It was a lesson that took, and it was his mechanical ability that led to his first real chance to break into short track racing.
Like his father, Smith had demonstrated his proficiency in the shop and secured a position constructing karts in New York. When an opportunity presented itself to race in a powerful east coast-style modified he jumped at it. Racing mainly at Orange County Fair Speedway, Smith often went to battle in a small-block car against his more powerfully-equipped peers. Reflecting on this time in his life he can only laugh and say, “I had no clue what I was doing in those things. But somebody offered me the ride so I thought, what the heck.”
His next move was closer to home, but the task at hand wasn’t any easier. The long-closed Silver Spring Speedway may not have received the accolades of other legendary tracks in the Keystone State, but those who were there as fans, officials, and participants remember it fondly. It was a place where the Super Sportsman reigned supreme.
Kramer Williamson and Larry “Smokey” Snellbaker were racers who eventually enjoyed a national reputation, but men like Howie Locke, Carmen Perigo, and Rich Eichelberger made their mark there as well. Another driver who was on the honor roll of all-time greats at the track was Dwight Leib. Leib won 47 times at the speedway and captured the crown jewel of the track, the Super Sportsman 100, four times.
Leib was racing for Steve and Billy McNair in a Dale Henry-sponsored car when he began to contemplate retirement. Ree Smith was the chief mechanic, so when Leib truly decided to step away it created an opportunity for Mark. He didn’t squander it. Winning in just his seventh start, Smith would eventually snare the 1990 Silver Spring and Super Sportsman tour championship, and he would also claim a Super Sportsman 100 win of his own.
To this day, he feels that the level of competition he faced there made him a better racer. “That was some of the toughest racing I ever did,” he says, “because there were at least 50 to 60 cars the whole time I raced there. You ran five heat races, two B-Mains, and high-points guys started in the back. You had to be up on the wheel and it wasn’t a big track. It taught you how to get around a little tight place.”
With an apprenticeship of sorts completed, Smith turned his attention to sprint cars. By touring with the Super Sportsman he had already experienced many of the tracks that would become his new stomping grounds, but he knew it was going to take time to get to the head of the class. It’s hard to break into 410 sprint car racing anywhere, but in Pennsylvania the challenge is even more acute. It took a while to win, but he got there.
When he joined forces with owner Shawn Keen, the proprietor of Keen Fabrication & Speed Equipment in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, his career began to take off in more than one way. On the race track he was particularly tough at Port Royal, but he was also putting his mechanical skills to work. It was here that Smith began building what was known as an Outlaw chassis for his owner, noting that he “built all the jigs and built the car.”
Then Keen went out of business, and the firm was purchased by Barry Jackson and became known as JEI. While Smith would work for his new owner for a time, he got an offer to race the noted Zemco sprint car for John and Pee Wee Zemaitis. He was caught in a conflict of interest and knew it, so it became decision time. “I had a choice to make,” he recalls. “I could either try to build race cars or try to race. John was offering a whole lot better deal, so I took that route. After that, I drove for John and Pee Wee for three or four years and I also worked in their machine shop. I basically did repairs instead of being a chassis builder. I couldn’t talk them into letting me build my own cars because they had such a good relationship with Maxim, and I understood that.”
While he may have put his chassis building to the side for the time, he prospered behind the wheel and quickly put several good years together in the 410 ranks. In 2005 he was the Port Royal champion, and eventually the team fell into a routine of largely focusing their efforts on Williams Grove and Port Royal.
One thing that came out of this period in his racing career was a basic distaste for points racing. It has shaped his approach to scheduling since that time. “I didn’t get into that rat race because it makes you spend more money than you’ve got,” Smith says. “You have to make sure we have extras and spares. You have to go to the race track when you really didn’t want to, and you get very little back in return. These national guys travel 2,000 miles to go to one race and get rained out. That runs you out of money quickly.
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