By Mike Mulhern
So what is Bruton Smith really up to?
Whatever it is, it may well be bigger than just the furor surrounding Smith’s threat to pull the plug on Lowe’s Motor Speedway.
This whole thing looks to have the momentum of a snowball rolling downhill.
While NASCAR teams spent the last two days at Smith’s Atlanta Motor Speedway testing the car-of-tomorrow, or rather playing around with it, Smith has been looking at the much bigger picture.
Smith, who owns many of NASCAR’s most prestigious tracks, in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Fort Worth, Charlotte, Bristol and here in south Atlanta, has been having lengthy discussions with the governors of both North and South Carolina about his speedway plans for the Charlotte area.
South Carolina officials seem quite interested in trying to woo Smith across the state line.
And Smith has been talking this past week with both Brian France, the NASCAR CEO, and Jim France, Brian’s uncle and the man who now owns majority interest in both NASCAR and the International Speedway Crop. What all these three may be discussing, well, it’s probably not the weather.
One thing Smith loves to do is build things. And he’s got blueprints for a new type of track, a three-quarter-mile high-banked track, a cross between Richmond and Bristol speedways.
If he decides not to build a new track in the Charlotte area, there is the sense that Smith is already looking at building something somewhere.
But where? And how?
Smith has long discounted any plans to build a track in Denver or the Seattle-Portland area. He’s about given up on getting anything done in the New York City area any time soon.
But Bob Bahre’s New Hampshire International Speedway may be in play. Bahre last month said he might sell the track, though he said talks with John Henry’s Fenway-Red Sox group were rather informal.
Maybe Smith wants to put a bid in for Loudon….
Smith and Bahre, of course, go a long way back, to when they each bought half of North Wilkesboro Speedway, Smith taking one NASCAR Cup date to Texas Motor Speedway, Bahre taking his to his Loudon, N.H., track.
For several years Smith and Bahre didn’t get along well at all.
But Smith says that’s changed: “Bob Bahre is a good man. I like Bob a lot. Bob and I have become very good friends. We didn’t start out that way, but we have become very good friends.”
However Smith kept dodging any direct answers about Bahre’s track, insisting he “didn’t pay much attention” to the Bahre-Henry talks.
Would Smith be upset if Bahre sold the track to the France family? Wouldn’t a France family/ISC bid for Loudon – in light of the Kentucky lawsuit about NASCAR’s monopoly on race dates – be a difficult legal sell…particularly if Smith chose to object?
“I don’t think they would do that, wouldn’t they,” Smith said when asked about the Frances perhaps buying Loudon. “You’ve got to remember how close Bob and I are.”
How much would Loudon be valued at? “You’d have to take a lot of things into consideration….and eventually you’d come up with the proper answer,” Smith said.
A rough price might be $340 million, based on other NASCAR track sales recently.
“Nothing’s worth that much, is it?” Smith replied, feigning wide-eye innocence.
Actually the tax-book value of Lowe’s Motor Speedway and all the surrounding property and buildings is around $300 million.
And Smith says he would be willing to spend $350 million to build a new track in the Charlotte area.
With all the hoopla over Smith possible move, what about his Atlanta Motor Speedway? Wouldn’t it fare better up on the richer side of town, somewhere up near Marietta?
“No plans of moving this track. Never even thought about it,” Smith insists.
However Ed Clark, who runs the Atlanta track for Smith, says the various possible scenarios now being discussed for the North Carolina track could be just the tip of the iceberg in this thing.
“I’ve talked with Bruton about the Charlotte situation…..and from what I’ve seen, I think we’re in a new time, and I don’t think that Bruton, even as far-thinking as he is, had this idea until he was forced to have it,” Clark says.
“But from out this have come offers for land, clearing, roads, development, tax incentives. That may be the future…..
“If you get enough ‘incentives,’ it would very well make sense to it.
“We have had no conversations about (moving) this track. But I assure you, if there are these offers for Lowe’s, I’m sure there will be other people coming with similar incentives – for us and for ISC (the France family’s track corporation).
“There has not been one word of conversation about us (moving). But the thing at Charlotte is such a new concept…
“We see a lot of trends in NASCAR, and this may be new trend for our facilities.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a mass exodus from the current facilities, but the whole racing world is watching what Bruton is doing.
“And what I see in Bruton right now is a real enthusiasm. He gets excited about doing big projects, and I see that in him right now.
“But he’s not going to do something that is not the right thing to do.
“If there is enough incentive there to close that facility and build a new one, everything you’ve got is better – location, access, everything – then it makes all the sense in the world….because he’s got to spend dollars to refurbish the Charlotte track, just as he has Las Vegas and Bristol. And he’s got to make that decision pretty soon.
“And if you throw in the land value and add some of these incentives, why not? You’d be nuts not to take a hard look at a move.”
It’s all certainly caught Clark’s attention.
This Atlanta track, over the years, has been a tough sell, even with the championship on the line each fall.
One reason is traffic here has been typically terrible, though Sunday’s crowd of some 90,000 was cleared fairly quickly. Another reason may be its location – on the far south side of town. Yet another is Atlanta can be as tough a sports town as L.A.
California Speedway boss Gillian Zucker has many of the same problems as Clark faces: “We’re both in major, major metropolitan markets, and it’s hard to get everyone’s attention, it’s hard to get them to stop and listen to what you’re doing,” Clark says.
“I can’t sit here and tell you if this track were up in Marietta that we’d draw half-again as many people.
“Some of it (one issue working again this track) is location – we’re eight miles off the Interstate. But we have had a radical re-thinking of how we handle traffic….”
And there may be some more radical thinking coming out of Smith’s Charlotte-Concord gambit.
“Bruton is smart. I’ve been working for him since 1981, and he thinks in a different way from the rest of us,” Clark says.
“But none of this would have come about without that first move by the Concord city council.
“No, we’re not instantly going to start talking about where we might move Atlanta Motor Speedway. But everybody is going to watch what happens with Bruton in Charlotte, and if whatever he does turns out to lead to a much more favorable situation, everyone will start considering how they can also improve their situation.”