"Oh no, no," Smith said with a smile. "When I hear noise, I know we're making more money." Smith has been finding new ways to make money at the speedway since he opened the track outside Charlotte, N.C., in 1960. Profits were on his mind when he built 40 condominiums high above the first turn in 1984. The speedway became the first such sports venue in the U.S. to offer year-round housing. Another dozen units were added in 1990.
To date, Smith and his partners at Speedway Motorsports have built 164 condominiums at speedways in Atlanta, Concord, N.C., and outside Fort Worth, Texas. More units are planned for Las Vegas.
"The most exciting place in my opinion where you could have condos is a speedway," said Smith, a longtime fixture of NASCAR racing. "I love the real estate business."
Smith's development is part of an emerging trend that combines housing with large sports venues. At the Concord speedway, condos are viewed as high-end amenities that draw affluent fans to the track. In select cities, such as San Diego and Los Angeles, sports facilities are being used to fuel downtown redevelopment and home construction.
Residential developers and civic leaders traditionally have associated speedways, stadiums and ballparks with undesirable noise and traffic. Developer John Kratzer, president of JMI Realty, the San Diego Padres' development company, views housing and sports facilities as highly compatible. Some housing analysts say building homes alongside sports venues may one day become commonplace in U.S. cities.
Real estate consultant Gary London says the clustering of condominiums around San Diego's downtown Petco Park has been highly successful. Without a ballpark view, the downtown units would be less desirable and less valuable, he asserted.
"Just like your condo would be more valuable looking at the ocean, there is more value looking at the ballpark," he said.
London said not everyone wants to experience "the noise and frenetics" of life near a stadium, speedway or ballpark. Smith wasn't worried about that when he added condos to the Concord speedway in 1984. He remembers thinking that people would enjoy "waking up to the sound of cars." In the beginning, few racing professionals agreed.
Most people "thought he had lost his mind," said Lowe's Motor Speedway spokesman Jerry Gappens. "They thought it was the most absurd thing they had heard. Who would want residential living next to a racetrack with the noise?"
Except for 10 days of NASCAR racing a year, the Concord track is a relatively tranquil place, he said. The speedway schedule is filled about 300 days a year with a variety of events.
"Throughout the rest of the year you have driving schools, you have car shows, concerts," Gappens said. "We did a George Strait festival one year." When Smith first proposed speedway housing, some critics thought the blue-collar image of auto racing wasn't compatible with condominiums.
"The perception of racing was not as positive as it is today," said Gappens. "NASCAR was not mainstream. People looked at it as risky. He obviously proved them wrong."
WHEELING AND DEALING
A sophisticated businessman with a country-boy manner, Smith, 79, spent his early years farming in North Carolina. He was part of a partnership that built the oval track in Concord on the site of a Civil War-era plantation. "I paid $270 an acre for this land here," Smith recalled. "Some of it now sells for $150,000 an acre."
Smith, who began promoting races as a teenager, is chairman of Sonic Automotive, a publicly held corporation that owns about 200 new-car dealerships in the country. He also is founder and chairman of Speedway Motorsports, a publicly held corporation that owns race tracks.
The Concord track originally was called Charlotte Motor Speedway. Over the years, Smith has overseen the addition of high-end amenities, such as a country club-style restaurant, enclosed clubhouse seating and a $1.7 million lighting system for night racing. On May 26, the speedway hosted the premiere of the animated movie "Cars," featuring the voice of racing enthusiast Paul Newman.
San Diego's Kratzer expects more pairings of homes and sports facilities around the country.
"I absolutely believe these sports facilities are magnets for residential development," he said. "The urban renaissance, what we call there - urbanization of America, is a relatively new phenomenon. It has only happened in a very few markets."
Wayne Metlitz, 42, purchased a unit at downtown San Diego's Parkloft condominium complex in the fall of 2002. He works as an associate director for Douglas Wilson Cos., the firm that built Parkloft. Metlitz said he bought the unit before he went to work for the company.
He said he was drawn to his 1,900-square-foot unit by the activity that typically surrounds ballparks.
"I don't have to go to the ballpark; I am practically there," he said. "I can hear the announcer and the crowd. At the same time, I can walk inside and close my door and I don't hear it. It's an exciting environment. Everybody comes here for the fun. I don't have to go some place else."
Smith understands the appeal. When he built his first condos at the Concord speedway, the vision was having "a tailgate party in your own home." The first units sold for about $125,000 each. Today a unit that has been tricked out with plasma TVs, leather furniture and a commercial-grade kitchen may sell for $1 million. The original owners "are walking in high cotton," Smith said.
The businessman, who has rolled the dice plenty of times during his long career, is looking forward to taking his concept to Las Vegas. In March he announced plans to build 120 condo units at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Prices there will range from $600,000 for a one-bedroom unit to $4.5 million for a three-bedroom penthouse.
Combining sports facilities and housing could become an important trend nationwide, said Robert Puentes, a fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.
"We know the nation is changing its attitudes toward cities and urban living," he said.
Using stadiums, speedways and ballparks to stimulate housing development "is not such a leap," he added. "The connections to housing are natural, and many cities are starting to understand."