Late Model Digest
From staff, track and team reports
SAMSULA, Fla. – Sammy Smith’s 2021 season was marked by successes in heavy cars – a dominant ARCA Menards Series Easy championship campaign – and in Super Late Models – high profile wins in the American Freedom 200 at Jennerstown Speedway, the Winchester 400 at Winchester Speedway, and the Florida Governor’s Cup at New Smyrna Speedway. The 17-year-old standout opened the new season at New Smyrna with more success, both with new ARCA boss Kyle Busch Motorsports and second-year Super Late Model car owner Donnie Wilson.
Smith, who won the Pro Late Model championship at the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing with KBM in 2019, became the first driver to collect Speedweeks titles in the Pro and Super divisions. The Iowa native wasn’t as dominant as some past World Series champions, winning only once in his #22 Wilson Motorsports ride, but that was enough in a week in which the victories were quite evenly distributed.
The first two nights of Super action found Smith finishing in second place. The progress slowed a little bit in the middle of the week, and he bottomed out with two sixths. Qualifying was especially problematic; once he was as low as ninth on the time trial chart and missed the inversion three times.
“Everything wasn’t clicking and we were left scratching our heads,” Smith said. “Our guys just kept fighting. I got frustrated sometimes and that’s part of racing, but to get it done against Ryan Preece and Bubba Pollard and guys I respect a lot is great.”
The night he won, in which he grabbed the lead from fellow front-row mate Preece on the second of 35 laps, was the obvious turning point in his title pursuit. He entered that Thursday with a 10-point deficit to Derek Griffith, who won the Speedweeks crowns in 2020-21. Griffith dropped out of that race with six laps left after a rear end problem became too much to handle.
“The pinion gear sheared a tooth, then two more after that,” Griffith said. “It was a terrible noise, and once it started vibrating like that I couldn’t really see. I tried to stay out of the way and not tear anything up, but once the guy in last place got past me I pulled it in.”
Griffith’s misfortune came just a few minutes after two other winners from the week – who held third and fourth in points – also dropped out. Brad May had a tire let go before lap 10, and when it happened it careened into Jesse Love. Love stayed out as long as he could with the resulting rear end damage, but he finally parked it and was on pit road when Griffith left the racing surface.
On the final night, the Orange Blossom 100, Smith wasn’t thrilled with a third-place finish, but it was easily enough to clinch the title.
“I really wanted to come out here and win four or five races, honestly, and we didn’t do that, so I wouldn’t call it a completion,” said Smith, whose sponsors include TMC Transportation, Toyota, and Pilot Flying J.
Griffith couldn’t have caught him even with a win, but he wound up 11th to send him home scratching his head a bit. This was a completion of sorts for him, as he fell short in his bid to join the late Florida star Pete Orr as Speedweeks top-class champions three years in a row.
“We were due for a bad night at Speedweeks,” Griffith said about the expected bad night. “(The Thursday race) was the worst night we’ve had in years. We were running good other than the mechanical failures, which was a bummer. It’s part of the deal. (Wilson’s people) have been on their game so good the last year and a half. We’re a different style team. I understand that at the end of the day some of our stuff isn’t the same. We do a really good job with what we’ve got. We race with a lot of really good racers and teams. It’s cool for me; even if we come home second, it’s not anything to hold our heads down on. I struggled down here for so long, so to be able to win two in a row and get a podium for another…I’m fine with that.”
Love also felt a sense of accomplishment, in his third attempt at Speedweeks. The 2020-21 ARCA Menards Series West champion went winless here in February of 2021 after scoring a win here in his rookie run. The other big change with his Super operation, out of Wimmer Motorsports, was a switch in the middle of last year from Fury to Hamke Race Cars.
“It worked out best with our team alliances,” Love said. “We definitely ran well last year, but this year we definitely needed to get a win. We’ve got a lot of laps around here, and it’s always changing. I think this year the bump going into turn three is the worst that it’s ever been. We had to work through our growing pains with that, but this is still probably my favorite race track.”