An interview with: Rhonda Hartman-Smith To say the least, Rhonda Hartman-Smith is a busy lady. In this Q&A session, Rhonda talks about what it is like to race in the Top Fuel ranks, as well as a myriad of other family-related jobs. She talks...
An interview with:
To say the least, Rhonda Hartman-Smith is a busy lady. In this Q&A session, Rhonda talks about what it is like to race in the Top Fuel ranks, as well as a myriad of other family-related jobs. She talks about the changes the team has made in the offseason, what they learned from their first top 10 points finish and what they want to accomplish this season. Rhonda also discusses how she has handled the near career-ending accident her husband suffered during competition last year.
Q What would you be doing if you weren't driving Top Fuel cars?
Rhonda Hartman-Smith: Well, I am the office manager for our family business, so I would probably still be doing that along with being a mom.
Q You are surrounded by your family at every race. Does that help you do the job?
Hartman-Smith: It's the only way I could do it. My dad is out here and since the team is the family I bring my daughter out here and still do the work. I wouldn't be able to do it all without their support. My mom comes out to the races and she watches Megan when I run. My husband helps me out, takes care of her and takes care of me.
Q Would your family still be this close if it weren't for racing?
Hartman-Smith: Oh yeah. Our family has always been really close and really tight. With the family business, we work together, we are always going to the lake together and going on vacations. I think we would be just as tight even if we weren't racing.
Q What do you think about POWERade getting involved with the NHRA?
Hartman-Smith: I think it's great for the sport. It is going to bring more sponsors with POWERade being on board. I am excited because it is a product that we can all associate with. We can market it real well.
Q What do you think about the competition level of the Top Fuel category this season?
Hartman-Smith: It takes a lot of money to run these cars and it is really hard to be competitive with Kenny Bernstein and Larry Dixon and I think you will see some cars fall off because of the expense. I think if there was more sponsorship out there, you would see far more than just a full field out there because there are so many teams and drivers out there who just can not get full funding right now. I think eventually you will see more sponsors and different types of sponsors stepping into the sport. It just takes time.
Q What is your relationship like with your sponsor, FRAM?
Hartman-Smith: They are so great. They are just wonderful. They have been great to me ever since I started racing. They have been a product sponsor. I feel like they are all family.
Q How did you get involved with racing Top Fuel cars?
Hartman-Smith: I have been around the sport forever. My dad has built and driven race cars and my older brother (Richard) started driving. I used to work on his car, help out and go and clean parts and do whatever it took. I made travel arrangements or whatever we needed. Eventually my brother got hired as a driver for another team. The car was there, my dad was there, and on my 16th birthday we went out and made some laps and I went and got my license in the Alcohol Funny Car. I always knew I wanted to be in Top Fuel. That was always my goal. I just worked my way up. I think I pushed my father along. He didn't want to progress as quickly as I did, but I just pushed him.
Q What do you like about drag racing and how long do you see yourself being involved with the sport?
Hartman-Smith: I will probably be involved with the sport forever. With my husband being so involved and all he does with drag racing, I think I will always be around the sport. Especially with my dad and the entire family being so involved. It might not always be as a driver, but in one way or another, I'll stay involved. As a driver, I really like the competitive nature of the job. I am a very competitive person and I love going out there and achieving personal goals. I just feel real natural being a driver.
Q How have you approached the 2002 season differently from the past year?
Hartman-Smith: We are being more aggressive. Before, we were a little too conservative and we had a medium budget and we were forced to be more conservative. We didn't have a full-time team and some people flew in and flew out for the races. This year we have a full team of eight guys (for both cars) and we are just concentrating on being more consistent and making less mistakes as well as being more aggressive out there. Before, we were just trying to qualify the car and learn everything we could. Before, our goal was to be in the top 10 and we did that. Now we want to progress. We have realistic goals. We know we can't go out there and win championships right now. We just don't have the experience and the budget to do it. I think we are growing slowly and taking everything little by little.
Q Is the Top Fuel title something you are committed to earning?
Hartman-Smith: Yeah, we did it at the IHRA. I won national events and ended up No. 2 (for the season). I was one round away from being the champion. But there, I was very competitive and I had the budget to do that. Here, it is a lot harder to be competitive. It's like going from the minor league to the major league. It is so much harder. But I know that it is something I really want to compete for. Right now, it is not realistic. My goals are something I can achieve.
Q How important is it for you to get that first national event victory?
Hartman-Smith: It is very important for me. It is important for us to win more rounds and qualify better. I would love to win a national event. It would be awesome, especially because of how hard it is to compete with Dixon and Bernstein. They are the top cars. Knowing how difficult it is to compete with those teams, winning a national event would be a great accomplishment.
Q Can you tell when the car is going to be capable of winning rounds?
Hartman-Smith: When my husband got into his accident, we turned the team around a little. We tried different people in different places to concentrate more on the car. We showed a big improvement. We ran our best time ever and I think on race day we knew we had a really good car for those conditions. We went out and won first round and I felt we could have won the second round. I thought we were really on our game. You know when the car is having a good day or when you are not and the car is inconsistent and that can be very frustrating.
Q Your husband, John Smith, was involved in a horrible crash in Brainerd last year when Gary Scelzi's car collided with his car. How do you feel about John being back in the car for the first time since the accident?
Hartman-Smith: It's very hard. I want him to come back for him. I hate that what happened, happened to him. I hate that he was injured and did not walk away like Gary Scelzi. He has had to go through a really tough time. We have had the tears and we have tried to laugh. We never laughed at what happened, but we have tried to turn it around and see the positive about what happened. It has been so tough. I have seen him struggle and in the 10 years that I have known him, he has never had to deal with anything like this. He was in the hospital for two weeks. He had four surgeries. Before Thanksgiving, and right before our daughter's birthday, he had to have another surgery to have all of the pins pulled out. He just couldn't move. It was awful. We had a family vacation planned with the entire family to go on a cruise. We planned it last year with the whole family. He was miserable. We all felt bad for him. It has been a tough time. But he has wanted to do this for so long and he has had a great attitude about it. It is hard for me to see him struggle. I am glad to see him back out there making a run. He had some trouble (with the first run during testing at Tucson) because he doesn't have as much strength as he had before and he had some trouble with the clutch.
Q How difficult is it for you to balance being the driver of one car on the team as well as the wife of someone making a comeback?
Hartman-Smith: It has been hard. I would be lying if I said that I haven't thought of quitting. Because I have. The most important thing is taking care of my family. We have a little girl and when I saw my husband hurt and her reaction to what happened to her dad, it was really hard. He couldn't hold her, he couldn't play with her, he couldn't run after her or do anything. I look at that and I don't ever want to put her in a bad situation because she relies on both of us so much. Being a mommy is so different from being the driver. I have been around this for so long and it is hard to say why I keep doing it. I feel safe with my family working on the car. Both of our cars have always been safe and we have never crashed them. We have never gone over our heads driving them. We have always been conservative.
Q Are you looking forward to having John drive the second car on the team?
Hartman-Smith: I want to see him do it for him. Not for any other reason. We have the choice on whether we want to run a second car or not. I just want to see him do it because that is what he wants to do. He wants to show that he can get back in it and do it and that he is OK. It makes him happy and that makes me happy. Ultimately, that is what he wants to do, be a driver.
Q Have you changed anything about your approach to a run or the way you drive because of the accident?
Hartman-Smith: No. I went to Indy (for the 2001 U.S. Nationals) right after the accident and he got out of the hospital the day before. My mind mentally was not in it because I didn't want to be there because I wanted to take care of him. But I went there and tried to focus on what I had to do. The first run was the hardest because in the back of your mind you have a horrible picture of what happened and it was really hard to get in the car for the first time. I just went with the attitude that this team is going to pull together and we are going to be strong. Indy didn't go well because it was frustrating. But we turned it around at Reading and the rest of the year. We felt good about it. We had to do it for ourselves just to put it out of our minds. I've only seen the tape of the accident once and I won't watch it again. I just don't want to think about it. That was a freak accident and I don't want to think about it.
Q Could you have made the return to the driver's seat so quickly if you weren't surrounded by your family?
Hartman-Smith: I don't really know. I am not a quitter and I would not have quit that easily. When I had Megan and I sat out a year and half, it was frustrating. I didn't want to be a spectator. I wanted to be involved. I get bored very easily. I wanted to make a comeback and I pushed my dad to do it. I think I would have done the same. After my husband's accident, I probably would have pushed to comeback just to be strong and not let it affect the team.
Q How much have you helped John rehabilitate the injuries and prepare to get back into the car?
Hartman-Smith: He did an interview after his crash and he said I was the glue that stuck us together. I don't think that is what I would have said. But I was the glue. I think I help keep the family together and keep us strong and help make things happen.
Q You finally have a full staff of team members working on the car. How will that affect everyone?
Hartman-Smith: This year I feel really good about the team. These guys just click really well. They work well together and they really want to race. They have racing in their blood. I think they are going to be really dedicated and get the job done.
Q Have there been times when you have had to deal with being a female Top Fuel driver rather than just a Top Fuel driver?
Hartman-Smith: Nothing specific, but when you beat (a male driver) they might have a little grudge. But when a guy beats me or even a girl, Melanie Troxel beat me once, it's hard. It's hard only because you have been beat, not by a female or a male, but just that someone else beat you. That is how I look at it. They might look at it differently, but I don't let it bother me. I don't let much bother me because I am out there to race. I could care less if I was racing Bugs Bunny. There have been incidences, even with fans. I have had fans e-mail me and tell me to stay home and wash the dishes. It doesn't bother me. I have been doing this for a while. I have been around it with my family and I think a lot of people know that. I think the biggest issue I have is that because I race with my family and I race for my dad, people think I am daddy's girl and I get everything I want. They think I fly in, fly out and that is all I do. That is the furthest thing from the truth. I think that is the biggest mis-conception about me. I wish people would get it through their heads. The people who say that don't know me at all. I have worked so hard to get where I am and I continually work. I don't have a glamorous life where I make millions of dollars and I just fly in and out for the races.
Q What is the advantage of having a two-car team?
Hartman-Smith: I feel it's harder right now to have a two-car team. We don't really have the funding for two cars. It's harder on our team because it is not set up like the John Force team. He definitely has an advantage (with the multi-car team) because he has it going on over there. He has a lot of people and a lot of money. I find it harder because my husband is driving one car and I am driving the other. He is the crew chief for my car and we are back and forth a lot. It is hard. It is double the work. But I will say that there have been some things that we have found on the other car that was wrong with my car. In that way, it has been an advantage having two cars.
Q What do you want from the 2002 season?
Hartman-Smith: I just want to see us qualify well and in the top half of the field. I want to see us get past the first round more often and win more rounds. I want us to put together some solid runs and see us in the top eight for the season.