Veteran team owner-driver Rickie Smith received the 2019 Mike Aiello "Spirit of Drag Racing" Award Sunday morning before eliminations at the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
CompetitionPlus.com owner and publisher Bobby Bennett made the surprise presentation to Smith, of King, N.C. The Mike Aiello Award recipient is someone who has persevered and remained positive in spite of hardship.
On a special weekend that saw him share the
winner’s circle with his son, Matt, multi-time world
champ Rickie Smith raced to his first win of the
2020 E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag
Racing Series season on Sunday, beating Mike
Janis in the final round of the 51st annual AMALIE
Motor Oil Gatornationals at Gainesville Raceway.
It was the fourth race of the season in the class and Smith became the fourth different winner in the talent-filled category, going 5.801-seconds at 249.63 mph in his nitrous-powered Camaro to defeat Janis, a former world champ.
Smith, racing for just the second time in 2020, reached his 25th career final round with victories against Doug Winters, Jim Whiteley and No. 1 qualifier Brandon Snider. He never trailed in the championship round and rolled to his first win this season and 16th in his stellar Pro Mod career. Smith’s son, Matt, also won on Sunday in Pro Stock Motorcycle to add to the excitement.
“I’m just amazed that God has let me do this for this long,” Smith said. “You’ve just got to not make mistakes and stay focused. The older you get, the harder it is to stay focused. But I’m so tickled about this.”
Janis advanced to his 12th career final round with wins against Kris Thorne, Chad Green, and Khalid alBalooshi. Janis also jumped into the points lead and now holds a 16-point advantage against reigning world champion Stevie “Fast” Jackson with three races remaining in 2020.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series continues Oct. 2-4 with the Mopar Express Lane NHRA Midwest Nationals presented by Pennzoil at World Wide Technology Raceway in St. Louis.
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Rickie Smith cannot help it. When he discusses a feat he or his team have earned, he gets misty-eyed, and his voice cracks with emotion.
Sunday's all Rickie Smith Racing final, was enough to make the iconic doorslammer racer turn on the waterworks.
"Without my wife, and God and you can put that in print, Rickie Smith wouldn't be nowhere," Smith said, the emotion getting the best of him.
As NHRA announcer Alan Rinehart put it, "Rickie Smith is racing himself in the final round, and he's not driving either one of them. That's not easy to do. Rickie has done a lot of things in racing, but he's never done that before."
The former two-sport high school star in football and wrestling pulled off a first-time feat during Sunday's Dodge NHRA Nationals while drivers Jonathan Gray and Bo Butner put his nitrous-injected Jerry Bickel-built Chevrolet Camaros in the final.
"Jonathan and Bo did a good job," Smith said. "Luckily I was good enough to get two cars stepped up and running like they're supposed to be running today. I've kind of been conservative with them trying to get them comfortable in the car and teach them how to drive these things. I told [Jonathan and Bo] this morning, I said, 'Guys, I got to start feeding these things. Power and do what I can. Y'all just need to stay ahead of them. And let's see if we can get down the track."
"Everybody did their job today."
Smith isn't going to complain about winning a clean sweep final round, but the outspoken drag racer who is rehabbing from back surgery would have loved to have been in one those cars.
"I know I'm getting older and all that, but I feel ..." Smith said, pausing to choose his words. "Jonathan and Bo realize it's hard to have a good life with a nitrous car."
Being on the outside as opposed to the inside and outside might have very well been a blessing for Smith, who also tunes both cars in his stable.
"I'm happy that all the cars are not torn up bad," Smith explained. "We broke one transmission. We got lucky. They had to send me over to Jonathan. His car had broken a transmission. And after that, everything in the final, what happened to Bo, his car went harder. Luckily it even got down the track. The outside of the cylinder head cracked and was dripping water on the track when he left."
Smith expects to be back behind the wheel of his Camaro now sporting Trump/Pence 2020 livery, at the NHRA U.S. Nationals over the Labor Day weekend. Sunday's performance, Smith said, was indicative of the caliber drivers he has piloting his cars. "Both of these guys are doing me a tremendous favor by renting these cars and letting me stay alive out here," Smith admitted. "I just tried to give them both a good car. I feel like both of them would have run within a hundredth of each other if Bo's car hadn't had just took that hard ride. It really wasn't nobody fault."
For Smith, walking away from the starting line, he had flashbacks to the days when he raced a Jack Roush Maverick powered Maverick and won so many Super Modified races the IHRA cancelled the class. And later as a dreamer running a Mustang II Pro Stocker sponsored by the Oak Ridge Boys. There's no way he could have envisioned what happened on Sunday back then.
"I would have said no way," Smith said. "When I started this stuff, running East Bend, Farmington and Piedmont, places like that, I just was tickled to death to go run against the Lyle Loveless and Mike Boyles. That was the two people that I wanted to outrun around home because they were bad to the bone.
"I kind of patterned myself after those guys when I first got started and was just trying to compete with them. And then when I went on into Pro Stock then that's when Bob Glidden, Ronnie Sox and Warren Johnson were the guys that I really wanted to outrun. Those were three guys that I based myself to be like and try to do. I don't know if you could have got any better to try to go after, but if you're going to be the best, you got to beat the best."
Though Smith looked more like nitro team owner Don Schumacher, Sunday's final round was also a way for Smith to send a message to some of those he says have been talking smack.
"A lot of people would run their mouth on the internet over the winter," Smith said. "And I ain't got to mention no names. Everybody knows who it is and how bad they're going to be with a nitrous car and how bad they're going to do me and this and that. Well, we pretty much showed how the only reason I'm not badder than I am is just money.
"I mean, I don't have the money to run these things but so hard. It's the way I put food on my table and pay my bills and stuff like that. This is not a hobby for me. And I just have to watch how I run these cars and not tear them up. Because then I can't even be out here.
"I'm just tickled to death that everything worked out today. I knew I could tune these things up a little and run better than we were running. And I went after it today and today was a good day."
But as Smith gets the credit, he is quick to point out a backbone of the team is one who gets very little if any part of the spotlight.
"I try to surround myself with good people, and Chad Hester is one of them," Smith said. "Eleven years now he's stuck by my side. It's been tough sometimes. It's tough this year. Chad's had to go work for Tyler, my cousin in concrete. This has been a tough year. This is the first time since Chad's been working with me, that I would have figured out if I had to go borrow money I'd make sure he got paid."
And on Sunday, with all the hard work, everyone got paid, especially the man who made it happen - Rickie Smith. His payment had nothing to do with money, and everything about proving a point.
RICKIE SMITH BECOMES 14th RECIPIENT OF MIKE AIELLO AWARD
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RICKIE SMITH REVELS IN A WIN-WIN FINAL ROUND
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RICKIE SMITH GOES WIRE TO WIRE TO EARN 15th NHRA CAREER WIN
Rickie Smith finished up an impressive weekend at World Wide Technology Raceway with his first victory of the season in E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service action, beating points leader Stevie "Fast" Jackson in the final round on Sunday.
The series was presented by the Real Pro Mod Association (RPM) in St. Louis and marked the 10th of 12 races in 2019.
Smith, a three-time world champion in the class, was on top in his nitrous-powered Bahrain1 Racing Camaro all weekend, qualifying No. 1 for the second straight race and going 5.768-seconds at 252.19 mph to beat Jackson in the final round. It also is Smith's class-best 15th career victory.
"It's pretty awesome, at my age, to be fighting like this with these young cats," Smith said. "I saw Stevie run a 5.77 and thought there's no way I can run that, and then I run 5.76. Then he runs a 5.74 and I run a 5.72, so it was pretty exciting this weekend. I've got three awesome kids and wife that stand behind me."
Smith, who qualified No. 1 with a 5.724 at 252.43, beat Alex Laughlin, Michael Biehle and Mike Castellana, who beat Smith in the Indy finals, to reach the championship round.
Jackson, who was the defending event winner and qualified second this weekend, advanced to his fifth final round in 2019 and 12th in his career thanks to wins against Carl Stevens Jr., defending world champ Mike Janis and Todd Tutterow. He also stretched his commanding points lead to 156 points heading into the final two events of the 2019 season.
The E3 Spark Plugs NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by J&A Service continues at the NTK NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway in Charlotte. It will be the 11th of 12 races during the 2019 season.
ROUND ONE -- Rickie Smith, Chevy Camaro, 5.771, 251.67 def. Alex Laughlin, Camaro, 6.085, 248.84; Mike Castellana, Camaro, 5.809, 248.66 def. Sidnei Frigo, Camaro, 5.919, 249.81; Steve Jackson, Camaro, 5.769, 249.67 def. Carl Stevens, Camaro, Broke - No Show; Khalid alBalooshi, Camaro, 5.814, 253.66 def. Scott Oksas, Ford Mustang, 9.800, 84.49; Brandon Snider, Chevy Corvette, 5.771, 247.34 def. Steven Whiteley, Camaro, 9.677, 94.18; Todd Tutterow, Camaro, 5.820, 248.07 def. Steve Matusek, Mustang, 5.884, 246.84; Mike Janis, Camaro, 5.835, 248.25 def. Eric Latino, Camaro, 5.864, 248.66; Michael Biehle, Mustang, 5.859, 252.33 def. Bob Rahaim, Camaro, 5.817, 246.75;
QUARTERFINALS -- Jackson, 5.768, 250.27 def. Janis, 5.822, 247.38; Tutterow, 5.814, 248.75 def. alBalooshi, 5.910, 250.18; Smith, 5.788, 251.11 def. Biehle, 5.835, 252.80; Castellana, 5.789, 248.16 def. Snider, 5.796, 246.21;
SEMIFINALS -- Jackson, 5.780, 250.27 def. Tutterow, 5.800, 248.71; Smith, 5.781, 252.43 def. Castellana, 8.006, 115.78;
FINAL -- Smith, 5.768, 252.19 def. Jackson, 7.413, 113.99.
It honors the Houston native and standout college athlete at Texas Tech University who was a longtime drag-racing fan and former National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock crew member. The honor commonly is referred to as "The Spirit of Drag Racing Award.”
Aiello spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, he not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among racers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior. Aiello passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39, at Santa Monica, California.
Smith, 66, is a seven-time International Hot Rod Association Pro Stock and Super Modified champion. His first championship since 1989 came in 2013, when he earned his first of three NHRA Pro Modified titles. He also won the ADRL Battle of the Belts in 2013 and the 2015 PDRA Pro Mod crown.
He has shared his success with Pro Stock Motorcycle-racing son Matt Smith. In 2013, they won titles in their respective classes, becoming the NHRA’s only father/son duo to win a series championship in the same season. Earlier that year, in a race at Norwalk, Ohio, they shared the winners circle.
He has overcome financial obstacles in an era when big budgets seem to rule.
“I know what hard work is. I know how it is to be broke. I was that way for a long time, and I’m scared to go back that way. I just worked hard. It was juts hard work that won them championships. I’ve done it the best I can with the money I had,” Smith said.
He has overcome what he contends were unfavorable rules changes through the years and proved himself competitive in spite of sometimes costly changes he had to make on his car.
“Rickie Smith has been out here a long time,” he said, referring to himself in third person, “and been through a ton of rule changes . . . NHRA, IHRA, whatever. And I’ve won 11 championships.”
He has overcome back surgery that forced him to miss four NHRA Pro Mod races in 2017. Upon his return to the dragstrip, at Englishtown, N.J., that year, Smith won the race. And that season, as he tuned the race cars of Khalid Al-Balooshi and Jonathan Gray, all three finished in the top 10 in the final standings.
Years ago, as an ultra-competitive high-school athlete, he even overcame the vicious punch of a nasty sideshow monkey that broke his jaw. He went back and defeated the monkey in a rematch.
And this man who won the first NHRA Pro Modified race in 2001 at Gainesville, Fla., has overcome the physical wear and tear of time.
“Since the 10th grade, I’ve been competitive. It’s a stress to be No. 1. When you’ve done it since the 10th grade of school, it’s tough to keep that going.
“It takes every nickel and dime to do this stuff. It’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “[It’s] lot of thinking, a lot of nights laying and just rolling in the bed, you know what I mean? I live and breathe and eat this stuff, and I have for 40-some years.”
However, Smith said, “I’m one in a million who has made a living for 30 years and won  championships.” It has come with a price, too, he said: “I’m gone from my family. I’m gone from my wife [Nancy]. I didn’t get to raise my kids; my wife had to do that. I missed a lot of time back then. But I’m blessed to still be able to do what I do and get myself fired up to do this stuff. It’s tough.”
Smith has been recognized for his on-track achievements. He was one of the original four – along with NHRA founder Wally Parks, IHRA giant Larry Carrier, and Top Fuel icon “Big Daddy” Don Garlits as one of the original four Legends of Thunder Valley at Bristol Dragway. He was inducted into the NHRA Southeast Division and North Carolina halls of fame. In 2007, Smith was chosen the No. 1 Mountain Motor Pro Stock Racer of All-Time.
He said he wants fans to remember him as “a hard-ass racer” and “somebody who helped the other racer when he needed help.”
Smith, who said every statement and action “comes from the heart,” joins a prestigious list of Mike Aiello Award recipients.
Crew chief John Medlen received the inaugural Mike Aiello Award in 2007, followed by Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson (2008), Pro Stock's Mike Edwards (2009), International Hot Rod Association racer and journalist Michael Beard (2010), NHRA Funny Car racer Jack Beckman (2011), and former IHRA President Aaron Polburn (2012). Top Fuel racer Antron Brown and Top Alcohol Dragster’s Shawn Cowie shared the 2013 honor. Steve Johnson was honored in 2014, Don Schumacher in 2015, Leah Pritchett in 2016, brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana in 2017, and Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen in 2018.
MULTI-TIME WORLD CHAMP RICKIE SMITH CLAIMS FIRST NHRA PRO MOD WIN OF 2020 AT GAINESVILLE
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