INTERVIEW - RICKIE SMITH HOLDS COURT, PT. 1
Rickie Smith, an 11-time national champion, is in the midst of one of the strangest, most frustrating years of his long, stellar career.
One of the godfathers of Pro Modified racing, the King, N.C., veteran has reached the finals only once in the eight of 12 races for the class on the NHRA schedule. He’s made it to the semifinals at one other race, been eliminated in the first round of eliminations four times, and was a non-qualifier in back-to-back races at Bristol and Topeka.
Most of the performance shortfalls have been in a turbocharged ‘67 Mustang, though he did finish second to Mike Janis at Charlotte at the 4-Wide Nationals. His nitrous-boosted 2018 Camaro is having difficulty keeping pace with the supercharged entries that have won all but one event to date.
Smith will go into more detail on these topics, but his current state of frustration based in two areas:
* NHRA has historically kept supercharged, turbocharged and nitrous cars competitive by means such as adding weight to whichever one has a distinct performance advantage … but hasn’t done anything to bring the dominant supercharged contingent back into contention with the others this year.
* He’s truly concerned that if NHRA doesn’t announce changes to rectify that situation for the 2020 season -- if not sooner, such as during the current long break for the Pro Mods before the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals on Labor Day weekend -- it could ruin the fan-favorite class.
CP: How frustrating has this season been for you?
Smith: The thing that disappoints me so much is that I’ve been out here 46 years and see a lot go on, and this is the first time -- since we’ve been running this Pro Modified pretty much steady since 2010 -- it’s the first time I’ve seen them let one power adder dominate this long.
Why would a sanctioning body do something like this? It’s showing up pretty good. We went from having 30-40 cars trying to get in and we’re lucky now to get 22-23 -- and sooner or later, if they don’t realize what’s going, we’ll be lucky to have 18 or 19 showing up. When I was outrunning the field sometimes by two or three hundredths on Sunday, they didn’t give me 24 hours and they’d knock me down (by making him add weight to his cars). …
Superchargers have dominated all year. They’d have won more (Virginia, won by Sidnei Frigo’s turbo) if Stevie (Jackson) hadn’t been late, which is unusual; that stuff happens, so it ain’t no big deal. It’s not just Stevie, you’ve got Todd (Tutterow), you’ve got (Mike) Janis, you’ve got Manzo (crew chief for Mike Castellana), so it ain’t like one guy was doing it, it was the four or five blower cars that run good were dominating. I will tell you they've had Low ET every race except for one race to this point. They’ve been dominating four and five hundredths. I was .02 quicker, maybe three sometimes, and they’d put weight on me. They did Troy Coughlin the same way for years. They’d make a rule change by the fourth or fifth race, all the time, to get us back under control, and for this sanctioning body to let this thing go as far as they have -- eight races, four left -- it’s pretty sad that they would not step up and do their job and do what they’re supposed to do and keep parity in this class. They pretty much killed the nitrous car, which is why I went to the turbo car.
CP: What’s been the big issue with the turbo Mustang’s performance? It was DQ’d at Topeka, it didn’t qualify at Bristol, and you went back to the nitrous car last week for Norwalk.
Smith: I’ll admit that this thing is a struggle to keep all the electrical stuff working on it. The sensors, the wastegates -- it’s the biggest mess I’ve ever seen to try to race a car that professional with this much bullcrap on it going on. (Steve) Petty basically couldn’t get it all straightened out, Brad Personett couldn’t get it worked out but he’s got (teammate Khalid) alBalooshi’s going on. Like I told him last night, ‘Brad, you can’t tune two of these cars at a race track and have them both do good.’ I tuned three nitrous cars in one year, all of us finished in the top 10, two of us won races, but there’s not so much electronics on it. It takes one guy to concentrate on this car between rounds steadily fixing stuff that has gone wrong or will go wrong. One guy tuning two cars ain’t gonna work. Petty is just strung out. He did me a good job, but his main pay is (Jose Gonzalez’s car), then he had Brandon (Stroud) from Frigo’s team pulling on him, then he the guy from Michael Biele’s over there in the trailer pulling on him and looking at stuff. I told them, ‘Look, let’s just let Brad do mine.’ From that point on, Frigo started running more consistent and he’s won a race and been in a final. One guy cannot hardly tune two cars and have two bad-ass turbo cars -- there’s just too much going on. … It was just the boost (as a non-qualifier at Bristol); couldn’t get the boost up on it. When you’re down three pounds of boost in a turbo car, it ain’t gonna run.
CP: You got to the finals with the turbo car, then what happened?
Smith: The car was running good. About the second qualifying run at Atlanta, this car went to crap and we couldn’t get the boost back up on it. It’s just been a mess ever since then to try to get the thing fixed where the boost would come back on it to run speed. … still down about a pound.
I don’t know what I’ll do next year as far as cars. Don’t even know for sure if I’m going to race again, I’m just kind of watching the rules package. The nitrous cars is what I’m good at and that’s what I want to run. Basically they (NHRA) need to do what they’ve done before is slow the faster car down, not tell the nitrous car to go spend $200,000 and pick up, but slow the turbo and the blower cars down, which won’t cost anybody anything, and let us all go race.
If they don’t do something with that, I’m just not going to come out and be behind because of rules. It’s not that I can’t do this anymore. I said I’d quit when I couldn’t do it and I will. But you take a nitrous car, I’m as good as anybody out there, period, I don’t care who. I showed this past weekend at Norwalk, when I want to run, I’ll run. First round, I made a dang good run in the heat of the day and went 5.77, (Castellana) goes 5.73, so there’s four hundreths right there. In qualifying, Chad (Green) went 5.75 (in a nitrous car), (Castellana) went 5.70. I don’t know how you can be so naive about what’s going on and not make a rule change. It’s a shame the professionalism of the sanctioning body is not doing the job, and that’s what I’ve got to say.
CP: What happened at Topeka, when your Friday runs in the turbo car were disallowed? It was a problem with the firmware, right?
Smith: “We had a problem in Atlanta, blew the motor up in the first round of eliminations. Friday at Topeka, Q1, the dash flickered on and off. We looked it over in the pits. When I go to crank the car up for Q2, the dash goes solid white. The dash in the turbo car, which is FuelTech, that’s the computer, the whole brains to it. The dash went bad. We came back after Q2 and Petty went and got a dash -- I don’t know whether it was Frigo’s trailer or Jose’s trailer -- and gives it to Chad, my crew chief, and tells him to put it in the car. Petty forgot to download the NHRA software in it, which is a spec firmware number. I’ve never tuned this car, I’ve never done anything to a turbo car as far as tuning or electronics at that point.
Once they found it Friday night at Topeka, we addressed the issue. I turned right around and called Petty and Ned (Walliser, NHRA vice president of competition) and Jacob, one of their main tech guys. When they told me it was not the right firmware, I called Petty and put it on speakerphone. He remembered it happening at Atlanta and he told them it was all his fault, he just forgot to put that firmware in it. So, they took it that night and they’d let us know the next morning. I know pretty much what they did, they went over everything in it to see if we were cheating or trying to use traction control or whatever bullcrap they want to look for, but they found out there was nothing funny going it, (Petty) just forgot to put it in there.
Everything was fine Saturday morning, so they just took my runs away for Friday. Went out Saturday morning, me and Balooshi both shook. At that time, the bump was kind of soft, I told Brad, ‘Look, the best thing I can do, the boost is still down on my car, the best thing I can do is go get my nitrous car and go run it. I know where I’m at, I know I can get in with it.’ So I went down to tech and told them I was going to do this. We get the car out and are warming it up, and the tech guy comes by to tech it in and says, ‘I need to hook to the ECU (Electronic Control Unit).’ I looked at him kind of funny and said, ‘Really?’ Nine years or whatever I’ve raced over here with fuel injection, nobody -- nobody -- three Pro Mod championships and 14 or 15 national event wins -- nobody has ever hooked to this ECU to check it for anything. The ECU I run is the old stuff, it can’t make traction control, so nobody’s ever checked it. Well, he decides he’s going to check it. I didn’t care. And he said, ‘Well, you don’t have right firmware in this thing.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘It’s got to be (version) 47.’ I said, ‘Well, I’ve always run 44, that’s the deal I’ve run for years.’ So I turned right around again, called Graham from EFI, put him on speakerphone, both of us standing there, and Graham said, ‘Jacob, we talked about it over the winter and you said there was no problem with that box. There was only one car running it and we have no problem with that box.’ So that issue was basically over and I guess took for granted and it was legal.
Well, it wasn’t as far as they were concerned. So then they told me, ‘You can still run your turbo car.’ At this point, I’m pretty pissed off and said, ‘No, I ain’t running either damn one of them. I’m just done with it for the day.’ My whole deal, nine or 10 years of running this stuff, they’ve never, ever hooked to my ECU box. I can’t say 100 percent, but I don’t know they’ve ever hooked to my ignition box because I don’t run what they call ‘the grid,’ I run a 7531, which is not a traction control box, so they know I’ve never tried to run anything that cheated on traction control or or any of that stuff, so they had no reason to really check me through all these years. It was just a bad deal that happened at Topeka.
The biggest complaint I had was I had run this box in Balooshi’s car the first three races: Gainesville, Houston, Charlotte. They never checked it. My biggest complaint that if this firmware was so critical they approved this winter, why did this car not get checked at the very first race of the year for the right firmware? Balooshi’s car ran three races, me tuning it, and I ran Virginia, the race right before Topeka, with this box in my car. Now we get to Topeka and they started checking it and it ain’t legal. This stuff should’ve been checked at Gainesville, the very first race of the year. Either way, it got overlooked. It’s 50 percent my fault, 50 percent the tech people’s fault for not checking this stuff. It just turned out that I’m the one that paid the price for it by not qualifying. Both of my Friday runs at Topeka, I think, would’ve qualified me in the top half of the field. Just a freak deal.