This weekend Novato native returns to a track and quirk — the downturn known as The Carousel — he’s much more familiar with, Sonoma Raceway.
Sonoma Raceway, formerly Sears Point Raceway, celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and no weekend is likely to surpass the attendance this weekend — NASCAR weekend.
What better way to celebrate a big anniversary than a return to an old feature of the 2.52-mile course for this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 race and Saturday’s Procore 200 West Series race.
“That’s a great idea, I’m glad they did,” said Michael Waltrip, a former driver and current analyst for Fox Sports racing coverage. “The Carousel was always one of the most challenging parts of the course. I enjoyed that challenge, coming up that hill, road falling out from underneath you… it’s a real fun part of the racetrack. It’s going to create opportunity for fans, who like when it looks cool. It’s going to look cool on TV.
“I remember the first time (I was on it), I’d never driven anywhere like this…” he continued. “Sonoma is more of a technical short race. When we first showed up, people were running off the road and flipping over…I would know, I was one of them. You don’t see much (road racing) like this anymore.”
The raceway’s NASCAR course map hasn’t included The Carousel since the 1997 season, and none of the current Cup Series drivers had driven the course prior to this week’s practices. Mark Martin, who won the 1997 Save Mart Supermarkets 300, was the last to run on the full road course.
“When I started in 1990 at Skip Barber Racing School, (Sonoma was) one of the most challenging courses in the world. I figured, ‘What a better place to learn and train at?’ If you got really good at this track, things would come a lot easier. It’s like swinging the donuts when you’re in the on-deck circle,” Smith said. “I was lucky enough to train there for 25 years…the beauty of Sears Point is all the different elevations, high speed, medium and low speed turns, and four notably blind crest turns where you don’t know if its going right or left. It takes a bit of discipline to not over-drive.”
Smith has his own strategy for The Carousel, but it promises to be a portion of each of the laps that should create a lot of action.
The training there and proximity of the raceway to Smith helped prepare him for what his driving career has looked like.
“My story has always been hopping in anything any time, anywhere… I remember when I was working with some of the old school guys at Skip Barber: Brett Bodine, Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt; a lot of those guys told me either ‘Put in the front or bring it back on a hook,’” Smith said. “There’s nothing happening unless you’re winning races, so if you get an opportunity you want to take advantage. Drive the wheels off of it; even if you can’t win, let everyone know you run it in the front. Hopefully you got someone’s attention.
“Every opportunity I get I try to charge pretty hard. NASCAR, it’s like car to car combat…you have to be super diligent on spacing. My whole background has been control. I’ve been an instructor for so long, so I hope it helps this weekend. But I’m pretty comfortable in anything at any time.”
Smith should be relatively comfortable this weekend, driving Sonoma Raceway for his eighth time, and third with the support of someone who knows just what he’s talking about when he mentions donuts in the on-deck circle.
“It was pretty random. I was in Dallas waiting for a flight. My seat was right next to Dusty (Baker), who was already on the plane. I put my luggage up above him and overheard his phone conversation. He had a friend pass away, and I had too, so we struck up a conversation. Next thing we know we were talking for three hours on the way to Sacramento,” Smith said. “He was flying coach, because he’s a down-to-earth guy, a down-to-earth coach. He wanted to know what I did for a living and he started getting into it. As a kid he liked the Underdog cartoon and he was an underdog baseball player. He made it (it the pros) and liked my story. The next day invited me to his house.
“He lives in Granite Bay and I was in West Sacramento. I went down and he wanted to put his name on a car and he made that happen. It was unfortunate it was last minute, I didn’t do so well,” Smith recounted of his meeting with Baker, for whom he sells solar energy for now. “He supports me mentally and on the racing side. He’s a coach and that’s what he does with everyone: he makes me a better guy. He’s invited me to games, I got to meet Barry Bonds, hung out in the dugout.”
Despite not reaching the heights of Earnhardt, Bodine and Wallace, Smith has had a notable career in racing, one that has him back on the track at Sonoma Raceway during their 50th anniversary.
“I didn’t plan it that way, I planned to drive for a team full time, but the stars didn’t line up,” said Smith, who regularly works as a racing instructor. “It’s nice that they want to learn from you. It’s nice to give back and help others get better.”
“At my age I’m just happy to still be out there with some of the best in the business.”
Source: Martin Independent Journal