The landscape in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class looks drastically different in the 2023 NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series in comparison to the year before, but for six-time and reigning Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith, there is enjoyment in the challenge, even if it's alongside a certain level of frustration.
"This is fun for me," he said. "I love racing; I love the challenge. The biggest thing is that I want our class to be competitive. I would love our class to be close, like Pro Stock car, where it comes down to a tuner and a driver's race. I'm hoping we get to where the top 8-10 bikes are within two- or three-hundredths. Then it becomes really fun on raceday, because it's anybody's race."
Last year, there were a ton of riders in the conversation for the championship all season long. Joey Gladstone, Steve Johnson, Eddie Krawiec, Angelle Sampey, Jerry Savoie, and Smith's wife, Angie Smith, were among those most often in the mix. In 15 events, there were eight different winners, and only four riders claimed multiple wins.
This year, though, Gaige Herrera came in as the newly appointed rider of the Vance & Hines Mission Foods Suzuki and, in a humble yet persistent manner, commanded the spotlight as he won each of the first three events, was runner-up at race four, and was low qualifier at them all. In the process, he also scooped up both of the so-far available Mission #2Fast2Tasty NHRA Challenge victories.
Between a very fast motorcycle and his abilities as a rider, Herrera hasn't left a lot on the table for his competitors. He's leading the Pro Stock Motorcycle points by 216 marks over Vance & Hines teammate Krawiec, with Johnson third (224 points out of first), Hector Arana Jr. fourth (242 points back), Matt Smith fifth (248), and Angie Smith sixth (251).
Steve Johnson flipped the script in Bristol and got the win as Herrera fouled, turning it red by a smidge, but before that, Herrera had knocked off very tough competitors in final rounds, beginning with Mrs. Smith in Gainesville, then Mr. Smith in Charlotte, and finally, veteran rider Chip Ellis in Chicago.
"It's been challenging," said DENSO Suzuki rider Smith ahead of qualifying for the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, an event he's won three times (2021, 2013, and 2010). "Our class, right now, doesn't have parity like [I think] it needs to. [NHRA] is trying to figure out ways to fix the problem, and in essence, they are trying to do something. They've talked to all the racers. They want our input. I gave them five options of what I think they can do to get it back to parity, and I think they're just going through what they need to do."
In the meantime, Smith is faced with a challenge he really hasn't been all that familiar with lately. He's won at least two races — and usually more — each season since 2018. In all but one of those seasons, he was hoisting a trophy by race four or sooner. Although Smith came close with a runner-up at the Charlotte Four-Wide Nationals this spring, he's pretty hungry to get back to winning. Dismal results at the most recent race on tour, the Thunder Valley Nationals at Bristol Dragway, really stoked his fire. There, Smith qualified in the No. 8 spot and was ready to go to battle for DENSO and Mark Stockseth, but his motorcycle was unresponsive on the starting line in the very first round.
"That was a total mistake on my part," admitted Smith. "We changed motors Saturday night, warmed it up and everything was good, warmed it up again Sunday morning, and everything was good. But at the last minute, I did a map correction because of what the air was doing, and I loaded the wrong map. It was my fault. I just messed up and put the wrong map in."
Smith explained that the new Vance & Hines billet cases have different positioning for the crank trigger, necessitating a very specific map.
"I have a note on my computer now, and I check that every time. I will not have that mistake again. But that's what's good about our sport — if you mess up, you come back next week, and you try again."
Smith's resilience has been strengthened over the years, as has his arsenal of weapons and skill with each piece. The motorcycle he's riding this season is one that he rode off and on in 2022, but it isn't one that he's completely comfortable with yet. Smith is managing the learning curve, though, and eager to refine his aim.
"I've been really good on raceday with my lights, and I feel really good racing the Suzuki. I've gotten runner-up already this year, and I won last year on a Suzuki when I was back and forth," said Smith, who had previously powered a V-Twin since 2005.
"We have the power to win races, and I think we have the power right now that we can run within two-hundredths of Gaige, but I've got to manage it. I've got to get the 60-foot down. At Bristol, we were third, fourth, and fifth in speed every run, but I was seventh, eighth, and ninth on e.t. I just have to get the bike running downlow, and that's going to be better down the back. It's a big learning curve for me, but I'm excited. We did some testing, and I think we found a little something. If I get that down, I'll definitely be a contender out there. That's what I want. I want to win races, that's what my sponsors want, and that's what I'm used to doing."
Smith also acknowledges the potential on his wife's side of the Matt Smith Racing camp. Aboard her DENSO Buell, Angie has reached one final round this season (Gainesville) and was a semifinalist in Bristol.
"Out of our group, I think my wife has the best chance," he said. "That's been our goal: if I can't do it, I want her to do it and get her first championship. She's got all the stuff that we've won the last three consecutive championships with. Right now, we're getting data on how to go fast at different tracks because we have a new ECU on her bike, so we're building new maps and all that – but her bike is fast. When I'm ready to turn loose, she's going to be a contender, too."