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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Bruton Smith was in one of the downstairs offices of his Ford dealership two years ago when I asked if fear, jealousy and politics once again played a role in his not being nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"Probably, probably," the chairman of Speedway Motorsports Inc. said with a smile. "Why don't you ask them? You're chicken if you don't."
And although I didn't get a satisfactory answer, I asked again a year later.
I won't have to ask anymore.
Smith, one of NASCAR's greatest innovators and, yes, aggravators, was among the Hall's five new nominees announced Wednesday. That means the 86-year-old native of Oakboro, N.C., will be among the 25 nominees from which the five-member 2014 class will be chosen on May 22.
|Bruton Smith joins Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty, Rex White and Larry Phillips as newest nominees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.|
It's long overdue.
Smith has built SMI into one of the most powerful entities in NASCAR. He has spent more than $4 billion in purchasing and upgrading the company's eight tracks that host 12 Cup events. He introduced condominiums, VIP suites and club-like restaurants to raise tracks to the standards of facilities in other sports.
A few years ago he introduced the world's largest HD screen at Charlotte Motor Speedway, where he began his racing empire in 1959.
As I argued several times the past few years, Smith easily could have been among the original 25 nominees for the Hall. He wasn't -- and nobody will admit this -- because he ticked off many on the selection committee with his unwillingness to conform, his willingness to question and even his willingness to seek legal action.
That Smith suggested I was "chicken" if I didn't ask NASCAR why he hadn't been nominated says it all. Smith never has been chicken to ask or do anything.
He's said many times he doesn't care about being recognized for Hall consideration, suggesting he's not on the list for the same reasons NASCAR never has given him a Sprint Cup date without taking one from one of his other tracks.
But you know he cares. He wouldn't have accomplished everything he has without caring.
"At the time when I told you that, I meant it," Smith said Wednesday night. "What's occurred is my employees and friends a lot of people have stated how important it is that this is occurring. I don't know. It's a different perspective than where I was a few years ago.
"Now with all the input from all the employees I have [about 15,000], it seems it meant an awful lot to them. I've been impressed by that."
Does this mean the end of politics in the Hall selection process?
"In the past there has been an awful lot of it," Smith said with a laugh. "I don't know if this will change anything."
It definitely won't change what Smith is all about. As he's told me many times, "I like to build things" and "I like to be where the action is."
Even NASCAR chairman Brian France, who has bumped heads with Smith more times than most, predicted this moment when asked two years ago why Smith wasn't on the list.
"Bruton Smith clearly is one of the most accomplished track owners in the sport, and his contributions have been significant," France said at the time. "He oversees some of the greatest, most anticipated events on our schedule. Clearly his contributions have had a profound influence on the sport."
Whether Smith will make the cut for the 2014 class remains to be seen. There are many deserving pioneers, from Fireball Roberts to Fred Lorenzen, who have been overlooked far too long.
But at least now Smith has a chance, along with the other deserving new nominees -- Dale Jarrett, Maurice Petty, Rex White and Larry Phillips.
And I won't have to ask why he's not on the list anymore.