PORT ROYAL, Pa. – Ryan Smith held a smile that mixed with both pleasure and the suppression of another empty night, a seventh-place finish in the final round of Pennsylvania Speedweek on July 4 at Port Royal Speedway.
The pleasure came from the chilling piece atop his sprint car: Greg Hodnett’s No. 27 wing used in the final season before his passing in 2018.
“This is the one I wanted to win: flying the 27, carrying his name on the car,” Smith said, eyes fixed on his car. “I’m sure he’s smiling from above.”
That phrase pleases Smith, that he’s the one who carries Hodnett’s legacy. But these empty nights are adding up and in that moment encapsulated the 32-year-old’s journey since succeeding Hodnett at Heffner Racing: a solid night, but not enough as Hodnett’s shadow hangs over.
“Did everything right, put ourselves in position to have a shot at it,” Smith started, “then you draw a seven [in the re-draw], and it takes the fire out of your fire, so to speak.”
Smith’s fire will surely be ablaze over the next three weeks, as eight significant races approach and arguably Smith’s eight best chances for a long-awaited breakthrough since he joined Heffner Racing.
The stretch starts this Friday with the Ollie’s Bargain Outlet All Star Circuit of Champions at Williams Grove and is highlighted by three races with the World of Outlaws, one at Lincoln and two at Williams Grove. The remaining four? All $10,000-to-win events across Lincoln and Port Royal.
“It’s a game-changer,” Smith said.
Since he started the season with five DNF’s in nine races, Smith and team have not only finished 15 straight features, but in that span he’s posted seven top sixes and racked up five heat race wins. He’s also one weekend removed from a third-place Pennsylvania Speedweek points effort bolstered by top eights in all nine races. Only one other drive could say that: Kyle Larson, who won the Speedweek title at record pace.
“After running nine nights straight, not only does it build confidence in yourself, it builds confidence in your team,” Smith said Friday prior to finishing fourth at Williams Grove. “Racing with all those guys, it changes the level of racing around here, period. We had to step up to keep up with [Larson]. Not that we could but … you’re going to see harder racing now, I think. Not that we weren’t racing harder before, it’s just a different style.”
Smith is ultra observant of what’s around him, both what happens on the track and off it. He feels the amplified stakes of racing in Pennsylvania recently and the trailblazing pace Larson has set. He’s aware of the criticism that he isn’t winning enough and then replay shortcomings from earlier this season that should have eliminated those talks by now.
Three of those five DNFs have come from either mechanical failures or misjudgement in lapped traffic while Smith led races Lincoln on Feb. 22 and March 14 as well as Williams Grove on March 15.
“Should of, would of, could ofs, but we’ve had speed all year,” Smith said.
No matter how it’s sliced, Smith knows what needs to happen to make ends meet at the end of the night.
“I need to get up on the wheel more,” he said, bluntly.
By the sound of it, Smith will be able to do that more than ever, citing more organization at the race shop and a healthy workflow within his team. It’s allowed Smith to trust his equipment and get him to this point, on the cusp of a breakthrough.
“We have more of a routine now,” Smith said. “It’s not guys scrambling around. Everybody involved now, the few guys we have, are good guys, they know what they’re doing and I can trust them. That takes it to the next level.”
Instead of unloading at each track with its own, cut-out setup, Smith and crew start the evening with a baseline they’ve found results and comfortability with. His seven heat race wins in 24 features are tied for the most in central Pennsylvania, and his eight top sixes rank him eighth in the area. The speed he needs is there, it’s just it often comes too late in the feature.
“This package has been so good at the end of the races, we lose that little bit at the beginning,” Smith said.
He also needs some fortune, too. Smith put himself in the re-draw five times in nine nights of Pennsylvania Speedweek, but drew either a seven or eight in four races, putting a damper on his chances. Over these next three weeks, though, Smith has the opportunity to wash all the sourness and letdown away, and more importantly rewrite the narrative.
“We’ve been fast,” Smith said. “It’s just a matter of getting over that hump, getting that first [win], I think. Then, we’ll start knocking them off. … But we want to win. At this stage in the game, we have to win.”