CHARLOTTE, N.C. - O. Bruton Smith is a billionaire racing mogul and the founder of the nation's third-largest dealership group, Sonic Automotive Inc.
He has luxury suites and condos available at a half-dozen speedways across the country. Yet he works out of a modest office at Town and Country Ford, a few minutes' walk from Sonic headquarters here.
"That's where he's most comfortable," said Jeffrey Rachor, who steps down this week as Sonic president. "His door is always open. He's here every day. He's accessible to everybody, from associates to customers to vendors. He is a huge believer in people."
Although he has positioned his son Scott to run the company some day, Bruton remains CEO of the dealership group he assembled and took public in 1997.
In a rare interview, the 80-year-old patriarch described his business philosophy and reflected on his eventful life.
A reporter asked Smith for his idea of a perfect day. Smith looked out his window onto the parking lot. The weather was sunny and mild. Behind his desk, a TV silently broadcast
CNBC, which he keeps on all day.
"Today," Smith said. "Today's a perfect day. Look how beautiful it is. Gorgeous. Wonderful. Fantastic. The stock market's up, and I enjoy playing the stock market. I enjoy that more than I would if I was playing golf, 'cause I don't play golf."
The day before, the market had plunged more than 500 points. But to Smith, not even that constituted a bad day.
"It was for other people, but it wasn't for me," Smith said. "It afforded opportunities for me, because I understand the market. I've been doing it for 35 years, and I think I know it more than the average bear off the street. Been there. Done that."
He started in the business as a teenager, selling used cars from his front yard. He bought his first race car at age 17.
As a teen, he started promoting races on dirt tracks. He later headed the National Stock Car Racing Association, an early rival of NASCAR. In 1959, Smith formed a partnership with race car driver Curtis Turner to open Charlotte Motor Speedway. The speedway went bankrupt two years later, and Smith returned to car sales.
Smith first sold cars at Frontier Ford in Rockford, Ill., then bought his first dealership in 1969. He began acquiring more dealerships, and he regained control of his old speedway in 1975. Over the next three decades, Smith built his racetrack operation, Speedway Motorsports Inc., into a motorsports empire.
He owns Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte and five other racetracks. But the dealerships remain his big moneymaker.
Smith says he considered taking his dealerships public in the 1980s but put it off. To get ready for the 1997 stock offering, Smith swept up 15 dealerships in four months, spending $100.7 million to add to the five stores he already owned.
"I was just tickled to death when we did go public," he said. "I just thought it was the absolute wave of the future. These things require so much money today that you almost have to go public. Or you have to have eight or 10 rich uncles that pass away and leave you a huge inheritance."
Spreading the wealth
Smith doesn't flaunt his wealth, but he doesn't hide it, either. He is No. 618 on the Forbes list of the world's wealthiest people. The magazine estimates his net worth at $1.6 billion.
Smith said he enjoys watching other people prosper in business.
"I have made many, many, many people millionaires, and I'm very proud of that," he said. "I've put people in dealerships who had no money. They never, ever expected to have any money."
Smith comes across as warm and witty. He even describes himself as "huggable." But he is also tenacious. He had a very public legal dispute a few years ago with the France family, which controls NASCAR, over Nextel Cup race dates for his Texas Motor Speedway.
Smith eventually got the dates he sought, but at a price. Smith agreed to buy a racetrack in North Carolina from International Speedway Corp., a rival company controlled by the France family.
Smith regularly keeps company with power brokers, celebrities and politicians. Once during a race, he personally sold a Mustang convertible to Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Another of Smith's friends, director John Lasseter, used a digitally enlarged Bristol Motor Speedway in Virginia as the model for the Motor Speedway of the South in the opening scene of the Pixar movie Cars. The film debuted at Lowe's.
In its early years, Sonic was one of the nation's fastest-growing companies. It has slowed in recent years to concentrate more on fine-tuning operations. But Smith said he's in a buying mood again.
"Bruton only knows one way to think, and that's big," Rachor said.
Automotive News interviewed Smith two weeks before Rachor announced his departure to become CEO of auto parts retailer Pep Boys. Scott Smith succeeds Rachor.
Bruton Smith credits Rachor with assembling a good team to run Sonic.
"He has put together a family that is fabulous," Smith said. "There's only two things in this business: money and people. So I kind of put it over on Jeff to be sure we had people. It was me and others who would be sure we had plenty of money. As long as we've got those two factors, then we can continue this growth."
Added Smith: "We're not bumping our head on the ceiling. There's tremendous opportunity for us. I love that. I love being part of something that is as awesome as this is."
You may e-mail Leslie J. Allen at [email protected]