Author: McKenna, Kevin
Date published: December 17, 2010
When he failed to qualify for the season-opening NHRA Get Screened America Pro Mod Drag Racing Series event in Gainesville, Von Smith had every reason to believe that his 2010 season was over before it had even begun. Gainesville qualifying was shortened from three sessions to two because of rain, and many of the pre-race favorites, including Smith, were not part of Sunday's final eliminations. However, Smith and his Barwa/Al-Anabi team ultimately proved true the old adage that "Where you finish is more important than where you begin" when seven months later he was crowned the series champion and collected a healthy $50,000 bonus during the post-season banquet at the Stratosphere Casino, Hotel & Tower on the famed Las Vegas Strip.
"It has been quite a year for us, there is no doubt about that," said Smith, who successfully made the transition from Top Alcohol Funny Car to Pro Mod several years ago and has become one of the class' biggest stars. "To win this [championship] ranks right up there with anything else I've ever done in racing, especially when you think about all that we had to go through to get it. I owe all the credit to my crew, including Howard Moon, who has been with me a long time, and, of course, [team owner] Sheik Khalid. Deals like this one don't come along too often, and I'm glad we were able to deliver a championship for him."
After spending most of last winter in Qatar taking part in the Arabian Drag Racing League events, Smith and his team believed that they were well-prepared for the inaugural Get Screened America Series, so the Gainesville failure came as a big surprise.
"Normally, I get rusty if I'm not racing but not last winter," said Smith. "I made a lot of runs in Qatar, and we even tested when we got back to the U.S. I didn't think we needed it, but we went anyway, and I felt really good heading into Gainesville, and then when we got there, we couldn't get down the track. When we missed the show, it was devastating. You've got just 10 races in the [Get Screened America Series], not 23 like you have in the [NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series]. You really can't afford to make a mistake."
Smith is no stranger to adversity. Despite a lifelong commitment to physical fitness, he underwent coronary-bypass surgery six years ago, and he has bounced back from a nasty racing accident in Qatar in March 2009 that came at the end of a 257-mph run. Smith lost control of the car after encountering a stuck throttle and estimates that he was probably going in excess of 265 mph when he impacted the wall. He was not injured but acknowledged that the incident tested his team's resilience.
Quickly putting the Gainesville event in his rearview mirror, Smith rebounded with a semifinal finish at the next event, in Houston, and several weeks later, he claimed his first victory, at the AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals in Madison. Smith wasn't the only driver to struggle with consistency: Every racer in the series, with the sole exception of Troy Coughlin, failed to qualify for at least one of the 10 events. That allowed Smith to quickly seize the points lead and hold on to it for most of the season.
"When we missed the show in Gainesville, it was devastating," said Smith. "With just 10 races in the season, how do you recover from that? Somehow, we did. Obviously, the win in [Madison] was big, and we were pretty consistent after that."
At midseason, Smith became the hottest driver in the class, driving his Camaro to back-to-back wins in Englishtown and Bristol, building enough of a lead that consecutive round-one losses in Norwalk and Indy did not take him out of title contention. Smith officially wrapped up the title at the final event in Las Vegas when Danny Rowe, his closest pursuer, went out early.
"After we left Indy, I was bummed, but I also knew that I'd be the leader [going into Charlotte] no matter what," said Smith. "Sure, we would like to have finished the year with a win, but we did enough, and winning the title was a really gratifying experience for the whole team. I'm especially happy for Howard. He's been with me a long time, and I would not have it any other way. We put up with each other, and if he will tune it, then I will drive it. That's how much faith we have in each other. For us to win this title as a team is really special." ND