Bruton Smith proud of "spectacular" new dragstrip

  • By Mike Cranston Associated Press
  • Wednesday, September 10, 2008 12:13pm
  • SportsSports

CONCORD, N.C. — For more than a decade, Bruton Smith resisted requests to build a dragstrip in the heart of NASCAR country. When the motorsports mogul finally said yes last year, nothing was going to stop him from making it the biggest and best in the country.

Not pesky permits and regulations, and certainly not time or money.

Overcoming disputes with neighbors and local officials, the $60 million zMax Dragway opens this week — less than seven months after ground was broken — to host the first event in the NHRA’s season-ending playoffs.

For a sport that sits in the shadows of more popular stock-car and open-wheel racing, drag racers may finally have their crown jewel.

“We built a spectacular dragstrip, the finest one anybody has ever built,” the 81-year-old Smith said this month. “And I don’t think anybody will build one any better than this in the next 20 years.”

Just down the street from Lowe’s Motor Speedway, it’s the only all-concrete, four-lane dragstrip in the country. The 30,000-seat facility has a half-mile asphalt runoff, followed by a 200-foot gravel pit and two safety nets. Large grandstands, one named for Funny Car wins leader John Force, sit on both sides with room to double seating the capacity. Two tunnels under the strip connect the stands to the pits. An elaborate 34,000-square-foot starting-line tower includes 16 luxury suites and roof seating.

And a sellout crowd is expected this weekend at the Carolinas Nationals to watch defending Top Fuel champion Tony Schumacher go upward of 330 mph on the new, ultra-smooth surface.

“The retaining walls, the safety for the fans being moved back, the height of the fans, even being able to go in the back of (the stands) when it’s hot out, everything was designed for a day when any conditions are acceptable,” Schumacher said. “Bruton Smith made it beautiful, made it big and made it grand.”

But not without controversy. Smith, whose company, Speedway Motorsports, owns numerous tracks and dragstrips, ordered workers to start grading the land 20 miles north of Charlotte last fall, before seeking permits from the suburban city of Concord.

When area residents heard of the plan, they complained about the potential for noise. City and county officials balked, and an enraged Smith threatened not only to build the dragstrip elsewhere, but move Lowe’s Motor Speedway, too.

Local officials eventually caved. Not only did they let Smith build the dragstrip, they agreed to give him $80 million in incentives — and rename the street leading to the track and dragstrip “Bruton Smith Boulevard.”

But the feud isn’t over. Smith and local officials were haggling this week over when Smith will get his incentive money.

“We’re not happy until they sign the contract with everything we’ve agreed to,” Smith said.

The billionaire is happy about his new toy after being heavily involved in the design. Following the deaths of NHRA drivers Eric Medlen and Scott Kalitta in crashes in the past 17 months, Smith wanted a large runoff area. He was also determined to make the dragstrip’s quarter-mile racing surface all concrete instead of the traditional style of having cars start on concrete and shift to asphalt.

“These cars are so powerful, sometimes they lose it or almost lose it as a result of that,” Smith said. “Here they’ll have one surface and one surface only.”

Smith also wanted four lanes as opposed to the traditional two. In theory, there could be specific track preparation for Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock or Pro Stock Motorcycle. Also, if oil is spilled in one lane, they could shift the competition to other lanes. Cleanup delays are the main reason drag racing is televised on tape-delay instead of live.

This weekend, however, the NHRA will only use two lanes. There were concerns about crew chiefs having enough time to prepare for a lane shift and how to adjust the timing systems.

“We built for the future,” Smith said. “I’m glad we did. We will be using the four lanes.”

It’s perhaps fitting the brash Smith’s first event at the dragstrip features the cocky Schumacher trying to break Joe Amato’s record of 52 Top Fuel victories. Schumacher will also attempt to extend his record of six straight wins and 11 in a season.

“I understand why everyone doesn’t like me,” the five-time series champion said.

So does Smith, and it doesn’t concern him much. NHRA was intent to race in NASCAR’s home base, and no obstacle was going to prevent Smith from building what he calls “the Bellagio of dragstrips” in a reference to the tony Las Vegas hotel-casino.

“Based on my tour of the facility, I think he succeeded,” NHRA president Tom Compton said. “It has every amenity, every touch. It’s fantastic.”

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