Stewart, Smith hoping seven-year relationship leads to ultimate prize. DETROIT, Mich., Oct. 23, 2002 - When someone spends a career becoming an expert on the machines that compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, they can't help but learn quite...
Stewart, Smith hoping seven-year relationship leads to ultimate prize.
DETROIT, Mich., Oct. 23, 2002 - When someone spends a career becoming an expert on the machines that compete in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, they can't help but learn quite a bit about the people that drive them.
Such is the case with GM Racing's Ray Smith, who has been in and around the sport of auto racing for more than 50 years. Since 1980, Smith has been part of the racing effort at GM and currently serves as program manager for Pontiac's Winston Cup effort, as well as overseeing GM's Busch Series effort.
In 1995, Smith was introduced to a "little kid" named Tony Stewart, who was hoping to transition from the Indy Racing League to NASCAR's Busch Grand National Series. Smith not only helped Stewart get started, but more importantly kept him from leaving the series shortly thereafter.
Seven years later, Stewart finds himself on top of the Winston Cup point standings for the third straight week with four races remaining. Smith finds himself among those who admire Stewart and among those who are admired by him.
Thoughts From Ray Smith,
Busch and Pontiac Winston Cup program manager, GM Racing:
HOW LONG HAVE YOU KNOWN TONY STEWART? "We go back to '95. Harry Ranier brought this little kid into my office. Harry talked to me and introduced me to Tony. Tony was kind of shy. I told Harry I would help them, so I got them going in a Pontiac.
"A little later on, things weren't going so great. I don't know what the problem was, but we (Tony and I) had lunch one day and he said, 'I don't know if it's me or the car.' He was so discouraged he was almost ready to go back to open-wheel (racing). It was after he'd been running in the Busch Series for a little while and it just wasn't working for him.
"I had rented IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park) for a GM Busch car test and I called Steve Byrd up. He was the crew chief for (Bace Motorsports owner) Bill Bumgarner. Randy Lajoie was driving the car at that time. So, I talked to 'Byrdie' and I said, 'I know drivers don't like to share their race cars, but I really need to get Tony about six laps in Randy's Busch car at IRP when we test there.' 'Byrdie' said, 'Ray, I will do more than that for you. I will bring a car just for Tony,' which he did.
"When we got there, Randy shook the car down for Tony, scuffed some new tires in and then Tony got in. Within about four laps, Tony was running within about a tenth of a second per lap compared to what Randy was running. At that point in time, 'Byrdie' sent the shocks, springs, stabilizer bars and everything from that car down to put on Ranier's Pontiac. At the end of the day, all three cars were within a tenth of a second of each other.
"I think Tony appreciated that, because then he knew it wasn't him. That makes me feel like I've certainly been a part of what he's done down here."
WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO SEE TONY IN A PONTIAC AND AT THE TOP OF THE WINSTON CUP POINT STANDINGS NOW? "I'm just excited for him.
"I try not to get attached to drivers too often. Bobby Allison was probably my closest friend and then he got hurt bad. And, there was Johnny Thomson, who had the pole in 1959. Then, he got killed in 1960 and I didn't go near a race car for three years after that. So, I've tried to not get too close to people, especially after Bobby got hurt. But, with Tony - I'm just excited to help the guy. He is so appreciative and he is such a great driver. I'm a real fan of his."
HOW ABOUT THE POSSIBILITY OF A PONTIAC WINNING THE WINSTON CUP TITLE FOR THE SECOND TIME IN THREE SEASONS? "I'd excited for this body style to go out on a high note. Frankly, it's been behind in some respects, but Tony didn't know that - or maybe didn't worry about it - and he just drove it.
"I'm happy to have Tony running for the championship. I think he's going to win it. I really do."
DOES IT SURPRISE YOU TO THINK BACK AND REALIZE THAT TONY STEWART MIGHT HAVE EVER DOUBTED HIS ABILITY IN A STOCK CAR? "I knew he doubted it early on and that's why I wanted to do what I did for him at that test at IRP, so that he would know that it wasn't him. I always had faith that it wasn't him."
Thoughts From Tony Stewart, No. 20 Home Depot Pontiac Grand Prix:
WHAT IS YOUR VIEW OF RAY SMITH? "Ray has been a very important person to me as long as I've been down here (racing in NASCAR). He was one of the first people I really dealt with and did more than he'll ever know to help me out."
YOU'VE ALWAYS SAID, "THERE IS NO OWNER'S MANUAL THAT SHOWS YOU HOW TO ADJUST TO RACING IN NASCAR." ARE THOSE THE KIND OF THINGS RAY REALLY HELPED WITH - THINGS "OUTSIDE THE FENCE?" "It was more 'things inside the fence' that he helped me figure out. Adjusting to the life and lifestyle here is difficult, but there is lot to learn at the track, as well, and that's where Ray was really a huge help, actually."
KNOWING YOU'VE NEVER RACED ANYTHING BUT A PONTIAC IN NASCAR COMPETITION, KNOWING THIS IS YOUR LAST YEAR IN A PONTIAC AND KNOWING RAY IS OVER THE PONTIAC PROGRAM IN WINSTON CUP, WOULD YOU LIKE TO DELIVER A CHAMPIONSHIP TO HIM THIS YEAR? "As far as I'm concerned, Ray is one of the guys, if not 'the' guy, that has made this brand what it is in this series. He deserves a title this year and if we can get one for him, I'd be as happy for him as I would be for anybody."