Smith had become an urban legend in the Bristol, Tenn.-based IHRA
after winning so much in 1976 and 1977 as a sportsman racer in the
Super Modified division, a class where he won so much that the series
canceled the class. He went professional drag racing at the end of the
1978 season in the Mountain Motor Pro Stock division, where his first
three full seasons scored top finishes of tenth, second and second.
Those seasons Smith raced on someone else's dime. Keith Fowler
owned the Jack Roush-powered Country Shindig Maverick Smith raced as a sportsman, and later the Don Hardy-built Mustang II in Pro Stock.
"I didn't think it was possible to win a sportsman championship," Smith admitted. "When I started racing, I just wanted to outrun Lyle Epperson and Mike Boyles [a seven-time IHRA champion from Smith's hometown of King, NC]. That's the people I just wanted to try to beat. I had no idea I'd go any further than that. And it just kept going. I just started winning, and I got hooked up with Keith, and then I got to winning."
Smith had plenty of reasons to doubt himself heading into 1982
after the way his 1981 ended. At the tail end of the season,
during a match race at Richmond Dragway in Virginia, he lost
control after a tire blew on the Oak Ridge Boys-sponsored
Mustang II and crashed, destroying the machine. Then Fowler
informed Smith he wasn't rebuilding and was out of drag racing.
Smith knew he would take whatever steps necessary to keep
racing at the level he'd ascended. He wasn't a quitter, even
though the odds were mightily stacked against him. Smith drew on his youth for inspiration as Fowler supplemented his racing mightily.
"I'm not bragging, but it's just the way I played ball, the way I played," Smith said. "You can talk to my football coach; you can talk to anybody in high school. I was athlete of the year my senior year and most valuable player in football. First time here that had ever been done far as a lineman. It's normally quarterbacks, and running backs got all that stuff. But that's how hard I worked in high school to be the best. I did not like to get beat."
Smith realized he could run with the veterans like Bob Glidden, Warren Johnson, and Ronnie Sox or the veterans of the day and had the stats to prove it.
"I said, 'I am as good as they are, driving these cars. I just got to try to do this," Smith said.
Smith borrowed $30,000 to purchase the engine and transmission out of the crashed Mustang II from Fowler. And it came at a time when Smith was the move vulnerable financially.
"We had just built the house that we live in right now and moved into it in '79," Smith recalled. "I mean, here I am, got a mortgage at the house, I'm a damn bulldozer operator. And I took a chance, and I went and borrowed the money."
Enter engine builder Jon Kaase. Kaase's top client and friend "Dyno" Don Nicholson had just retired, leaving the masterful engine builder without a flagship client.
"Kaase and I had become really good friends," Smith said. "I was going down there [to his shop], tearing the motors down, washing parts, and he'd do the machine work and all that and help me put them back together. He told me, he said, 'Man, I'll help you. Just whatever you want to do, I'm going to help you."
Smith next went to Don Hardy, who in turn helped him with a chassis and talked Hairy Glass, a leading fiberglass manufacturer at the time, into donating a 1982 Mustang body. Smith had a good track record, so obtaining parts sponsorships wasn't an overwhelming challenge. With a complete operation in possession, Smith understood it took money to make it go down the track. That's when Smith's side job came into play. Remember when we said Smith was a bruising football player and athlete? His toughness as an offensive guard and middle linebacker earned him a spot as a bouncer at a country-western nightclub, which would become pivotal in his drag racing.
"I was working some on Friday and Saturday night, just trying to make some extra money," Smith admitted.
That's when Smith befriended club owner Wayne Wilson, as Smith described as a "big ole' fella," with a voice so deep he could be one of the Oak Ridge Boys.
Smith became Wilson's "boy" for his willingness to do whatever it took. Wilson's club, Standing Room Only, lived up to its reputation for overflowing crowds primarily due to its entertainment value.
"That place was packed every Friday and Saturday night," Smith recalled. "He turned away a lot. He couldn't get them in there because of the Fire Marshal. And it went on its way for years."
After the mechanical bull fad ran its course, Wilson's brand of Tough Man contests played right into Smith's hand. It was a Battle of the Bouncers, and Smith set out to prove his mettle to Wilson. Bouncers from clubs all over the area came to represent their clubs and owners. Smith was determined to make Wilson the envy of the other club owners. It was an obstacle course of sorts.
"You had to start and run through a wall," Smith explained. "Then you had to stop and hit this punching bag, and that scored a lot of points. You had to ring that. You had a few other things you had to do, and then at the very end of it, they had sheets of that damn particle board stuff or whatever it was. It's like plywood, but it's called particle board. They had full-made sheets of that stuff. You rang the bell after you busted through that particle board."
Smith, the same one who had fought a monkey at the King County Fair as a teenager and got whipped, won the Battle of the Bouncers. Smith's willingness to do whatever, combined with the Battle of Bouncers victory, got Wilson's attention. Wilson knew Smith was a championship drag racer.
When Wilson inquired about Smith's drag racing, he told the boss he had everything to go racing with except for money.
"I said, 'Wayne, I'll tell you what. You give me $10,000, and you have a door on the car," Smith said.
Wilson responded, "$10,000?"
"I said, "Yeah."
"And we all thought that was a lot of money. He said, 'Man, I don't know."
Smith said they went back and forth all evening with Wilson, saying at the end of the night, "I'm going to do that with you, bro. I'm going to take a chance with you and see what happens. I'm going to give you the $10,000."
Smith rolled into the first IHRA event in 1982 without any
spare parts and just one engine.
Smith went a couple of rounds at the IHRA Winternationals
in Darlington, SC, but the next event finished runner-up to
Warren Johnson in Rockingham, NC. Smith added two more
wins to clinch the championship. Smith had pulled off the
most improbable championship.
"I won it with a $10,000 sponsorship," Smith said. "When I
finished that season and Kaase was doing my work, and he
wasn't charging me hardly anything but just enough to, I guess, cover his labor or whatever. But when I finished that season, I had absolutely nothing to spare. Nothing. When I finished the season, I had a spare Lencoo I'd fixed up and a short block. We didn't have enough to do heads and everything else, but we had a spare short block. So if we broke a rod or done something like that, we could at least get it back going. And that's kind of what I had at the end of the year. I'd saved up."
Smith would go on to win four IHRA Pro Stock championships on the strength of an unprecedented 31 national event wins, with 22 runner-up finishes. In 1997, Smith transitioned to IHRA's Pro Modified division and won in only his second national event. Four years later, NHRA brought in Pro Modified on an exhibition basis, and it was Smith winning the very first national event in Gainesville, Fla.
Smith has officially won 16 NHRA events since the class became a recognized series in NHRA.
Smith is well on his way to the Hall of Fame induction, and even though he's in the twilight of his career isn't about to tip his hand regarding the future. The path to get there, Smith says, is nothing short of a miracle.
"You couldn't have told me back then it would turn out the way it has," Smith admitted. "Didn't win it on money, won it on sheer determination and the willingness never to quit. Have you ever just wanted something so bad? Well, that was me. I wanted it bad."
RICKIE SMITH GETS FIRST WIN OF 2022 SEASON IN NHRA PRO MOD
Rickie Smith had a simple objective, make it to the end of the season without going broke.
Remaining solvent was Smith's mindset 40 years ago, in 1982 when the decorated sportsman world champion who turned professional drag racer entered his first season as a team owner. Smith learned much about himself that season despite sharing the same mindset as his critics. He had no clue he would survive, much less win a world championship.
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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.
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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.
Rickie Smith advanced to his fifth straight final round on Sunday in the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon and broke through for his first victory of the 2022 season at Brainerd International Raceway as part of the Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals.
The event, which was powered by Stinar, was the sixth of 10 races during the 2022 season in the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon. Smith made a major move in the points standings as well, picking up the win over Doug Winters with a run of 5.791-seconds at 250.92 mph in his nitrous-powered Sokal Camaro in the championship round.
Winters had the advantage on the starting line, but Smith tracked him down early, cruising to the victory with another run in the 5.70s this weekend. The multi-time world champion reached the finals with victories against Khalid AlBalooshi, Mike Castellana and two-time world champ Stevie “Fast” Jackson, also posting a .018 reaction time during his win in the second round.
The longtime standout also pulled within 25 points of leader Kris Thorne with four races remaining this season.
“Points are way far out of my mind,” Smith said. “I wanted to win a race before I retire again this year. We’ve done it. Unless I win another one, this may be the last time you see me win an NHRA race. It’s just been awesome to stay out here this late in my career. Thank you NHRA and thank you D-Wagon for putting up the money. God bless everybody and I love all of you.”
Despite falling in the finals, Winters enjoyed a memorable day en route to his first career final round in the category. He upset No. 1 qualifier Thorne, who won the D-Wagon NHRA Pro Mod Shootout on Saturday, and J.R. Gray as he was searching for his first career win.
The FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon returns to action as part of the prestigious Dodge Power Brokers NHRA U.S. Nationals on Aug. 31-Sept. 5 at Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park.
Final finish order (1-16) at the 40th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. The race is the sixth of 10 events in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series.
1. Rickie Smith; 2. Doug Winters; 3. Steve Jackson; 4. Mike Castellana; 5. JR Gray; 6. Jose Gonzalez; 7. Lyle Barnett; 8. Sidnei Frigo; 9. Justin Bond; 10. Khalid alBalooshi; 11. Kris Thorne; 12. Mike Thielen.
Sunday's final results from the 40th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway. The race is the sixth of 10 events in the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series.
Pro Modified -- Rickie Smith, Ford Mustang, 5.791, 250.92 def. Doug Winters, Chevy Chevelle, 5.997, 240.34.
Point standings (top 10) following the 40th annual Lucas Oil NHRA Nationals at Brainerd International Raceway, the sixth of 10 events in the FuelTech NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series presented by D-Wagon.
1. Kris Thorne, 535; 2. Rickie Smith, 510; 3. Steve Jackson, 350; 4. Justin Bond, 330; 5. Jose Gonzalez, 303; 6. JR Gray, 276; 7. Lyle Barnett, 271; 8. Doug Winters, 263; 9. Mike Thielen, 244; 10. Khalid alBalooshi, 226.
RICKIE SMITH REVELS IN A WIN-WIN FINAL ROUND
THE WILL TO NEVER QUIT - RICKIE SMITH'S FIRST SEASON AS A TEAM OWNER SET THE STAGE
MULTI-TIME WORLD CHAMP RICKIE SMITH CLAIMS FIRST NHRA PRO MOD WIN OF 2020 AT GAINESVILLE