INDIANAPOLIS – Don Smith, a longtime member of the racing community as a car owner, sponsor and track director, died Sunday morning.
Smith, born in 1928, was involved in a number of racing activities during his lifetime and was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 1995 and the USAC Hall of Fame in 2014.
Smith served as the director of racing at the Indiana State Fairgrounds from 1972-1980, but was most synonymous with Indiana’s Terre Haute Action Track where he played an instrumental role in its operation as director of racing from its first AAA-sanctioned sprint car event in 1952 through the end of the 1980 season.
During his tenure at the half-mile Action Track, a pair of prestigious events emerged, the Hut 100 in 1954 and the Tony Hulman Classic in 1971, which attracted live coverage from ABC’s Wide World of Sports each year from 1971-1980.
Smith came up with several noteworthy promotional ideas. He kept a notepad by his bed and, whenever he came up with an idea, he’d jot it down. One of his really big ideas was the famed Hulman Classic for USAC Sprint Cars. Sprint racing by USAC’s best, Hollywood celebrities, and the huge Driver Appreciation Dinner made for one spectacular weekend. The centerpiece of the dinner, which was discontinued after Hulman’s death in 1977, was the Calcutta-style auction of drivers who had qualified during preliminary races earlier in the day.
The money pool was split evenly between the bidders and the Hulman Classic feature race purse, swelling it well beyond the USAC average. The city’s merchants wholeheartedly supported the event and the local Terre Haute Tribune-Star even published a 32-page Sunday supplement the weekend before the big race.
In 1952, Smith and Terre Haute businessman Chapman Root created the Sumar Racing Team, whose famed Sumar Special competed at the Indianapolis 500 from 1952-1960.
Smith was also prominent in the world of banking, in which he was president of the Terre Haute First Financial Bank. The bank’s logo with its yellow shield and First font written in cursive was prominently displayed on many USAC cars in the 1980s, 90s and into the 21st century, most notably the Delrose/Holt Racing Silver Crown cars driven by Gary Bettenhausen as well as the George Snider/A.J. Foyt Racing Silver Crown team and the midgets and Silver Crown cars driven by Russ Gamester, just to name a few.
Smith was also an avid collector of racing memorabilia and automobiles that span the entirety of his involvement in racing, which he housed in Terre Haute along with his public museum – 500 Museum of Wheels.
In July of 2015, Smith was honored with a marker by the Indiana Racing Memorial Association for his countless contribution to auto racing. The marker stands proudly at the main entrance to the covered grandstand at the Terre Haute Action Track.