No project has been too big for Steve Swift and his team the past three years.
As vice president of Operations and Development for Speedway Motorsports, his team has been responsible for reconfiguring Atlanta Motor Speedway, converting Bristol Motor Speedway into a dirt track — and then back to concrete — and reviving North Wilkesboro Speedway to host the NASCAR All-Star Race.
His job, in a nutshell, is to turn the wild ideas of Speedway Motorsports Chairman Marcus Smith and his group into reality.
“I’ve been with the company 18 years and we’ve built a lot of cool things,” said Swift, a 2000 East Tennessee State graduate. “The Smith family has huge visions. It’s always the first something, the first time to run under the lights at Charlotte. There’s numerous more examples, so to get those visions and be able to make them come to fruition is really cool and lots of fun. The last three years have been really exciting.”
Since the late Bruton Smith took over Swift’s home track, Bristol Motor Speedway, in 1996, the changes have been enormous. The seating capacity has more than doubled. Colossus TV, the world’s largest center-hung video screens, was installed over the infield. BMS has been converted to host the world’s largest football game, then back to hold some of NASCAR’s largest events.
Speaking Wednesday, Smith said he was getting on a plane in two hours to travel to the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas, where his team had to change the Formula One track to one more suited for NASCAR racing in a week’s time.
“All the different things we’re trying to do for the fans are what they’re requesting and to make it very competitive for the sport,” Swift said. “Wilkesboro, bringing back a historical jewel like that, not a project that we’re used to. Normally we take a vision, start from scratch and build something new. To hold on to history, it’s been a really fun project to be a part of.”
Nothing seems too daunting, especially when you consider 23,000 cubic yards of dirt have been moved in and out of BMS each of the past three years for the Food City Dirt Race and the Bass Pro Shops Night Race.
“The fall race the year before we ran dirt, I remember Marcus asked in the hallway, ‘If we do dirt, you seriously think we can make a legit dirt track?,’ ” Swift recalled. “And I said, Well, sir, we will do whatever you ask us to do. We’ll try to make it happen the best we can.’ ”
While Speedway Motorsports has dirt tracks built outside its large NASCAR ovals at Charlotte and Las Vegas, the temporary surface at Bristol was a different animal.
The track was covered with clay in the early 2000s for some Sprint car and Late Model races. The dirt from those events was saved on the property. To get the track ready for the heavier stock cars, Swift’s team did a lot of research on how other tracks prepared.
“We visited a lot of local tracks like Volunteer Speedway, Wythe Raceway and 411 Speedway,” he said. “To create it here, you have to deal with Northeast Tennessee red clay, not Charlotte clay or Las Vegas dirt. I remember going to the dirt track and actually being a fan, sitting in the back of a pickup truck and watching a race. That was a fun process and something I hadn’t been a part of.”
With the dirt, BMS has lower speeds and is much less aero-dependent than with its concrete surface.
Atlanta, where the Cup Series is this weekend, now features more pack racing. With all these changes, Swift likes how they’ve create new challenges for the drivers.
The name Swift is familiar to local basketball fans. Steve is the son of the late ETSU legend Harley “Skeeter” Swift, who went on to play five seasons in the ABA. Steve and his siblings played basketball in high school, and his nephew, Dawson Wagner, helped West Ridge capture the District 1-4A championship this season.
“I played basketball and football through school and played football in college,” Swift said. “Dawson’s got a love for basketball and he had the growth spurt to get up around 6-9, so he’s got a true shot to make that next level. Despite our crazy schedule, I got to sneak away and watch a couple of his games this season.”
Steve Swift played for legendary Sullivan Central skipper Dickie Warren, who won 922 games as a high school head coach.
Swift, whose daughters do competitive cheer, said he often applies the teamwork learned in other sports to his job with Speedway Motorsports.
“That team orientation you learn at an early age by playing sports helps you move forward in your career,” he said. “You can’t do any of the stuff we do by yourself. It takes the employees of Speedway Motorsports, everybody at NASCAR, the teams and drivers. We take the drivers’ input, not just saying, ‘We’re going to build this, here you go and hope you like it.’
“We use iRacing to simulate these tracks to make sure they produce what we’re looking for. From the operational side, you have the teamwork from the operations department, ticket department, sales department and all the different places. It’s a huge team that makes all this happen and none of these projects happen without a team effort.”