LEBANON, Ind. — Audio and story by Managing Editor Jacob Seelman for Speed77 Radio and Race Chaser Online — Chris Seelman photo —
When a driver has a down year, often times it’s used as motivation and as a catalyst to inspire future successes.
For high school junior Lukas Smith, he’s hoping 2014 is that catalyst, after a year that taught him a great deal about his racing and his learning curve.
Despite the fact that 2014 was just his second full year in the sport, the young gun showed promise, and more importantly — a passion to learn and better himself behind the wheel, and a hope to follow in the footsteps of his father, Don.
“My dad — as long as I can remember — has always owned some sort of racing machine, and I got into (the sport) real young. Started in quarter midgets, and I couldn’t make that stick,” Smith said of the start of his career.
“I got out of those kind of quick, but I got to racing with my dad in the backyard with some four-wheelers and managed to beat him heads-up — and he’s been racing for a while,” Smith laughed. “I started thinking about it, and I thought, ‘You know, maybe I’ve got something for this’, and my dad, maybe it was crazy at the time, but he let me hop into a sprint car.”
Smith’s first on-track time in the powerful machine came during a test at the Paragon Speedway, and the youngster immediately took to the high-speed style of driving — something that even surprised him at the time.
“I hopped into the car and went out and turned some laps, and everybody was like, ‘Wow, for your first time in a 750 horsepower car, you’re looking way too comfortable,” Smith said of the experience. “It even shocked me a little bit, how quickly I got used to it.”
“So after that test, we put a car together for me to go and run up north, and got a great opportunity to go and run eight or nine races that year.”
That rookie season for Smith in 2013 came with the Michigan Traditional Sprint Series, running with the group full-time as a 15-year-old and garnering the series’ Rookie of the Year title as well as a 13th-place finish in the final point standings.
“That first year was a heck of a lot of fun,” Smith said. “I learned a lot that year and we got rookie of the year somehow,” he laughed. “It may not have been everything we expected but I felt like it was a great start.”
That platform led into 2014, which Smith hoped would be another building block in his burgeoning sprint car career. It started off strong, with his first career winged 360 sprint car starts at 411 Motor Speedway (finishing 13th) and Smoky Mountain Speedway (finishing 12th).
“Things started off new, different and really well,” Smith said. “I got to run with a win for the first time with USCS (the United Sprint Car Series) in May, and that was a blast — racing with Terry Gray, Danny Smith, some of the best.”
“After that, we ran local for a bit without the wing against some of the Indiana boys, and I really learned a lot transitioning back from the winged starts — it was definitely different and I learned a heck of a lot, more than I thought I would this year.”
Unfortunately, from there, things didn’t roll quite according to plan.
“We got in 11 shows or so before we had some pretty big motor problems and just couldn’t get everything back around. It was a long summer and fall having to sit and not be behind the wheel — it was really hard for me,” Smith said. “Racers never want to not be turning left,” he laughed.
Despite the setbacks, Smith wasn’t sitting still. The junior in high school has been busy with a full school slate and played on the junior varsity and varsity football teams this fall at Western Boone High School, with the top team finishing at 7-4 and starting the season with six straight victories.
“I may have wanted to be racing, but I had to find something to do to pass the time since we didn’t have everything in place to fix the car and be at the track,” Smith said jokingly. “The team did well this year, and it was cool to go undefeated for as long as we did – it definitely helped me keep my fitness up and keep me in shape so I can jump back in full force going into this year!”
The young Hoosier will go into the new year though with one big piece of knowledge.
“I’ve learned this year that it’s not an easy sport — it’s a lot harder than you think it is starting out,” Smith said. “But knowing that, now, and knowing what more I need to do myself, I think, will make 2015 all that much better for us.”
Smith has been actively searching for a seat to hop in for the start of 2015, including seeking potential opportunities to make a run at the Chili Bowl Midget Nationals next month and at possible USAC opportunities during the upcoming year in addition to running his family sprint car in additional races.
“We’re working on getting things put back together — the goal is to use the rest of the offseason to get things in place and be back racing stronger than before when everything opens here in the Indiana area.”
“I love racing of any kind, I really do,” Smith added. “I’m hoping to run some more with the wing this next year — it was so much fun and the speed and driving style is just so wild — I’m hoping to get that opportunity again somehow in 2015. But (at the end of the day), I’m really just looking to run whatever I can — a midget, wing, non-wing, pavement, dirt, Silver Crown — whatever comes my way, one of my goals is simply to drive whatever I can drive and consistently drive well.”
“I don’t want to just be known for one thing, I want to be able to move around a bit. Hopefully someday I’ll be able to put on a show in whatever I drive.”
But despite it all, the young shoe knows the task ahead — and he’s using his abridged chapter this year as motivation to keep the ball rolling towards a fresh start.
“I had a fun year this year but it was too brief for my taste. Hopefully we can get everything rolling for 2015 and make things a lot better than sitting on the sidelines.”
Listen in to an extended cut of Race Chaser Online’s interview with young sprint car pilot, Lukas Smith: