Paul Smith, who competed in Funny Car at the Gatornationals in 1973 and was the championship runner-up in 1974, is still burning nitro at Gainesville Raceway, tuning Gary Richards’ Funny Car as well as the Smith family flopper, which is driven by son John and wrenched on by his grandkids, Nate and Megan.
That Smith, 72, is here at all, let alone wrenching on two cars, is impressive after having undergone open-heart surgery just five weeks ago, a double-bypass surgery that also included an aortic valve replacement.
“My doctor and I had been watching the valve for a while -– I’d get an ultrasound every six months- – but I didn’t expect the other part. The day after the Super Bowl, my pulse was at 152 [“normal” being 60-100] so we knew something else was up. They tried to go in through my thigh to do it but couldn’t, so they ended up cracking open my chest. I’m still pretty sore, but otherwise feeling OK.”
You can’t keep a good man down, and Smith, who still was feted by NHRA during the 50 Years of Funny Car celebration in 2016 and maintains the Boynton Beach, Fla., shop from which he raced for decades, is thrilled to not only continue working with his sons, John (aka “Bodie”) and Mike, but also his grandchildren, Mike’s son Nate and Megan, the daughter of John and former Top Fuel star Rhonda Hartman-Smith. He spent Friday morning before qualifying teaching them how to correctly install the cylinder heads on the car.
“They’re what keeps me here,” he said of his grandkids. “Them and my boys.”
The Rock Batteries-sponsored car that the Smith family races is the same one that Blake Alexander drove for Smith a few years ago, and the team has a brand-new chassis in the trailer waiting to be completed.
Smith first competed at the Gators in 1973 with his Fireball Vega. He made the field as an alternate but lost in the first round. Two years later, he almost won the world championship. He entered the season finale in Ontario, Calif., leading the points ahead of Shirl Greer, Frank Hall, and Don Prudhomme but broke his best rear end on the opening qualifying pass and couldn’t make a good run with his taller-geared backup piece. Greer won the first round to clinch the title, relegating Smith to second place.
Smith continued to run on and off throughout the 1990s and also tuned for a number of teams, but recently found his way back behind the wheel of the family’s Nostalgia Funny Car, a Corvette-bodied machine that carries the name of one of his 1980s floppers, the Entertainer. He even got to race his son, John, at a match race last fall, but couldn’t get by the kid. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to come to Funny Car racing as a driver.
“I’m not ready to drive one of these cars,” he said with a laugh. “I’ll drive the nostalgia car. Nostalgia is for old people.”
Smith, who once owned a racing school for up and coming Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers, will turn Megan over to fellow acceleration education expert Frank Hawley Monday for Super Comp licensing at Gainesville Raceway. Megan, who already has a solid career in Jr. dragsters, hopes to eventually race an A/Fuel Dragster.