Texas in 2013?
"I'm leaving that up to Eddie; I've told him I don't care one way or the other...and I'm thinking Eddie may be getting to that point too."
Gossage says he's been considering a NASCAR Truck-Nationwide double-header next year in early June if Indy-car doesn't return.
"That would work," Smith says slowly, adding "but it wouldn't work the way I'd want it to work.
"We just had an event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway -- we sold 345,000 tickets, three weeks before the event. I've never seen anything like that in my life. That's 115,000 people each night for three nights in a row.
"Now that's an event. That's an event to write about."
The Electric Daisy Carnival.... http://electricdaisycarnival.com/
It's an electronic dance music festival.
"You can't duplicate that...but there are a lot of other things we could be doing," Smith says.
"Convertible racing. Cut the tops off these things, and let the fans see what the drivers are really doing.
"I've probably produced more convertible races than anyone ever, and I always drew some of my biggest crowds."
-- The Indy-car world, Smith says, needs better leadership.
"They need somebody who can provide leadership. The people up there right now have a group of drivers in control and a group of car owners in control, and all those factions screw up everything.
"It would be great if somebody took over, scrapped everything and started over."
Like Tony George?
So if Bruton Smith were head of the Indy-car tour, what would he do to fix things?
"I'd have a different car," Smith says bluntly.
"I'd like to have a car out there I can see....with a number I can read.
"Who's in those cars?"
So, really here, Smith doesn't love Indy-cars in general, for a number of reasons?
"I don't love them as much as I should," he says pointedly.
"It would take an awfully lot to get it back to where it was."
Yes, Marcus, sometimes that's the only thing to do with Bruton: just listen (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)