CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Their battles were legendary. The ferocity was intense and their resolve absolute. At times, Bill France Jr., NASCAR’s leader, and Bruton Smith, the boisterous billionaire speedway operator, created more action off the track than was on it.
Yet, it was a member of the France family who played perhaps the greatest role in getting the 88-year-old Smith selected to the 2016 Hall of Fame Class.
When voters began to discuss candidates Wednesday afternoon, NASCAR Chairman Brian France – the son of Bill France Jr. – stood and offered his support for the man who had quarreled against his dad for decades.
“He deserves to be in,’’ Brian France told NBC Sports on why he pledged his support for Smith. “He’s made a huge impact, obviously. I’ve worked really well with him.’’
France’s words swayed many of the 49 voters in the room (seven were not present). A year ago, Smith was on less than 30 percent of the ballots. Wednesday, he was on 68 percent of the ballots – more than any other candidate.
“I think (Brian France) showing his support was good,’’ said Hall of Famer Ned Jarrett, a voter. “I think some people might have been surprised with his support. Bruton and Brian have always gotten along well.’’
Brian France is more of a conciliator, looking to find ways to work together. His father was stubborn – but he also had to be in helping build the sport when he took over in 1972.
By that time Smith had already built Charlotte Motor Speedway (opened in 1960), lost it to bankruptcy and was in the process of buying back majority stake in the track. Smith would regain control of day-to-day operations of Charlotte Motor Speedway by 1975.
Bill France Jr. and Smith would contend with each other for more than 30 years.
During that time, Smith’s empire grew to where Speedway Motorsports Inc., operates eight tracks that host Sprint Cup races. Smith’s company helped push the fan experience forward with its promotions and amenities at tracks from Texas-sized TV screens to condos and better seats.
“He has made major, major contributions to the sport,’’ said Jarrett, who voted for Smith. “He’s an innovator. He was, I think, a big challenge to NASCAR and the France family along the way, and I think that was one of the best things that could happen to the sport because he made them better, made them do things better. It was good that they had that rivalry going on.’’
The rivalry fueled headlines whether it was talk of Smith considering the notion of starting his own stock-car series on his tracks to claiming that NASCAR never gave his Texas Motor Speedway a date it had promised.
Often it didn’t matter what the subject was, Smith and Bill France Jr. would be on opposite sides.
“The hatchets were flying so much 20 years ago,’’ said Humpy Wheeler, longtime general manager of Charlotte Motor Speedway and a Hall of Fame voter. “You were wondering when am I going to get one in the skull?’’
Ramsey Poston, a consultant for NASCAR in 2001 before joining the series from 2004-2012, saw first-hand how the relationship between the sport’s titans played.
“They both had visions for the sport,’’ Poston said. “Sometimes they clashed. Sometimes they clashed in a big way. Sometimes it got personal, I think.’’
When Brian France took over in Sept. 2003, a calm developed between NASCAR and Smith’s Speedway Motorsports Inc.
“This was important for the sport overall,’’ Poston said. “There were a lot of petty battles. Brian’s ability to have an effective relationship with Bruton was important for the progress of the sport overall. The sport didn’t need that battle to continue. It may have been provocative for the media and the rumor mill at times, but for the sport to move forward, mending those fences was very important.’’
It also helped Smith gain entrance into the Hall of Fame.