DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – This is the fourth of eleven articles saluting ten individuals and one organization who will be recognized at the Victory Lane Racing Awards banquet being held at the Pelican Bay Golf and Country Club, 350 Pelican Bay Drive on Tuesday, February 18. We salute National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame member, Freddy Smith, who will receive the Raymond Parks Award which will be presented by Motorsports media veteran Steve Waid.
This article was written by Caron Myers especially for Victory Lane Racing Association, and I hope all of you enjoy it.
Freddy Smith. It’s a common name. When some folks today hear the name, they may think of the CEO of FedEx or the actor on “Days of our Lives”.
But when dirt track fans hear the name Freddy Smith, it conjures up memories of a dirt track legend whose fame came from dirt tracks around the Carolinas, Tennessee and beyond.
Freddy Smith, the “Southern Gentleman”, has been racing longer than many to today’s race fans have been alive. At the time he was inducted into the National Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame in 2001, he had been credited with 750 wins. When he hung up his race helmet at the end of the 2012, he had 784 victories to his credit.
“The first time I saw Freddy Smith in action was at Starlite Speedway, near Monroe, N.C. in 1968,” recalls Dargan Watts. “I actually was working the Hartsville Speedway in South Carolina, but the rain forced us to cancel, so off to Starlite I went. Apparently, it had rained all day up there ‘cause the track was a mess, but it got worked into shape before the night was over. Smith was all over the track and spun numerous times (as did a lot of other drivers.) It was quite a night!”
Many of Freddy’s wins were at Starlite Speedway, although he wheeled the red, white and blue #00 at many other tracks like Metrolina, Cherokee, Rutherford County in Spindale, Shelby Fairgrounds, Kings Mountain, Concord, Forrest City, Volunteer, Bulls Gap, Eldora, Hagerstown and Pennsboro, just to name a few.
At first glance, one might not think this quiet, humble man has a competitive bone in his body. But, he has claimed no less than five Dirt Track World Championship races, won “The Dream” twice at Eldora, including the inaugural race in 1994 and again in 2000. And in 2008, at the age of 61, he won in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series.
While all his wins are special, the wins at one place stand out above the rest. “Winning at Eldora. Yeah, winning that first Dream race was big, but all my dirt wins are special,” says this 67-year-old North Carolina native. Freddy also finished first in the Hillbilly 100 and the Topless 100. He’s also been honored with the Sportsman Award in the National Dirt Late Model (NDLM) Hall of Fame and was in the first class inaugurated into the NDLM Hall of Fame in 2001.
But how did he get his start? Like many, he followed his father’s footsteps. His dad, Clarence “Grassy” Smith, ported heads for Holman-Moody, the legendary racecar and engine shop based in Charlotte off Little Rock Road back in the day.
In fact, it was his dad who built his first racing motor. “My dad was in racing a long time. He got me into go-kart racing when I was eight. I did that until I was 16. He then said, ‘You build the car and I’ll build your motor. It took a while to get that done. I raced some for a couple of guys near Kings Mountain in 1965, and the next year, we went racing on our own,” Freddy recalls.
His car was a ’53 Ford. His first race out was in Gaffney, South Carolina.
“I could have won that race, but my dad kept telling me to stay in the back until I knew for sure what I was doing,” Freddy laughs.
According to Racing Reference, he also tried his hand at NASCAR Sprint Cup racing, wheeling a Chevy Caprice around Rockingham in the 1979 American 500. He had a 16th place finish that late October day, in a 34th place start. That was his first Sprint Cup race. He drove for Bill Petty in Spartanburg, no relation to Richard.
“That Chevy Caprice had one of them squared off noses and it just didn’t get through the air too good. It was not a good car. Both Richard Petty and Harry Gant had the same trouble with the car. None of us liked it. It just wouldn’t draft good or run through the air. The car stayed in the barn in Spartanburg for years and years,” says Freddy.
Weeks later, on November 4th, 1979 he drove his second and last Sprint Cup race, starting 34th and finishing 18th in the Dixie 500 at Atlanta.
“To finish the Dixie 500, I had to borrow tires from Elmo Langley to finish the race. My daddy said we ain’t borrowing nothing else. We can’t afford it and we’re going back to dirt racing. I’m glad we did try it, because I really did like running on the asphalt. In fact I won a bunch of races on asphalt, like over in Concord. But, we just didn’t have the money to run the big stuff,” he muses
Money was so tight back in the day, and he would race his dirt car in Gaffney, Shelby and Forrest City, and then race Harris on Sunday on asphalt in the same car. But, he made a living out of driving a car and that’s all that really mattered. “That was my life. I worked at Martin-Marietta for 13 years, but when the boss told me I was gonna have to work on Saturdays and Sundays, I told him I raced, I couldn’t. He told me I had to make a choice then. I told him I’d put my notice in now. That’s what we did,” Freddy recalls with a smile in his voice.
Freddy, who was born on December 22nd, 1946 near Kings Mountain, N.C., has been married to his sweetheart, Naomi, for the past 49 years. “She’s put up with a whole lot,” says Freddy. The couple had only one child, Jeff, who is a dirt track series champion himself, racing out of Gastonia, N.C.
And over these nearly 50 years of racing, Freddy has amassed quite a following with people like Jim Reep, Jr. recalling vivid stories of distant nights of his racing past.
“I especially enjoyed talking to Grassy and hearing his wonderful stories. I never knew a “cleaner” driver than Freddy, the Kings Mountain Flash”, says Reep, who has been a Freddy fan since the late 60s. “I remember a race in either ’69 or ’70 at Metrolina when Freddy was smacked going into each corner, square in the rear end by Ralph Earnhardt, for the entire 40 laps of the main event. Freddy won, & the rear bumper of his ’64 Fairlane was beat flat as a result. Freddy’s head snapped back each time Ralph hit him, but he never wavered. He won and never said a word. The next night Freddy ran the fastest 40 laps in Concord history in a caution free, flag to flag win, in just 12 minutes.”
In 1996, Freddy and Naomi moved from North Carolina to Seymour, Tenn to drive for Clayton Christenberry. For years he drove the Southern All Stars Series out of the race shop on the Christenberry farm.
“Yeah, in fact all my trophies are all up there in a 53-foot trailer near the race shop on the farm. It’s about half full of trophies going to waste,” he says, adding that he doesn’t know where to put them so they might be appreciated by dirt track fans.
Finally, after having to have a pacemaker and getting through a season of blood thinners, his racing career started winding down.
So, for now, the “Southern Gentleman” is hanging it up. No more chasing checkers as he’s done for the past five decades.
His last race was at the end of the 2012 season. He didn’t race any in 2013, and he’s putting all of his cars up for sale. His 2011 Warrior car is listed for sale on his son’s Facebook page.
But, his famous number won’t go away. His son, Jeff plans to switch numbers and start driving his dad’s number.
“To be honest, I didn’t have the motor to go back racing. During the time I was sick, a lot of my product sponsors quit. I can’t blame ‘em. I’d like to go back. I’d like to get that 785th win, but it would be tough without the sponsors,” says Freddy.
“The way I look at it is we raced 48 good years. It’s been good. I had a good career and enjoyed every minute of it.”