NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

With a new approach, Pro Stock Motorcycle's Matt Smith is closing the gap

Six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith rode out of Chicago with his first low qualifier award of the season tucked neatly beneath his arm. Most importantly, he had the knowledge that he and his Denso-backed Buell have a shot at race wins and another world title.
23 May 2024
Kelly Wade
Matt Smith

Matt Smith has entered the chat. The six-time Pro Stock Motorcycle champion rode out of Chicago with his first low qualifier award of the season tucked neatly beneath his arm. Most importantly, he had the knowledge that he and his Denso-backed Matt Smith Racing (MSR) Buell have a shot at race wins and another world title.

Catchy intro paragraphs aside, Smith truly never left the chat. Last season, there were just four events in which Gaige Herrera walked away empty-handed, and Smith, who led the points for a short while, won two of the most valuable — the NHRA U.S. Nationals and the first race of the Countdown to the Championship in Reading. Smith showed that if anyone could go toe to toe with Herrera, he intended for it to be him.

The remainder of the playoffs didn't go so well for the second-generation drag racer and son of veteran racer "Tricky" Rickie Smith, but he came into the 2024 season of NHRA's Mission Foods Drag Racing Series with his own mission well-defined.

"We've been working really hard, and everybody knew that we were struggling with our 60-foot [times]," said Smith. "But we did a lot of testing, and we're getting better and better." 

As proof, Smith's Friday performance at the Gerber Collision & Glass Route 66 NHRA Nationals presented by Peak Performance in Chicago included a very bold 6.708-second pass at 201.40 that would eclipse next-best Herrera by .025-second when the four sessions were said and done. Herrera's streak of No. 1 qualifier awards was halted at 11 as Smith claimed the top spot with the 53rd No. 1 of his career.

The throw-down passes Smith made at Route 66 Raceway weren't out of the blue. The North Carolina native powered into the season and scored the No. 2 qualifying spot and runner-up at the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, and in Charlotte, he was again No. 2 on the sheet with a motorcycle that was showing increased capability at the early incremental marks. Although a few other issues presented themselves there at zMAX Dragway, evidence of a strengthening program had emerged.

In Charlotte, Smith reached the 60-foot timer in 1.05 seconds, a very brisk early pace, and in Chicago, he again measured 1.05 right out of the box. For the second qualifier at Route 66 Raceway, Smith tested how much power the track could hold and came up with an even quicker 1.02 60-foot time.

"This Denso bike is running mean," he acknowledged. "We're working on it, and I think we've got something good going."

Last season's standout moments were pleasing, but they often came because Herrera had trouble. To win in that manner is not the desired outcome for ultracompetitive Smith, who has weathered many storms since making his debut in the class a decade ago in Gainesville. 

"What we really want to do is win a race without Gaige breaking," he said. "Every time he loses, it's because the bike breaks or something happens. We need to beat him. I think once somebody beats him, then we're in his head a little bit. We've made our bike very competitive, and if we continue that, put pressure on him, then he starts making mistakes. Our goal is just to make our program better."

As the team's namesake and owner, Smith leads the charge for MSR, but he isn't above seeking help. He did not have to look far as his father — decorated Pro Stock-turned-Pro Mod racer and tuner Rickie, who recently surprised the series with a Comp win in Charlotte — was there with advice that came characteristically free from sugar-coating. 

"We were runner-up at Gainesville, [but] it wasn't competitive to what Gaige was. Second best doesn't cut it. We want to be the best," said Smith. "My dad came over and looked at stuff when we were home, and he said, 'You're not running this thing right. You have to change it up.' 

"We stripped everything off the bike and said, 'We're starting over.' We've gone to a different clutch, different ECU, and I'm trying to run it like he wants me to run it now. It took two races, but it's paying off, and hopefully, we're caught up. We want to perform better than Gaige, and we did that every run in Chicago qualifying except Q4 when we were trying something. I think [Herrera] knows we're there, and it's going to be a good fight." 

Aside from the applied advice and extensive hours in the shop, Smith and the MSR team have put forth tremendous effort to test as much as possible since Gainesville. Although some of their intentions were snuffed out by wet weather, Smith believes that his team has tested more since Gainesville than the entire class combined, and after the strong performance in Chicago qualifying that ended with a quarterfinals finish on Sunday, they were right back to work. 

Pro Stock Motorcycle will return in Bristol for the Super Grip NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals, a race in which the class has only been part of the program for the past three seasons. Angelle Sampey won it in 2021, Jerry Savoie took the trophy in 2022, and Steve Johnson will return as the defending event champion. Smith's 38 wins were earned at 16 different NHRA racetracks, and he feels he's in a good position to bump that number up by one.

"When I look at the big picture, we're running really good," said Smith, who also credits Steve Nichols, Ehren Litten, and Dan Wagoner for their contributions to improving the clutch program. "We've had good power, and now that we're getting our 60-foot right, we're capable of running with Gaige. We're learning, we're trying to make improvements, trying to go faster. Hopefully, we're closing that gap enough to win and put pressure on them. We're here, and we're getting better."