By: Dave Kallmann
The destination for Sammy Smith, like any promising young stock car racer, is obvious and the general path is laid out:
Super late models, to ARCA, to the NASCAR Xfinity Series with a possible stopover in trucks, to the Cup Series, to winner to champion.
What Smith can’t really know – and can’t really control – is the timetable or the details or all the assets or impediments he may encounter along the way.
So, to fall back on a familiar cliché, he is approaching his career the way he does every lap, one corner at a time.
“I have a management team that deals with all that, so I’m not too in tuned with that,” Smith said. “I just try to focus on going to the racetrack and being productive and trying to win races.”
In other words, the things he can control.
Smith’s 2022 already has been a wild ride through various series and disciplines, and he’s barely halfway through a planned schedule of 47 races. Wisconsin fans saw him in the past three Slinger Nationals and last year at Wisconsin International Raceway and the Milwaukee Mile; this season they’ve seen him make his Xfinity Series debut on the July 4 weekend at Road America and run the Trans Am TA2 race there.
On Sunday, he’ll be back at the Mile for the ARCA Menards Series Sprecher 150.
But before that he’ll make his superspeedway debut with the Xfinity Series on Friday night at Daytona International Speedway, his fifth start in that series. That comes after finishing a Xfinity career-best third last weekend at Watkins Glen.
“Anytime you can get in a race car and race or try to prepare, it makes you a better driver,” said Smith, who gave up hockey at age 12 to dedicate himself almost entirely to racing.
“I think since February I’ve only had two off weekends. I’ve been very busy and haven’t had a lot of off time. I’ve been racing every weekend and I don’t have an off weekend again until after Phoenix. So just racing every weekend helps. If you have a bad week you go back the next weekend and give it your best and try to go back out and win.”
Given he didn’t turn 18 until June, Smith couldn’t run on the big tracks early in the year, but he has won twice on the ARCA national tour – at Berlin Raceway in Michigan and Elko Speedway in Minnesota – and finished worse than fifth just once while running 10 of the 14 races.
“I feel like we should have had at least five or six,” said Smith, who drives the No. 18 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
“We’ve either been taken out in a couple of them or we’ve had mechanical issues or taken ourselves out of them. We feel like we should have more than two wins right now, but I guess that’s how it goes. It’s part of racing. But we’ve had a car to win every time."
Smith also has three ARCA East wins with KBM this year and a pair in super late model races with Donnie Wilson’s powerhouse team.
Smith has backing from Toyota, whose driver development program provides everything from time in the simulator to karting opportunities to guidance from a nutritionist. He also has been paired with high-level teams in ARCA and Xfinity.
Last season Smith ran the eight-race ARCA East Series for Joe Gibbs Racing with three of those also part of the national ARCA Menards Series. In each of the national events he was teamed with Ty Gibbs, and Gibbs won all of them, plus seven others in dominating the championship.
Now Smith – who is about a year and a half younger than Gibbs and about two years behind in terms of development – is watching Gibbs, a close friend, contend for the Xfinity Series title and step in for Kurt Busch in the Cup Series while Busch recovers from a concussion.
“I feel like you can’t really compare, you just do the best you can as a driver and try to keep learning every race as much as you can and I feel like when our shot comes to race each other it’s going to be good,” Smith said.
“It was very unfortunate that Kurt got hurt, but at the same time for Ty it’s fortunate that he got that opportunity. You’ve got to take those opportunities and do good with them and he’s done an awesome job. … Obviously I’m super happy to see him running good, but my focus is trying to be productive in the Xfinity Series and win races and do the same in ARCA.”
With just five fulltime Cup seats, Toyota has had some difficulty placing or retaining its development drivers. But uncertainties now surround the health of the 44-year-old Busch, the ability of JGR to resign Kyle Busch and the subsequent status of KBM as a development option, and the likely retirement of Martin Truex Jr. after next season. The manufacturer’s landscape could change quickly. How Smith might be affected is unclear.
“I’m focused on trying to be productive this year and I don’t think next year is determined on anybody (else), honestly,” Smith said this week. “It depends on if I have sponsorship and what I’m able to do.
“I’m definitely looking forward to the rest of the season and hopefully get everything figured out for next year.”
Smith finished fifth at the Mile last August after starting second alongside his teammate Gibbs. The challenging, flat track is one at which he has been eager for another chance.
“We were really good in practice and qualifying, and we made some adjustments through the race that hurt me,” recalled Smith, who is working with Mark McFarland, the crew chief who helped Gibbs to 10 victories. “But I feel like we’ll have a good balance going back there. It’s probably one of my favorite tracks.
“I just remember during the race the fall-off (in speed over the life of a set of tires) was pretty big. I think it fell off 2-3 seconds, which as a driver, it’s always fun to try to work around that.”
Just one corner at a time.