Stuart Smith Jnr has had the most successful start to a season by an F1 stock car driver in history.
He has won 14 races from the eight meetings he has attended so far this season – nine heats, two finals and three Grand Nationals. No one, not even his father – the late, great Stuart Smith – can match that.
Mind you, the Maestro got close. In 1976 he won more finals and equalled his son’s race win total, but that was after nine meetings, having drawn a blank on the opening day of that season.
It is a remarkable record, and while some have suggested Smith Jnr’s cause has been helped by starting from star grade, rather than superstar, the man himself can’t wait to put the doubters in their place.
“I’m looking forward to going up to superstar and then I can just do the same and shut everybody up,” Smith Jnr says.
The 34-year-old began the season with a win in the first heat at Belle Vue in mid-March, but a flat tyre in the closing stages cost him victory in the final, having to settle for runner-up spot to Nigel Green.
His next outings were on the Tarmac at Birmingham and Hednesford and he was fast straight out of the box. Interestingly, Smith Jnr suggests some of his speed on the two Tarmac tracks was partly down to set-up changes he made while competing in the Live Action Arena at the NEC back in January.
“We actually learnt a few things at the NEC with the rear suspension,” Smith Jnr reveals. “The suspension lifts under torque and I knew it was working at a specific point of being on the throttle. At the NEC, it’s such a grippy surface, it was way over the top at first – you can test it there and not go fast. We then went testing at Northampton and I knew immediately it was miles better.”
Smith Jnr finished up with a heat and final double at Birmingham and won a heat and the Grand National at Hednesford. Again Smith Jnr had issues in the final, with an intermittent misfire due to fuel problems late in the race while pursuing eventual winner Michael Scriven, forcing him to again settle for second.
Over the Easter weekend, having missed out racing at Skegness on Good Friday, Smith Jnr took another heat and final double at Stoke. He followed up with a heat win at Belle Vue on Easter Monday but was unable to start the final due to a broken rose joint on a trailing arm.
He scored two heat wins at Sheffield, but went backwards with set-up for the final and Grand National, failing to finish both after self-inflicted visits to the fence. He admits frustration over a bad handling car got the better of him.
“I lost my head a bit at Sheffield,” Smith Jnr admits. “I showed a bit of petulance, I suppose. Geoff Coleman gave me a pep talk afterwards, and said I should have just picked up the pieces and accepted it. He’s calmest man in the world, Geoff!”
He then clocked up heat and Grand Nationals wins at both King’s Lynn and Belle Vue on bank holiday Monday.
But it was at the King’s Lynn meeting, Smith Jnr’s first visit to the track this season, that created a stir following comments made by the Milnrow star after winning his heat.
“They watered the track halfway through the heat,” says Smith Jnr. “And it wasn’t even dusty. As they had brought the yellow flag out, a car had spun and gone into the fence – it was that wet anyway – and the racing line was right up to the fence.
“And because he’d spun and backed it in the fence and there was absolutely nowhere I could go and I just barrelled in to him and destroyed my outside nerf rail completely – it was up in the air and nearly touching the bonnet.
“I carried on but what it had done was knock a plug lead off so it was really down on power, and Craig Finnkin passed me after the green flag. It was a bit wet, so I didn’t have the power to pull through it.
“But as it dried I passed Craig straight back and pulled away, even with a plug lead off, so it gave me a bit of confidence really, as I hadn’t raced at King’s Lynn for a while. It was good to get a win straight away.”
As Smith Jnr pulled up to receive his winner’s trophy he was interviewed on the infield, and the subject of the watered track came up.
“I wasn’t going to say anything, to be honest,” Smith Jnr admits. “I wasn’t pumped up to say “right I’m going to give them both barrels”. It is just out of frustration that I say the things that I do, because I’m a fan at the end of the day. I would travel to King’s Lynn every time it was on if it was natural racing, but it’s not.
“The guy on the mic innocently suggested that I struggled a bit after the water cart, and that it probably didn’t help me much. And I replied that it was typical of King’s Lynn and I didn’t know why they felt they have to do it – and that’s why I don’t go there that often.”
Smith Jnr’s comments became a subject of debate on social media. However, while he believes there are legitimate reasons against watering the track during races, he is full of admiration for what the promoter has achieved at the Adrian Flux Arena.
It’s not that I don’t like the track, I think it’s brilliant. I respect everything that Buster Watson has done there, because he’s done it from nothing and he really has built it up
“Maybe I shouldn’t have said what I did,” says Smith Jnr. “It’s not that I don’t like the track, I think it’s brilliant. I respect everything that Buster Chapman has done there, because he’s done it from nothing and he really has built it up.
“He has done really well, and it is going to be the new Coventry – the track is brilliant. It is primed to be a proper, proper stadium. On Saturday, the crowd were really good. It was like a World semi-final. It was a big crowd, the Saloons were on as well. It was a good atmosphere.”
But Smith Jnr would still like to see the track-watering situation addressed – he feels that it is creating more car damage than is warranted.
“The thing is, it is a talking point,” he says. “But watering the track annoyed me. If you do it all meeting it builds the shale up on the outside. I know that happens naturally, but it then gets down to the dry stuff lower down the track, and what it’s doing is building a grippier line higher up and it’s just too dangerous.
“The naturally faster line later on through a race is going to be where it’s driest, and that tends to be high up, because they water it halfway through a race. That becomes a higher line.
“You’re racing right up against the fence at King’s Lynn, and if a car spins out they are naturally going to drift up the track and into the fence. Well, that’s the racing line, and you’ve got cars going 80mph and they are going to hit stranded cars.”
The naturally faster line later on through a race is going to be where it’s driest, and that tends to be high up, because they water it halfway through a race
A possible win in the final was quashed after getting hooked up on the infield, when attempting to move the lower-grade leaders in front after a yellow flag stoppage. He fought he way back for sixth place.
Smith Jnr tweeted the following day “Good night showed some good speed. I hate seeing so much damage to people’s cars because track watering tho. Unnecessary £s worth damage”
“There was so much damage at King’s Lynn,” Smith Jnr says. “We were one of the last one’s to leave the track, and we saw everything. There was welding going on everywhere. There were people welding cars up just to load them up. I know welding goes on at most meetings, but the watering is a massive contributor to excess damage.”
On Monday, the track issues were different. At Belle Vue, it was because there was no grip.
“The track conditions were bad,” Smith Jnr explains. “It was just slippery – the track was full of cobbles and bricks and you’re just racing across those, there was no drive anywhere on the track.”
In the final, Craig Finnikin took his chance to move Smith Jnr aside on a restart and went on to take the victory.
“Craig saw an opportunity and got rid of me, and as he did I crawled over a car and popped two shocker tops off,” Smith Jnr says. “It meant the car dropped down an inch and a half – and we only have an inch and a half axle clearance at the back – so the car was sitting on the back axle and was really bottoming out all the time.
“I struggled from then on as the car was horrible to drive.”
With a two-week break until the UK Open Championship weekend at Skegness, it gives Smith Jnr times to prepare the Tarmac car for the stab at a championship he won three years ago.
You have to be dedicated at this job and I have got myself into a position where I can be
“I know I have had a bad couple of seasons and had some bad results, but that was just down to equipment really, and maybe a lack of dedication,” he says. “But that’s now changed.
“And I knew we would be all right. It’s like when I had a couple of years off and came back and everyone said I would struggle a bit. I was told the tyres were different, the shockers were different. But we didn’t think we would struggle and we didn’t. We won the UK Open straight away.
“You have to be dedicated at this job and I have got myself into a position where I can be.”
Last year it dawned on the owner of Rochdale Van Centre that he was taking on too much, particularly at work, and so he has taken his foot off the proverbial throttle in that regard.
“Work has totally changed,” Smith Jnr says. “I’m still doing the vans but it’s not as big. I’ve gone to a one-man band, really, and I work as hard as I need to.
“I’ve accepted that I’m not going to be a millionaire. I just work for a simple wage each week so I can do something I love for a few years.”
With a fresh approach to work, racing and life in general, and with wife Katie expecting their second child this year, Smith Jnr has plenty to look forward to – including many more race victories.
Neil Randon 2017
Photos courtesy of Colin Casserley and Neil Randon