Full Throttle · Mike Neff · Monday October 8, 2007
Bruton Smith is pissed off – and there aren't many business leaders anywhere in the world who would blame him for it. Smith, of course, is the main man at corporate powerhouse Speedway Motorsports Incorporated; he owns race tracks from coast-to-coast, and has always held a philosophy of not being afraid to spend money in order to make money. Having long been known in the motorsports arena as someone who spares no expense to put on a good show for the fans, Smith also makes sure to upgrade his facilities on a regular basis, fine-tuning things to make his competitors happy as well.
But Smith’s latest money-making, racing-generated idea has hit a definitive roadblock at one of the most valuable tracks he owns – Lowe’s Motor Speedway. This past week, the Concord City Council voted to change the zoning for that complex to at least temporarily stop the construction of a proposed drag strip for an expansion that Smith had already broken ground on. The decision was based on the complaints of some 20 residents of a subdivision that is within a mile of the proposed new drag strip; their complaints about the noise took precedence with a council determined to make a statement against Mr. Smith.
In the process, they appear on the verge of making a tragic, crippling mistake for their city.
Having forced the hand of SMI, it hasn’t taken long for one of racing’s most powerful figures to show up with pocket aces. An angry Smith has defiantly vowed to spend $350 million to build another track in the Charlotte area, shuttering the existing track that has been open since 1960 due to the council’s decision. His organization has identified two properties already, as well as been contacted by two others – including a community that has pledged $300 million in tax breaks for a new track.
It’s not surprising at all to see this decision get Smith all fired up. First off, this is a man who’s been part of this fine facility since Day One. Smith first built the Lowe’s (then Charlotte) Motor Speedway with Curtis Turner in 1959, but left the organization within two years because it had fallen into bankruptcy. The track survived, but it took over a decade for Smith to work himself back into a position of control; after building up his automotive group, he finally had the resources to get back into racing and, by 1975, had acquired enough of a stake in Charlotte to once again be a majority owner. It’s clearly a facility that’s near and dear to his heart, and it’s a heart that’s had no problem giving back to the North Carolina community that surrounds him. Indeed, Smith has been a model corporate citizen, pouring tons of money not only into his facility but into the community in general. Something that has always been intriguing about Lowe’s, for example, is that when there is road construction anywhere near the track, it always seems to be done before race week arrives. Other projects can drag on for years, but anything that can impact the traffic around the track will be completed before the fans start pouring in for the festivities. It’s those little things people may not realize that SMI has had a hand in getting taken care of; of course, Smith has also done other things for the surrounding area, like planting trees and spearheading charitable ventures countywide.
Most importantly, on top of his continuing efforts to improve his facilities and make the race experience truly enjoyable for the fans, Smith has never asked for anything from the community in terms of economic “breaks” or “deals.” Smith has always paid his taxes to the community, and has never asked for a tax break or any kind of preferential treatment that so many other sports owners and organizations seem to always ask for and receive. In fact, not only does Smith pay his fair share, he even volunteers to assist when the project can benefit him as well. When the Hall of Fame discussion was taking place and Charlotte was trying to woo NASCAR to bring it to their town, Smith became a key player in the whole process. Not only were his facilities and resources utilized to help in the process of entertaining the decisionmakers, but Smith also pledged $500 million towards a monorail project to run from the Hall of Fame, to Lowe’s Speedway, to local shopping. Certainly, it would benefit Smith to have a monorail with a terminal at his track, but the fact that he offered up $500 million, unsolicited, speaks volumes about the man and what he is willing to do for his community.
Mind you, I understand Smith isn't always the good guy. I know he purchased half of North Wilkesboro Speedway and was instrumental in taking racing away from that facility that had such a long, storied history in the sport. Since that time, there have been several groups that have tried to convince Smith to either bring racing back, or sell the track in order for someone else to accomplish that feat. Smith has continued to decline, and has asked for a very high price for a facility that he has allowed to fall into disrepair. Certainly, that’s proven the man doesn't get into anything to lose money – but that doesn’t mean he’s in business to tear communities apart, especially one that he has tried to support in every which way possible over the years.
The City of Concord, however, seems to be in a classic state of not seeing the forest from the trees. Smith pours millions of tax dollars into the community on an annual basis, not to mention the amount of revenue that comes into the area because of his race track. However, Concord is looking at chasing away all of that revenue over the complaints of a handful of residents who have moved into a subdivision that was just recently established within a mile of the race track. Obviously, the race track was there long before the residents, and the fact that it is probably the biggest revenue generator for the city makes it ridiculous that the City Council would even seriously consider this complaint. Economically, the town has already lost Phillip Morris, the giant tobacco company which is shutting down their plant in Concord and will be completely out of the facility early next year. Pillowtex has already shuttered their facilities in Concord, as well, leaving the importance of the race track looming large when it comes to future development in this area. With that in mind, it seems amazing that the town would even consider losing another huge property from their tax rolls.
The city could and should take a cost-cutting lesson from their neighbor Charlotte, who lost the NBA's Hornets to New Orleans several years ago. After that team moved away, the city had to spend millions of dollars to build a new arena in order to woo the NBA into giving them another franchise, not to mention give some very large tax breaks to entice the owner to consider locating the team in Charlotte. With the current state of NASCAR and the fact that their schedule is full – especially in the Southeast region – the possibility of getting someone else to take over a shuttered Lowe’s Speedway and generate anything near the revenue that SMI does at the track is a pipe dream.
So for Concord, it’s time to stop playing around. Mr. Smith is a billionaire, and has enough of an ego that he will not think twice about taking his game to someone else's neighborhood. This city would be very wise to quickly put this issue to bed, tell the residents to mind their own business and realize why their homes were so cheap, and make sure that SMI stays put for years to come.
And they better hurry…before it’s too late.
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