CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- He’s the host of the largest Memorial Day weekend party in the United States. We’re talking well more than 100,000 people in North Carolina’s largest sports venue. The venue’s been around more than 55 years and is a critical part of the Piedmont economic and recreational history.
For the last 42 years, Marcus Smith has been a part of it. In other words, he’s been a part of it all his life.
Today, he’s the president and general manager of the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s also the CEO of Speedway Racing, Incorporated (SMI), a company that owns Charlotte and eight other tracks including Bristol, Atlanta and Texas.
He inherited the job from his legendary father Bruton Smith who along with partner/driver Curtis Turner built the Charlotte track in 1959. Both had been short track racing promoters in the Charlotte/Concord area before joining forces to build the area’s first “superspeedway.” Smith — especially during the seventies, eighties and nighties — used, among other things, stock car racing’s popularity in Central North Carolina and the speedway’s proximity to many of the drivers’ homes and garages to build the track into a powerhouse.
“It’s literally the epicenter of the NASCAR world,” Marcus Smith told FOX8 on a recent morning when the complex as empty and quiet. “You can’t do this with any other sport, anywhere else.”
You can link much of that to the innovations his dad brought to NASCAR racing at Charlotte. They include the first sports facility in America to offer year-round living accommodations. People still live full-time and entertain in those trackside condos today. Charlotte also, in 1992, became the first modern superspeedway to host night racing.
Marcus started working at the speedway in his teens doing everything from picking up trash to selling tickets and souvenirs, to cutting the grass. In the late 1990s, he started working his way up the ladder in sales and business development. In 2004, he became the executive vice-president of national sales and marketing for SMI. In 2008, he became president, chief operating officer and director of SMI. At the same time, he also assumed his current duties at the Charlotte track.
It was not an easy transition. The recession was in full swing. Not as many people could afford tickets to a NASCAR race. Attendance dwindled.
“And I remember at the beginning, I thought to myself, if we can make it through this we can look back and be happy that we made it through,” he said. “And, of course, I thought what are we going to do? What’s my response going to be as a manager?”
That response included a big emphasis on improving the fan experience. He reached a deal with Panasonic to build what was, at the time, the world’s largest television at 200-by-80 feet. (The one at the Texas Speedway is now slightly larger.)
He also led the effort to remove grandstands near the first and second turns. “We know that if you can’t see the front stretch and the pits and the pre-race show, you’re not getting everything you can have at the speedway,” he said.
Those seats, for the most part, have been replaced with luxury motor coach camping signs complete with water, sewer and power hookup.
“I like to say we’re in sports-entertainment,” he said. “And ‘entertainment’ should be bold and underlined about 10 times.”