Commentary

Bruton Smith says 'sorry,' sort of

Updated: July 15, 2011, 6:40 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- Bruton, you blew it.

Speedway Motorsports Inc. chairman Bruton Smith walked into the New Hampshire Motor Speedway media center Friday and had his Woody Hayes moment.

No, he didn't punch anyone, although it might have been better if he had.

Smith shocked reporters, and almost everyone else listening, with his inappropriate, highly inaccurate and at times belligerent comments in trying to defend the traffic problems last weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Smith went way beyond his usual bombastic nature that makes everyone laugh. He was disrespectful and offensive. It was a total meltdown.

Where do I begin? This was his opening statement:

"I've been hearing quite a few things about the great event we had last weekend."

By whom, Lucifer?

"You are dealing with the largest crowd this year to attend a NASCAR race," Smith said. "That's a plus."

The largest crowd of the year? Bigger than the Daytona 500? Bigger than Texas Motor Speedway, which had an "announced" crowd of 168,400 in April?

Kentucky has 107,000 seats. Did it sell over 60,000 standing-room-only and infield tickets? Preposterous.

[+] EnlargeBrutonSmith and DonHawk
HHP ImagesSpeedway Motorsports Inc. VP of business affairs Don Hawk, right, probably isn't the only SMI official tugging at a tight collar after the peroformance the boss, Bruton Smith, gave Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That was just the beginning for Smith, who had no intention of falling prostrate over the traffic nightmare at Kentucky.

"I said it would be the biggest event of the year and I think it was," Smith said. "We had a traffic problem; we didn't have a seat problem. Other than that, I think everything was fantastic."

At that point, a PR person with SMI needed a Vaudeville hook.

Smith was asked how many people came to the race at Kentucky, and whether knowing that number could benefit state officials next year.

"I don't know how that would be beneficial to anyone," Smith said. "We stopped scanning tickets, so we lost count. I've been told it was 150,000, but I don't know.

"It was huge. It was the biggest of the year. It speaks loud and clear that we drew a lot of people. We don't control the highways."

Once again, Smith blamed the interstate on the disastrous traffic congestion that caused some fans to wait over six hours, only to be turned away when they reached the speedway because no parking was available.

"I'm sorry we had such traffic, although I warned everyone that Interstate 71 sucked," Smith said. "It's terrible."

Smith was told that one state trooper said the interstate wasn't the problem. Access to the track off the interstate is where the failure came. The trooper said the interstate could have been 10 lanes wide and it wouldn't have mattered.

"I disagree with that," Smith said. "If the interstate was 10 lanes wide, everybody would have gotten in there and been happy. The place emptied in three hours and twenty minutes. We've had speedways that did worse than that."

Watching this pathetic act was like seeing a guilty man go on the witness stand and convict himself.

 

Eventually, Smith got around to an apology, although it seemed meaningless by the time he said it.

"I am sincerely sorry to all the fans who did not get in," Smith said. "We [SMI] have more money invested in the sport than anyone. We don't take that lightly.

"We had a lot of inexperienced people on parking. They did a lousy job. We knew with so many people coming, we predicted the problem. The people that came early had no problem."

I can't possibly express how condescending that comment is for people who waited in traffic for six hours.

Then he blamed state officials, saying they didn't respond to his request as well as Nevada and Las Vegas officials did to the traffic problem at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

"You get a response from some areas more than you get from others," he said. "It's not that I didn't tell the elected officials."

Smith plans to meet with Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear next week.

"We will talk about a lot of things," Smith said. "But I won't say what those will be."

SMI vice president Don Hawk and New Hampshire Motor Speedway president Jerry Gappens knew this little talk wasn't going well and tried to quell the storm with their own, more reasonable comments at times, but it was a sinking ship and everyone knew it.

And it just kept getting worse. Smith was asked about how some speedway officials criticized Kentucky Speedway over what happened. The biggest critic was Michigan Speedway president Roger Curtis, saying he was saddened and embarrassed by the problem at Kentucky.

Curtis works for International Speedway Corp., SMI's rival company.

"I don't know who the heck he is," Smith said. "But it would be like one of my people responding to Daytona in a nasty way when the track broke up [in last year's Daytona 500]. Don't know what I would have done if one of my people bad mouthed Daytona.

Bruton Smith I was born and raised on a farm. We had a jackass that got away from us. It was young and frisky. My dad said it was the sorriest jackass we ever had. We never found it, but I understand he has popped up in Michigan somewhere.

-- Bruton Smith

"I was born and raised on a farm. We had a jackass that got away from us. It was young and frisky. My dad said it was the sorriest jackass we ever had. We never found it, but I understand he has popped up in Michigan somewhere."

One reporter pointed out to Smith that he once called Homestead-Miami Speedway (an ISC track) "North Cuba."

"Have you ever been there," he asked. "Tell us where it's located. Isn't it really in North Cuba?"

The reporter continued, saying if that was true, then New Hampshire Motor Speedway is in South Canada.

"It is," Smith said. "We draw a lot of Canadians here. We will have a wonderful person sing the Canadian national anthem. Do you sing the Cuban national anthem in North Cuba?"

Smith later managed to contradict himself on negative comments about Daytona.

"If you want to be critical, I'm critical of that race," he said. "It took two cars to win the race. You have to have dancing partners. It's like a Major League Baseball player needing two bats to go to bat.

"Let's see who fixes what first. We'll fix the traffic problems at Kentucky before dancing partners is cured."

The real question now is whether Smith's embarrassing public appearance is curable. He made a bad situation far worse for SMI and Kentucky Speedway.

It was senseless and completely unnecessary. All Smith had to do was come in, apologize profusely and say he would make sure the problems were rectified before next season. But his ego just wouldn't let him do it.

I've always respected Smith, a man who came from nothing and molded himself into one of the most successful racing moguls in history. I'm sorry to say I lost a great deal of respect for him Friday.

I wrote earlier this week that Kentucky Speedway deserves a second chance. Maybe it still does. But Smith? I hope so, but it's a lot to ask.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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