As winter turned to spring a bigger enemy than rain attacked racing, canceling events and halting business for weeks. The onslaught of COVID-19 engulfed the racing industry like nothing before.
The impact has been felt around the world and from big business to sole proprietors, everyone battled to survive starting in mid-March. Veteran winged sprint car driver Mark Smith is a perfect example of someone forced to adjust — both financially and mentally.
“I started three different cars in the last two weeks to go through stuff, making sure stuff isn’t leaking,” Smith said in mid-April. “Just to hear it run and smell the alcohol; to keep you in race mode.”
As a figurehead for grassroots racing at dirt tracks throughout the East and South, the 48-year-old from Sunbury, Pa., has emerged as one of the most productive winged sprint car competitors in the country. His stellar career has spanned more than three decades — on and off the track. While his successful driving career was sidelined in the middle of March, it was only a month later when his business — Mach 1 Chassis — also came to a halt because of the widespread closures created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I just finished up everything I could finish up as far as orders,” Smith said. “I have cars sitting here ready to pick up. I won’t order as much stuff. We don’t know how long this is going to go on. I don’t want to be sitting on stuff as far as inventory. I’m not going to keep a bunch because of the situation.
“As far as the racing stuff goes, (for the last month) I’ve been working on getting better prepared and better organized, more cars together, working on engine stuff; just trying to stay on top and ahead of everybody.”
The coronavirus outbreak came at a bad time for everyone, including Smith. He won seven of his first nine 360 winged sprint car races of the season, recording triumphs in Florida, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana with the USCS Series, as well as the preliminary night of the Ronald Laney Memorial King of the 360s at East Bay Raceway Park.
The hot streak continued when Smith got back on the track with a sweep of the May 15-16 USCS events at Florida’s Southern Raceway.
Smith has been a stout competitor throughout a career that began in go-karts when he was 14 years old. He transitioned into big-block modifieds before racing a supersportsman car and eventually winged sprint cars.
“I got into the 410s full time when I was 30 years old,” Smith said. “I got a late start on the 410 scene. I’ve been doing that for a long time. We started running the 360 stuff and went to a limited 410 schedule.
“In the 410s, we had multiple wins and championships. I think the most wins we had in one year was 10 or 11,” Smith added. “I think I won 30-some races in the Zemco car in the 410 deal. We started running the 360 stuff and we won championships at Selinsgrove (Pa.) Speedway. We have had multiple wins ever since.”
Smith notes he earned the second-most sprint car feature victories in the country in 2018 when he amassed a career-best 16 triumphs. He nearly reached that number last year and was on a better pace this season before the COVID-19 shutdown.
While Smith has been a winner in nearly every form of race car he has piloted, a trip to victory lane hasn’t been the only barometer for success. He also enjoyed strong outings during a handful of USAC Silver Crown races on both dirt and pavement and Smith produced a positive performance during his NASCAR debut last year when the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series made its annual stop at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway.
Click below to keep reading.