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PAUL SMITH – STANDING THE TEST OF TIME

Written by Bill Walters; Photos by Cheryl Boone. Posted in :::::: Feature Stories ::::::

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The Florida Nitro Wizard tunes, teaches and wins independently in the corporate-dominated world

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Mike (L), Paul and John Smith (R) were all tuning different fuel cars in Rockingham
Drag racing is a cutthroat sport. It always has been. That's not to say that it isn't filled with wonderful, honest, hard working people. There are plenty of folks like that in drag racing. But come race day, everyone becomes chum in the water waiting for the shark to come and feast. And you better be ready to race. It doesn't matter what class you're in. You race to win. You win to survive.

There is a man from Florida who has survived over 40 years of wear and tear chasing the 'quarter-mile circus' from coast to coast. He's quietly become one of the most brilliant mechanics to ever turn a wrench on a race car, yet he's also a loving husband, father and grandfather, as well as, a tuner, crew chief, race car owner, driver and teacher. He's the man 'everyone' turns to if they're really serious about learning to drive a 7,000 horsepower nitro-burning beast.

Paul Smith is a racing legend in the southeast. He's a proud member of the NHRA Southeast Division 2 Hall of Fame; having driven Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars down almost every track on the east coast. He's won in Top Fuel and Funny Car as a driver and a crew chief.  That's what makes the savvy tuner, who is a master of not abusing his equipment, so dangerous to other competitors. Smith's years of experience along with his ability to negotiate the trickiest of racing surfaces always makes him a threat to win. 

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Drag racing Hall of Famer Smith (in the gray shirt) is the conductor in his pit area
At 60 years of age you might think Smith's driving days are behind him but that's hardly the case. Smith jumped behind the wheel of his Funny Car for testing on Monday after the IHRA Spring Nationals in Rockingham. He drove his Murf McKinney built Chevy Monte Carlo to half track testing a new set up. Paul's sons, John and Mike, both fuel drivers and crew chiefs, rotate in and out of Smith's team frame work. "I'm really proud of him," said Mike modestly. "He got in the Funny Car the day after Jon Capps ran runner-up at Rockingham and made a quick squirt and it looked like he's been doing it for 30 years, which he has."

"I have wanted to get in the car for about a year," said Smith afterward. "We changed a few things and I wanted to check it out. I expect to do it again. I'm going to do some testing on Monday's after a few races to figure out how we can make the car run better. I don't really miss driving, because I think it's for the younger generation, myself."  

Smith, who decades ago made a name for himself as an independent racer behind the wheel the of the extremely popular 'Entertainer' Funny Car, is the perfect person to help understand the differences of Funny Car racing in the past compared to racing against the multiple car corporate teams of today.



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Paul Smith (L) with his granddaughter Magen and son John
"I first started driving Funny Cars in the early 70's, off and on with different cars," recalled Smith, who was born and raised in Miami, Florida. "First it was a couple of cars out of Ohio and then I really started getting serious with the 'Fireball' Vega around 1972 through 1973. Phillips and Short's 'Fireball' Vega was based out of Boynton Beach, Florida (about 50 miles north of Miami), which is the reason Smith moved there, eventually opening the Paul Smith Top Fuel Drag Racing School in the same area. "I drove for a bunch of different owners at match races and stuff like that before I bought my own car," Smith explained. "I used to drive a car called the 'Sir Wells Charger' owned by Fred Wells and I used to switch rides with a fellow named Tom Curvase for about a year, then we switched back. There's a film about old time floppers from Suffolk, Virginia showing the Sir Wells Charger flipping over backwards. Everybody thought I was driving, but it was Curvase, we'd switched the week before that."

Smith finished No. 2 in the world driving the 'Fireball' Vega in 1974. When he failed to qualify for the final race of the season in Ontario, California, the late Shirl Greer walked away with the NHRA Funny Car crown. It was the closest Smith would ever come to winning the NHRA world championship. "We ran really well in Division 2 that season," said Smith, "then we went out to Ontario for the Finals where we ran top speed of the meet. But we broke the rear end and we're forced to go to a higher gear and we just missed qualifying. We ended the season second behind Greer and in front of Don Prudhomme." 

After the 1974 season, Smith teamed up with a friend in Georgia and began driving a Monza flopper. "I raced that car for a while, qualifying No. 2 at the 1975 Gatornationals right behind Prudhomme. After that we kept racing but we never had the kind of major sponsorship needed to be able to run the car right like a lot of our competitors enjoyed. Even back then you needed a thick wallet to stay competitive, but very few cars had major sponsors."

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Mike Smith has driven and served as a crewmember and an instructor for his father
In 1976, Smith acquired his own Funny Car and was off by himself. "In 1977 I started driving a Chevy Vega called 'The Entertainer'." said Smith fondly. "I bought it from Raymond Beedle. I drove that car off and on the IHRA tour, match racing and at several NHRA national events through to 1978. We won a couple of races on the IHRA side. Then in 1978-79, the movie 'The Sting' with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, was a big hit with the song 'The Entertainer'. So a friend of mine, fellow racer Larry Coogle, had a car he called 'The Sting'. I drove that car to a runner-up finish to Billy Meyer at the 1980 NHRA Cajun Nationals. The field was so tough that Prudhomme and Beedle couldn't make the eight-car field. We broke a transmission in the final round or we may have won it."

Besides evolving into a precision tuner, Smith is also a versatile driver. "One year I drove four different Funny Cars," said Smith with a laugh. "I drove for four different teams. At that point I would drive anything that rolled. As long as the money was there and we could race, we'd go racing you understand? I ended up in the Custom Body Enterprises Dodge owned by Fred Castronova and we won several IHRA races with that car."


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Smith guides his Vegas Fuel sponsored Funny Car into the beams.
Smith's career continued to move forward. He opened his own drag racing school in the early 1980's, providing one of the few places in the country where someone with serious aspirations about working or driving a nitro-burning race car could go and learn from the best.

In 1987, Smith hooked up with Chuck Etchells and they formed a formidable pair. "When we started racing, he drove sometimes and I drove sometimes," said Smith. Eventually Smith bought his own Top Fuel car for his son Mike to drive. "Back then Funny Cars were blowing up and experiencing a rash of serious fires so I thought he'd be safer in a Top Fuel car. So we bought a used Top Fuel dragster and ran it at both IHRA and NHRA races. When Chuck and I finally teamed up we actually earned best appearing crew and cars at the U.S. Nationals in 1990. We did well with that car."

Smith raced successfully with Etchells until the end of 1991, winning several IHRA national events. Smith pulled off a rare feat in 1992 when both of his cars finished in the Top 10 in the IHRA point standings. Smith finished second in the Nitro Funny Car point's battle to Del Worsham and he tuned his son Mike to seventh in the Top Fuel standings, including a victory at the Summer Nationals at Cayuga Motorsports Park in Canada.

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Paul Smith (L), Jon Capps and his father John (R)
"It's like this," said Smith, "to be a crew chief like Austin Coil or some of these other high profile crew chiefs it takes years to win a race. Many of today's crew chiefs learn to race with a lot of money. I had a recent sponsor with Jeff Arend and we ran half of 2004 and half of 2005. There wasn't a budget to go test or do anything so we operated under the pressure of not knowing what was going to happen from week to week. It's no way to race or be able to develop new talent with the wrenches.

"Don Schumacher has the ability to hire people for four or five years and gets big money for them to learn how to become top notch crew chiefs.

"You can't become a big time crew chief going from race to race, running a couple of IHRA races then a couple of NHRA events, and sitting out the rest of the year and not learning how to run the new tires," Smith observed. "It's always been an up and down battle for a guy that doesn't have a major sponsor. It's difficult to run and be successful for years if you don't have any money behind you.

"Drag racing's a business. When you start a business constructing buildings and renting them out, it takes years to make a profit and years to make it better. A Funny Car deal is the same way. You hire people and you don't fire them when things are down, you only make changes to make them better or the team better. It takes big money to do that. One multiple car team owner told me it takes $80,000 to $100,000 per race to field a competitive race car. It takes approximately three and a half million dollars a year to field a Funny Car today."
 


 

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Paul Smith at work.
While Smith certainly has never had a huge budget to work with, no one in drag racing can do as much with so little. And he has had the help of several close friends along the way. Smith has enjoyed the long time support of good friend, Vinnie Ferrone, owner of VF Trucking, Inc., a company that serves the Port of New York and New Jersey. Smith would be lost without his right hand man and close friend, Mike Hennessey, who can and does just about everything but drive the race car. Despite the small crew the Florida native is still considered a fierce competitor and respected every time his car pulls to the starting line. You never know when Smith will uncork a monster run.

Of course, one or both of his sons, John and Mike, are at the starting line with Paul every time he runs. He has been blessed enough to have been able to provide his boys with careers in motorsports as an offshoot of his own passion for racing. "John came to me one day," recalls Smith. "It was after he married Rhonda and they found out she was pregnant and they went to the Gatornationals and John drove the car. Anyway, after they qualified he came to me and said 'I'm sure glad you’re my father and I'm sure glad you brought me into racing or I wouldn't have met Rhonda and I wouldn't have a baby coming. I'm sure glad you’re my dad'." Both of Smith's son's could have gone their separate ways after school but they chose to work with their father and it has kept their family close.

"Usually money talks," said Smith in his sometimes abrupt manner. "Nowadays, people go testing after every race on Monday. Years ago, nobody tested. We all tried to make a living with the parts we had. The only reason you ran a major event was to try and get some sort of sponsorship. Then you would match race two or three times a week to make money to feed your family.

"That doesn't go on much anymore," continued Smith. "There aren't many tracks that can afford to pay what it cost to run these cars. Now days, if you don't have the money you can't even be there because of the cost of having six guys working. You have to be able to provide a payroll.

"Years ago it would be me and one other guy racing the car. He would help me drive the truck and start the motor. I worked on the car. We didn't take the engine apart after every run. You'd run it like you should run it, where it wouldn't blow up, and you made money with it.

"Today with these cars the clutch has to come out after every run, you have to seat the pistons, fix the valves and the blower lasts just three runs and has to be stripped.”


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Smith has helped many drivers earn their nitro license.
By comparison, Smith acknowledged that years ago you could take a good motor and run all year with it. "Nitro was once $250 per 55-gallon drum but now the price of the precious fuel has soared to $900 a drum. Drag tires used to be safe for up to 30 runs but now teams are lucky to get two or three runs."

"They were $300 a pair in the old days," says Smith, "but now it cost $1250 to $1500, and sometimes they're only good for one run."

Smith summed up Funny Car's old days compared with today's corporate environment at the track. "Years ago it was a lot of fun to do it," said Smith with a smile. "Now, its still fun and I would love to have a major sponsor and race full time. But you got to have people. I mean you've got to have six to eight people full time and a million dollars. It's a lot different nowadays."

Smith is definitely what you could refer to as an 'old school' drag racer. He doesn't stay cooped up in the transporter studying his computer all day. He is a hand's on crew chief that prefers a little dirt under his nails at the end of the day.

"The computer to me is just a data recorder," Smith elaborated. "I'm too busy looking outside making sure everything is put together right and everything's safe. I'd like to have someone like John or Mike (Smith) to be full time but it takes a lot of money. My sons are computer smart and I'm not but I'm savvy. I'm a common sense guy. The computer doesn't tell you when the rod bearings are too wide or the pistons are snug or the wrist pins are loose. There's a lot the computer doesn't tell you, it's just a recorder."

Smith's years of quarter-mile involvement have helped produce plenty of other successful competitors. Through his Top Fuel Drag Racing School, Smith has helped drivers such as Jeff Arend, Cristen Powell, Johnny Gray, Clay Millican, Phil Burkart and recently Jon Capps earn their nitro license. He's also had many mechanics come through his week long nitro course. The Funny Car legend has developed a keen instinct when it comes to preparing new fuel drivers and mechanics. 


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Sometimes Smith's son's, John (L) and Mike (R), are on hand to help their father.
"I can tell pretty quickly when someone is for real," said Smith. "A lot of people drive for egos. A lot of people sign autographs for egos. There a lot of people who are meant to be drivers and many that aren't. You have to give a guy a chance. If you give a driver 50 runs and they can't relate to what they might be doing wrong, they need to find another job. It's the same with mechanics, if they leave the rods loose, chances are they won't be around to make the mistake twice."

Smith owes his longevity in drag racing mainly to the care he takes with his equipment. "It all comes out of my pocket," said Smith. "I'm paying the bills. Some guys run a lot of lead in the car at the top end to run big mile per hour. I ran 326-mph in Gainesville and we didn't have any engine damage because I didn't want to beat the motor up. I run my car the way it's profitable to run it. I don't know what's around the next corner so I have to take extra care of what is mine.

"I could go out there like some crew chiefs and run those big speeds and low 4.70's," said Smith, "but the motor shows it and the crank shafts gone after four runs. My cranks last 16 to 20 runs. I run the car to fit the budget. If the budget is there then that's the way I run the car. If I had an eight or ten man crew, an extra trailer full of parts and four or five spare race car bodies, I'd run the same way as the high dollar teams." 

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The beauty of it all for Smith, at the end of the day, is racing competitively and remaining on a budget.
But despite the lack of proper funding and a warehouse full of equipment, Smith is still able to stay competitive with the biggest of names in the Funny Car class. Many wonder how he continues to maintain his competitive edge. "I owe it to going so long without having any money to race with," says Smith candidly. "If I had money to race with, I wouldn't care what it cost. So you run it easy, I run this car easy. I'll run it to win, but I won't run it to keep up with the Schumacher's and the Force's."

So in reality, drag racing eventually all comes down to the money. It's the major difference between Funny Car racing in the 1970's and today. "It's not cubic inches it's cubic dollars," said Smith. A sentiment heard many times from many racers.

So you have to wonder what keeps this southern legend of the quarter-mile coming back to fight it out with the big boys year after year. "I'm bored, that's why I race," says Smith with a wry grin. "I could live off this building our shop is in. I don't take any money out of the race car. My property pays for me and my wife's stuff. I don't owe anything to anybody. When people ask me what I'm still doing this for I tell them 'I got nothing better to do'."

Despite his consuming seriousness over racing, the one thing that makes Smith smile every time is his wife Sharon. "She's great," says Smith, who finally married his girlfriend from Ohio after a very long courtship. "I couldn't have married a better person and I'm happier than I've ever been in my life."

 

 

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