SMI founder drag racing’s best friend

Vacation” and “retirement” are words not found in Bruton Smith’s vocabulary.

Two years ago, the vibrant 81-year-old founder and majority stockholder of Speedway Motorsports Inc. couldn’t have foreseen any reason not to take the second weekend of September 2008 off to do whatever billionaire workaholics do when they’re not making money.

That’s when SMI owned only six tracks with 10 NASCAR Sprint Cup races along with three dragstrips and four NHRA national events. This would have been a rare off week.

Smith buys and sells new car dealerships with his Sonic Automotive, but only buys — or builds — racetracks. When it comes to racetracks, “sell” is a foreign word.

In the past year, Smith has added New Hampshire Motor Speedway and its two Cup races to his NASCAR lineup.

He has just completed building zMax Dragway in Concord at his Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, N.C. The dragstrip is the biggest and most impressive on the NHRA circuit. Smith calls it the “Bellagio of dragstrips,” but it doesn’t have dancing fountains — yet.

Instead of hanging around Charlotte, N.C., this weekend caring for his roses or jetting to Las Vegas for dinner or doing whatever billionaires do for fun, Smith will be the star of the inaugural NHRA Powerade Drag Racing Series event in Concord today before heading to Loudon, N.H., to bask in that spotlight before NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship opens its 10-week run Sunday.

Smith is certain to hold court. He loves bantering with reporters by tossing comments like cubes of steak tartar to starving lions, but he makes it more like dishing out candy to babies.

Many doubted his company could get the Concord dragstrip and its 30,000 seats built in seven months. But it did. No one should doubt anything Smith says he’ll do except planning to build condos at LVMS, which was shot down by the Air Force.

After receiving kudos for putting NHRA into the heart of the stock-car racing world, he’ll be peppered with questions about his pursuit of purchasing NHRA.

He’s likely to dance around that, but Smith and his new right-hand man — son Marcus Smith, 34, and heir apparent to his dad’s racing throne — must have big plans for professional drag racing or they would not have built such a wondrous dragstrip.

I’ve heard a rumor that SMI wants to create the biggest jackpot ever — one worthy of the Bellagio — for drag racing’s top pro divisions.

It could involve a racer’s combined success at SMI’s five national event dragstrips next year. Something big, like a chance to win $1 million.

That would be a hefty incentive and something only SMI could create. The creativity is way beyond what the NHRA brain trust could muster, and unless funding came from lofty salaries of its board members, that much money probably isn’t available.

If it doesn’t happen, I will suspect NHRA blocked it or wanted changes made that would spoil it.

When Bruton Smith arrives at New Hampshire, reporters certainly will get him talking about his deal in May that will add Kentucky Speedway to the SMI fold.

That will lead to his insistence that Kentucky soon will have a Cup race despite NASCAR’s position that its premier series doesn’t need to be in a market that includes Cincinnati.

Where that leaves the status of getting a second race for Las Vegas is anyone’s guess, but it’s not Smith’s priority. Who would have guessed Las Vegas could lose out to Sparta, Ky.?

And don’t expect the annual Cup awards banquet ever to move from New York City to Las Vegas. Smith has lobbied for that, too, but the awards fete could be headed to the $195 million NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte when it opens in 2010.

Las Vegas one day could get a second annual Cup date and the banquet, too.

The odds, though, are better that a pro drag racer wins $1 million first.

And only because of Bruton Smith. Right now, he’s drag racing’s best friend.

Jeff Wolf’s motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or Visit Wolf’s motor sports blog at throughout the week.

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