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October 2010
Taking Pole Position
By Ellison Clary

     Though he grew up working part-time at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Marcus Smith remembers exactly when he became a true fan. It was 1992 and he was watching the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at the track owned by his father, Bruton Smith.

     “It was a spectacular finish with Kyle Petty and Davey Allison crashing across the line,” he recalls. “Davey Allison won. Davey had just passed Kyle and Kyle nudged him and turned him up on his hood. He crossed the finish line with sparks flying, upside down.”

     Allison visited the infield care center but both drivers were okay. For Smith, who admittedly had taken racing for granted, it was a revelation.

     “That’s really when I got the bug,” Smith says. “I love racing.”

     These days Smith is president and chief operating officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI), which operates multiple race tracks across the country, and is president and general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway (CMS), a major property in that string of raceways. He took on the dual roles in 2008.

     At CMS, where Smith maintains his office, he succeeded Humpy Wheeler, who created a legend during his 33 years of running the track with promotions that featured flamboyant pre-race shows that matched his outsized personality.

While Wheeler’s departure was definitely low key, Smith sings high praises for the former leader as he   discusses taking over from him.

     “It is first, a big honor,” Smith says. “And then, of course, it is a big responsibility. My role is not to replace Humpy, because he’s still Humpy and he has a fantastic place in the history of NASCAR and Charlotte Motor Speedway. You can’t erase history; it always will be.

      “I really want to carry on the tradition that Charlotte Motor Speedway enjoys of being the Mecca of Motorsports,” he explains.

     Then he intones his own version of “I Gotta Be Me.” “I’ll probably do things a little bit differently,” he says. “But that’s okay, because I am who I am.”

 

Fueling Up With Fan-Friendly Offerings

     Smith executes his chief executive responsibilities with a genuine respect and strong affinity for the fans. Several of his favorite accomplishments have to do with heightening their enjoyment of whatever unfolds at the track.

     He’s proud of the Victory Lane Club he and his staff created to recognize and reward fans who attend all three major CMS events—May’s Coca-Cola 600 and NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race and October’s Bank of America 500.

     Those regulars get pit passes and extra tickets to other shows at the track, such as qualifying events and late summer’s huge AutoFair. The cherry on top is a special breakfast, which last year featured Darrell Waltrip, a five-time winner of the Coca-Cola 600 and a current commentator for televised NASCAR racing. The affair is held in a garage area on the morning of the Bank of America 500. About 1,000 attended last October.

     Another of Smith’s innovations actually cut the capacity of CMS. Smith ordered the removal of 12,000 seats that were considered “not as inviting as most.” In their place is a high-end camping area called 600 Terrace that has space for about 25 recreational vehicles.

     “It’s actually replaced the revenue that we would have had from seating, but we’ve provided those campers with added value in terms of a very exclusive position,” he says.

     Smith has insisted on measuring and recording fan feedback. There’s a fan council now and Smith listens to suggestions from that group as well as individual spectators though e-mail and social media.

     Many of the biggest CMS competitive events happen under lights, but enthusiasts relayed that they’d like a day race now and then. So this May, Smith instituted an afternoon start for a NASCAR Nationwide date.

     For the Bank of America 500, he’s overseeing some infrastructure improvements in the track’s campgrounds. There will be additional dump stations and fresh water areas for the fans. Also, the camp sites that can accommodate up to 15,000 people will have added entertainment opportunities including potluck dinners, concerts, cornhole games and marshmallow roasts.

     Smith is particularly proud of the recently announced partnership with Panasonic to build the world’s largest high-definition video board, further revolutionizing the fan experience.

     At an incredible length of 200 feet wide, standing 80 feet tall and weighing 165,000 pounds, the video board will cover an expansive 16,000 square feet along the backstretch of the superspeedway when completed next spring in time for the NASCAR races.

     In addition to the live race coverage, the video board will provide fans with interactive entertainment, continuous leaderboard updates, sponsor information and instant replays.

     “It’s really going to bring a lot to the pre-race, to the race itself and after the race, with a focus on the Victory Lane celebration,” says Smith.

 

The Lore of a Legend

     Smith’s well on his way to carving his own name in the motorsports arena, but what’s it like working for his dad, a billionaire octogenarian who continues to chair both SMI and CMS?

     “It’s great,” Smith says. “My father is such an incredible visionary. He is inspirational to me and to many people. Everybody who gets to know my dad really appreciates his unexpected patience. And then everybody appreciates his great vision for things that will happen, and for what can happen if we really put our minds to it.”

     “Tremendous” is Smith’s one-word depiction of his father’s influence.

     “He is the one person in a real ownership role that has been around NASCAR since before NASCAR was NASCAR,” the younger Smith says. And he adds, “He’s forgotten more about racing than I’ll ever know.”

     At 37, Smith easily clicks off major lessons from his father: “The incredible power of being optimistic and positive and the importance of hard work. He believes in hard work, in having fun when you work, and in never saying no.”

     When he joined his dad after studying journalism and advertising at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Smith made a name for himself as executive vice president of national sales and marketing. He promoted all eight tracks in the chain that includes Atlanta Motor Speedway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Kentucky Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway; New Hampshire Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway in Forth Worth.

     Both corporate and admission revenues for SMI are down so far in 2010, but Smith takes pride in investing in the fan experience.

     “Our top line is what I would describe as healthy,” he says, “considering the economy that we’re in. We’re able to pay down debt in a bad economy and continue to invest in the business. We’ve continued to invest in fan amenities and haven’t had any layoffs during this difficult time.”

     Smith acknowledges that he’s been influenced by his father as well as his brothers Scott and David who help his father run Sonic Automotive, Inc., one of the nation’s largest car dealership chains, and other executives in racing.

     “I think everybody in your lifetime influences you,” he says. “You have to take those learnings and make your own way.”

 

Coming Into His Own

     Smith’s efforts at being his own man have been noticed by various executives in Charlotte.

     “Personally, I’ve seen him come out of any potential shell that was created by being Bruton Smith’s son,” observes Jeff Beaver, executive director of the Charlotte Regional Sports Commission. “That has been shed entirely. He has taken over a really big empire and done it incredibly efficiently.

     “I think he genuinely enjoys what he’s doing,” Beaver continues. “I see him smile a lot more. He’s well-respected and has done a great job.”

     Max Muhleman, a Charlotte sports marketing guru with a long NASCAR association, also praises Smith.

     “Succeeding Humpy Wheeler could be an intimidating thing,” says Muhleman, president of Private Sports Consulting. “But it doesn’t appear to me that it’s bothering him at all, and I mean that respectfully.”

     “Smith could be as influential as star drivers,” Muhleman points out. “With new blood and new ideas from somebody who was raised in the sport, Marcus has a chance to be a Jeff Gordon or a Jimmie Johnson of the business side,” he says. “He’s a guy who I think has very good instincts.”

     Smith displays that natural touch when he addresses NASCAR’s overall situation and answers critics’ complaints about attendance drops and sagging television ratings.

     “Even with our attendance being down—only drawing 100,000 people at an average NASCAR weekend—makes us still a lot bigger than a National Football League crowd. Having television ratings that are in the fours still makes us the second largest television rating in sports. It far outshines baseball, basketball and golf as well as 90 percent of prime-time programming. We are an incredible media force.”

     For this region, Smith points out that CMS, the nearby zMAX Dragway and The Dirt Track at Charlotte generate a $400 million economic impact annually. “People come in, bring their money from other places, and leave it here,” he says simply.

     The track recently ended a 10-year run as Lowe’s Motor Speedway that brought in $35 million. “It would be nice to sell that name again,” Smith says, “if we had the right partner.”

     This region is lucky to be the home of stock car racing, he adds, as he defends Charlotte’s recently opened NASCAR Hall of Fame against those who fault it for not reaching attendance estimates. The down economy that’s hurting everyone is affecting the Hall, too, he feels.

     “The facility itself is a tremendous jewel in the crown for Charlotte,” he states flatly.

     To heighten interest, he believes NASCAR has taken some correct steps this season. Alterations in race car bodies make it easier to pass, facilitating lead changes. And NASCAR has loosened its leash on drivers, allowing them more leeway in disputes with each other. Emotion shown by drivers on the track or in the pits is part of fan excitement, he maintains.

 

NASCAR Revving Up

     Right now, NASCAR manufacturer competition is confined to Chevrolet, Ford, Dodge and more recent Japanese entrant, Toyota. “Toyota is not a problem,” he says. “I would welcome foreign makes coming in for competition. I’m a competitive guy.” The manufacturers compete every day on Main Street.

      Many agree that the 2010 season has produced lively on-track rivalries.

     “We have seen fantastic racing this year and that’s been exciting,” Smith says. “I think we’ll start to see the TV ratings and attendance come back slowly but surely.”

 

      When Smith considers drivers, he professes that he pulls for underdogs. He smiles remembering a California race earlier this year when Marcus Ambrose, not a regular in the top 10, nearly won before succumbing to engine trouble.

      For pure excitement, he recalls the 1993 Coca-Cola 600 when Dale Earnhardt came from several laps behind to beat Jeff Gordon. “It was almost like a surreal experience watching him pick off car after car,” Smith muses.

     That’s what keeps NASCAR viable, he says, adding that watching it in person isn’t financially prohibitive.   Rather, it’s a big value.

     And he adds a message to businesses that racing is an economical way to entertain. “You can buy a package for as little as $40 a person and bring your customers, employees or their families out to the races,” he says.

     His overall goal, Smith says, “Caring for the fans. Making sure we’re delivering and over-delivering on the things they expect and ought to receive when they come to the speedway—and providing great entertainment for them when they come.”

      

 

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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