Smith makes headlines heading into Hall vote

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“The World 600 was the longest race, there’d never been anything like it,” he said. “It had the largest purse, $100,000, and nobody had ever heard of a purse of $100,000 for a stock car race. But we wanted to be the biggest and we wanted to be something special. So that’s what we did.”

Only he was $400,000 in debt to his creditors after building the track and Smith was unable to get any loans. He said he went into bankruptcy reorganization, and SMI emerged debt-free.

He was off and running from there, building a portfolio of eight tracks that currently host 13 races on the Sprint Cup schedule. And SMI has set the gold standard in amenities and fan experience because of the vision Smith has had.

Smith pours money into his tracks, paying for upgrades at outdated facilities and finding ways to enhance the fan experience. He was the first promoter to install permanent lights for a NASCAR race, and he bought Bristol Motor Speedway in Tennessee and transformed it into a must-visit event.

Smith made enemies along the way, and sparred often with Bill France Jr. during his reign as head of NASCAR.

He told The Associated Press his greatest regret in racing is letting France Jr. roll over him at a time they could have formed a partnership. Smith claims the late France Jr. asked to speak to him during an event at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York and asked Smith “to help me build NASCAR.

“I said to him, `Billy, what the hell do you think I’ve been doing all these years?’” Smith said. “I’ll always regret that I did not drive a harder bargain with Billy. I helped him with no compensation.”

As a result, Smith’s status in NASCAR has never changed: He’s viewed as just another track promoter. Only he’s got the biggest mouth, the fattest checkbook and the ability to push every button in the NASCAR hierarchy.

The at-track experience is what it is today because of Smith, and the initiatives SMI has taken has pushed NASCAR sister company International Speedway Corp. to up its game, too. And that’s what is most important to Smith.

“I wanted race fans, when they come to a race, a year or two later they may not remember who won that day,” Smith said. “But they are going to remember the pre-race show, they are going to remember their experience at the track and what was good and what worked and what didn’t work. That has always been our goal to make sure the fans had the time of their lives at the track.”

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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