In recalling his NASCAR debut with Mittler, Smithley cracked a smile, primarily because he had no idea what he was getting himself into at the time.
“I remember I was terrified going into it,” Smithley said of the 2015 Truck Series race at his home track, Atlanta Motor Speedway. “I’ll tell you what … going into that weekend, Tuesday or Wednesday, I was just shaking in my boots cause I had no idea what I had signed myself up for. You don’t know if you’re ready until you make the jump and do it. I didn’t know if I was going to be ready, and I knew Atlanta was going to be a really, really hard track, but I knew Mike trusted me. And in the end, that was enough.”
Smithley finished four laps down in that race, but he finished. That, he noted, was the goal that day.
“Man, at that point, Danny Gill was my crew chief and he said, ‘just go out there and make laps. Just have fun.’ So I did, and I knew about three quarters of the way through my out lap that I was going to be just fine. Mike pumped me up and we ended up finishing 18th that day. It was the start of my journey.
“Even though I didn’t race for him for very many laps or many times (five starts in all), those times that I did, I cherish every day and know I definitely wouldn’t be here without him and what he did for me.”
Though Smithley went on after that to future opportunities in NASCAR’s Xfinity and Cup Series – much like the bigger names on the list of Mittler’s drivers, he’s never forgotten where he started.
Smithley feels that the rest of the NASCAR industry shouldn’t forget Mittler either.
“In my opinion, and maybe I’m biased, but I feel like Mike’s career is Hall of Fame worthy,” he said. “I mean, Mike fielded guys that, honestly, I don’t know if they would’ve had a shot without him. He helped Brad (Keselowski), he helped Jamie McMurray, he helped (Justin) Allgaier … Carl; those are all guys that I think would be in the running for Hall of Fame honors, as far as being a driver goes.
“If you go further, Mike was there from the very first truck season. Albeit, it was never really full time, but he was still there and he was still an integral part of NASCAR and the Truck Series,” Smithley added. “I don’t think the Truck Series would be where it is today without him. I know there’s a lot of drivers, including myself, that wouldn’t … and I think that’s his legacy.
“You never hear a single bad thing about Mike, and I think that says a lot about his character too. He’s the kind of person who I don’t want to see forgotten because he did a lot for so many people.”
And this weekend, at least from Smithley’s perspective, that impact is back on full display again.