Saturday, June 22, 2019

K&N WEST: Dave Smith's battle to go from instructor to full-time racer

Smith examines his ride for today's Procore 200
PHOTO: Brock Beard
On Monday, during a media appearance featuring Michael Waltrip in a new Toyota Supra, another race car driver lined up behind the two-time Daytona 500 winner in a Camry. The driver was 52-year-old Dave Smith, who was preparing to run Saturday’s K&N Pro Series West race. I had the opportunity to ride with Smith as he followed Waltrip’s red car around the track, very much symbolic of Smith’s efforts to reach NASCAR’s elite level of competition.

Smith grew up just ten minutes from the Sonoma Raceway, where he first caught the racing bug in the Skip Barber Racing School. At the time, the school was hosted in an old barn outside Turn 11, where Smith cleaned the floors, then started working on their fleet of Formula Fords. Smith got his opportunity to take the three-day course himself, and earned high marks from his instructor. He considered a driving career of his own, but the costs made him stay a mechanic. For the next seven years, he worked his way up the ranks in Indy Lights, then IndyCar. He even became the crew chief for several drivers, including open-wheel mainstay Oriol Servia and Cup veteran Casey Mears.

But Smith wasn’t content to stay a mechanic, and “hung up my wrenches,” he recalled, in 1999. He returned to the driving school at Sonoma, which was now run by Jim Russel after Skip Barber moved to Laguna Seca. This time, Smith was an instructor, and earned the opportunity to run part-time in multiple road racing disciplines. “I got some one-off opportunities in Trans-Am, ALMS, and Porsche Cup car, Daytona Prototype with Greg Pickett Racing,” said Smith. “Did a lot of 25-hour endurance races at Thunderhill, tested a lot, drove a lot of different race cars – so many, and all that helped me become a better driver.”

But all of these drives were part-time or one-and-done efforts, often with limited practice to become familiar with each car. “[I’ve] never really got that break of being a full-time – in a full-time seat for a full season, where the car’s been personalized to me. I’m always hopping in somebody else’s car at the last minute. . .no testing, no practice.”

This trend has also defined Smith’s current efforts in the K&N Pro Series West, where he’s run no more than two races a year since 2010. This includes his car for today’s Procore 200. Smith’s #35 is a steel-bodied car acquired from Bill McAnally Racing with brand-new parts underneath, including a new motor and transmission. As per usual, Smith had never even seen it, much less driven it, before Friday’s opening practice. “I’m gonna hop in it. First time today and go give it hell. So, it’s gonna be fun. It’s stressful, but as long as the car works, I’ll be okay out there.”

Smith’s car this year is fielded by Dusty Baker – yes, that Dusty Baker, the former manager of baseball’s San Francisco Giants. Baker’s current venture into wine making through Baker Family Wines is one of Smith’s sponsors - along with Sonoma Harvest Olive Oil and Wine of Fairfield, owned by a high school friend - and custom wheel company FIKSE Wheels out of Canada, which bought space on his quarter-panels. Spotters from Michael McDowell’s Cup Series team were also on hand to guide his #35 around the track.

Smith's extensive experience at Sonoma – particularly the 2.52-mile configuration on which he continues to run as an instructor – paid dividends. Out of 32 drivers to take time, Smith ran 17th, and was tied for the third-most laps complete behind Lawless Alan and Austin Thorn.

Many of Smith’s competitors in today’s race are the same age as some of the aspiring racers Smith has trained through his own driver development program. But that hasn’t stopped him from trying to reach NASCAR’s highest echelon. Just this week, he’d been looking to pick up a ride for this Sunday’s Toyota / Save Mart 350. He’d had experience running Cup cars, but never in competition. The effort fell short due to a lack of funds. As such, this Sunday’s main event is the first in several years with no so-called “road course ringers” like Smith in the field.

Looking ahead to the Procore 200 itself – and Sunday’s main event, Smith gave some sage advice on how the races will play out from an instructor’s point of view:

“There’s going to be a lot of passing opportunities, and it’s really gonna be about driving these things cautiously aggressive, keeping the tires underneath you, not getting wheel spin. With the horsepower these things have and the little bit of grip in the tires, you have to be so progressive on the throttle, just really be a good throttle management guy, and keep the tires on the car. Soon as you burn them off, they’re just junk, and you’re slipping and sliding around out there. And then the other thing that is critical is not sticking the gearbox and not missing shifts, and not cooking your brakes, either. ‘Cause now, we’re going to have more braking opportunities – high speed braking opportunities – brakes is gonna be the key determining factor, mark my words, for both series this weekend. Brakes are gonna get smoked because we’re gonna be using them so hard.”

“So it’s gonna be the guy who can be conservative enough and good enough on the braking.”

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