Charlotte Motor Speedway hosted the 60th running of its 600-mile race on Sunday. Whether you know it as the World 600 or the Coca-Cola 600, the event is one of NASCAR’s long-standing crown jewel races. More recently, CMS became the centerpiece of Bruton Smith’s track ownership corporation, Speedway Motorsports Inc.
As NASCAR’s popularity spread across the United States, the city of Charlotte itself became the nationally recognized center of the NASCAR industry.
Without Richard Howard, none of that might have happened.
Howard, a furniture salesman from the Charlotte area, left a lasting impact on CMS that is often overlooked today. During the 1960s, he was one of several businessmen who guided the track through bankruptcy proceedings and made the speedway profitable. However, it was Howard’s long tenure with CMS and passion for racing that made him a popular figure in the world of NASCAR. His leadership laid the groundwork for Charlotte to become the home of American stock car racing.
While Smith and Curtis Turner originally built and opened the speedway in 1960, their joint leadership was short-lived. Construction costs for the speedway turned out to be higher than both men had planned. By the summer of 1961, the track was still deep in debt, prompting the board of directors to oust Turner and Smith. Turner famously attempted to secure a loan from the Teamsters in exchange for creating a drivers’ union.
But when Bill France forcefully and publicly set out to crush the unionization attempt, Turner lost the support of most drivers and his shot at securing the money. Facing the possibility of foreclosure and auction by the city, Charlotte Motor Speedway filed for bankruptcy in the autumn of 1961.
At this point, Howard and the new ownership group stepped in. As the vice president and general manager, he was a key figure in reorganizing the track’s finances. By the 1967 running of the World 600, the speedway had paid off all its debts, and Howard had become the public face of the track. Over the next eight years, he became president of the speedway and turned CMS into not only a profitable racetrack, but an exemplary facility that was worthy of holding NASCAR’s 600-mile endurance race.
One of Howard’s favorite promotional tactics was to help assemble and finance short-term teams for the World 600. Oftentimes, his efforts would focus on fielding competitive cars for underrepresented manufacturers. For instance, in 1971, Howard arranged for Junior Johnson to field a Chevrolet for driver Charlie Glotzbach. Chevy had not been actively supporting NASCAR for over 10 years, but Howard believed that the combination of Johnson and Glotzbach would be competitive enough to get longtime Chevy fans back to the racetrack. Sure enough, Glotzbach qualified on the pole, and a record crowd showed up for the race. Howard’s guess had been correct.
In addition to supporting the racing at CMS, Howard gave plenty of attention to matters on the other side of the catch fence. In an era before NASCAR’s races were regularly televised, revenue raised from ticket sales was the lifeblood that supported most tracks. Knowing the importance of getting fans to return to his track, Howard took a proactive approach to improving CMS’s facilities every few years. His projects included widening the roads leading to the speedway, redesigning victory lane for greater fan visibility, building roofs and awnings over the upper levels of the stands, and creating new press boxes for media members. All of those activities would become standard forms of upkeep for tracks in later years. ut in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Howard’s improvements caught the most attention from the industry and often received the most positive responses.
Perhaps Howard’s greatest strengths were his positivity and ability to lead by example. His years as a promoter were turbulent times for NASCAR. acing challenges like the transition to paved speedways, frequent rule changes, Ford’s and Chrysler’s “aero cars,” major safety concerns, driver unrest, a boycott of the first race at Talladega and unreliable media coverage, stock car racing had serious divisions among its stakeholders. Despite NASCAR’s potential for growth, its general instability threatened to pull the sanctioning body apart.
Through the tough times, Howard was a steady and positive force. He had a reputation for fair dealings and relatability with fans, competitors and sponsors. His work in lifting CMS out of financial ruin served as a reminder that NASCAR had the capability to overcome whatever battles it faced.
Unfortunately for Howard, his tenure with CMS ended with one battle he couldn’t win against Bruton Smith. Since losing control of the speedway, Smith had made a fortune by investing in car dealerships, investments which gave him money to buy back stock in CMS. When he became chairman of the speedway’s board of directors in 1974, Smith immediately challenged Howard’s authority.
After a year of working together, both became discontent with the other’s style of leadership, and their disagreements over the future of the track became public. When Smith bought a controlling interest of stock in the speedway a year later, Howard knew the battle was over. Before the 1976 season began, Howard stepped down as president of CMS.
In the end, Howard may have lost control of the track, but his influence would linger there for years. Smith continued to devote a lot of time and money to improving the facilities at CMS. Humpy Wheeler’s knack for race promotion and showmanship built on the foundation that Howard had laid for stock car racing in Charlotte. Smith and Wheeler would go on to bring CMS a level of national prestige that it had never seen before, but it’s fair to wonder whether or not Smith would have had a track to go back to in the first place if not for Howard.
Meanwhile, Howard would stay active in NASCAR for several more years. He enjoyed success as a partner in Junior Johnson’s team, the role that he is best known for today. Yet the story of Howard saving Charlotte Motor Speedway remains an important aspect of the track’s history and was vital for building the relationship between NASCAR and Charlotte today.
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