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Mark Smith: From 410s To 360s

Who knows what the story would have been if Mark Smith had found his way into a sprint car at an earlier age. As it stands, he still possesses a resume many would covet and, while he may be approaching 50, he shows no signs of slowing down. In a total anomaly given today’s racing scene, Smith didn’t get his first chance in a sprint car until he was 30 years old. It is a surprising circumstance given that he has been around the sport his entire life.

How long has Smith been a fixture at the race track? Reports indicate that his mother actually went into labor at Williams Grove Speedway. It also bears noting, while Smith may not have been in a sprint car as a young man, he was racing and winning at some of the biggest race tracks in the nation.

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Mark Smith in action at Williams Grove in 2020. – JACK KROMER PHOTO

Smith’s interest in racing was nearly inevitable. His mother, as the story above suggests, was a racer to her core. She loved the sport, and travelled alongside her son as he was finding his racing legs. Meanwhile Smith’s father became a legend in the pits and garage. Ree “Smitty” Smith was born in Memphis, Tennessee, but when he relocated to Pennsylvania he was right in the middle of sprint car country. While he would spend decades working in a warehouse for Perk Foods, he developed a true passion for sprint cars.

As a mechanic, he was instrumental in the career of Lynn Paxton, he toiled for Kenny Weld (who actually lived in his home), he twisted wrenches for the incomparable Jan Opperman, and when he worked for Bobby Allen on the Emrick Chevrolet cars he hung the nickname “Scruffy” on his driver. Very few men can say they assisted a group of racers of that caliber.

Ree was the winner of the Ed Stauffer Mechanic of the Year Award in 2000, he was Super Sportsman Mechanic of the Year in 2003, and in 1998 he was inducted into the York County Racing Club Hall of Fame. For many years the award for the mechanic of the year at the former Susquehanna Speedway (now BAPS) has been named in his honor.

Mark Smith would benefit greatly from his father’s mechanical acumen, but that was only partially satisfying. To no one’s surprise, Mark was champing at the bit to go racing, but karting was all that the family could afford. By the time he was 14 years old, he had worn down his dad, and Ree finally agreed to purchase a kart for his son to race.

He began at Hunterstown Speedway but, because his father was also busy racing sprint cars on the weekend, he needed help getting to the track. His savior was no less than Pennsylvania sprint car luminary Mitch Smith. Recalling his early days, Smith says, “Mitch would come and pick me up at home and take me along with him to the races because his nephews were running his karts. He kind of ruined me. You could say that because he planted the seed big time as far as actually racing was concerned. He’s the one who kickstarted it.”

Like many still in the midst of their career, Smith sometimes has difficulty recalling exact times and places, and doesn’t spend much time dwelling on his past. There’s more though. Getting the veteran to speak to his accomplishments is a bit like trying to extract a bolt that rusted in place two decades ago. Tooting his own horn is not what he does. So, almost casually, he mentions his days racing sleek laydown karts at road courses and rovals at Daytona International Raceway, Charlotte, Road America, New Hampshire International Raceway, Rockingham, Summit Point in West Virginia, Pocono, Black Hawk Farms in Illinois, and in Brainerd, Minnesota.

When asked if he had any big wins at those places, he simply says, “All of them. Well, I might not have won at Black Hawk Farms.” There were championships. Big ones. His dream was Indianapolis, and in an odd way he actually was building the kind of record that gets a great deal of attention in today’s IndyCar series. As so often happens, timing is everything, so it just wasn’t meant to be.

Even in these early days of his career a pattern was established. Smith was building his own karts and engines, and then relied on his mother to get him from track to track. There was no other alternative. It may have seemed hard at times, but he was actually acting on advice his father had given him. The words Ree Smith offered his son may not have been elegant but they were on point. Thinking about the entirety of his racing life, Smith recalls, “My dad said, ‘If you want to be good at this stuff, you have to build your own stuff.’”

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