ROSSBURG, Ohio – For veteran winged sprint car driver Mark Smith, Wednesday evening’s pair of practice sessions for the Eldora Dirt Derby were an eye-opening experience.
However, they were equally special to the 48-year-old Pennsylvanian, who will make his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series debut on Thursday night at Eldora Speedway’s half-mile dirt oval.
Smith will pilot the No. 38 Chevrolet Silverado – a truck being prepared as a joint effort between Jordan Anderson Racing and Niece Motorsports – and recognizes the uniqueness of someone in his shoes receiving an opportunity in a series that has become increasingly known for its youth movement.
“Man, these chances don’t come around too often for someone at my age,” noted Smith. “This is just cool for me. It’s a dream come true, really. You always wonder what it’s like to be in the big time, and as far as I’m concerned … for what I’m doing, this here is the big time for a sprint car racer like me. I don’t run the 410 stuff as much as I used to; I concentrate on the 360s more, but I’d say we’re at the top of our game at the 360 level. To take a step up into this world, it’s a whole different ball game.
“It’s a real neat experience, and one that I’m not taking for granted, that’s for sure.”
For Smith, who has long been used to the lighter, more nimble winged sprint cars over the course of his driving career, piloting a 3,400-pound truck for the first time was a stark change in scenery.
“I’m trying to get used to the weight of the truck and how far I can drive it in (to the corners),” explained Smith after first practice on Wednesday night. “I spun out twice in the first session, but luckily I didn’t get into any fences or barriers or anything like that. Right now, I’m concentrating on getting comfortable in these things and finding a groove.
“The weight just carries you around in these things; if you drive it in too hard or try to turn it too hard, there’s no catching it,” Smith continued. “In a sprint car, you can catch it. These (trucks) here, there’s no catching them if they go around. You just have to let it go and hope no one hits you.
“That’s going to be the biggest learning curve for me, I believe.”
Smith showed progression, however, as the night went on. He was 24th-quick in the opening 50-minute practice round and improved that to 20th in final practice, despite the track losing some speed.
“My crew chief told me to pick it up two tenths if I could, and I was able to give him a tenth and a half, so we’re starting to find little things,” he pointed out. “I think once we get the truck more comfortable to me and get it rotating in the center of the corners a little better, I think we’ll be pretty decent.
“Tony (Stewart) has been down here, helping me as much as he can, and I think once we get the bugs worked out of this truck, I’ll be able to apply a lot of the things he’s been feeding me.”
Though Smith is a Truck Series rookie and one of the drivers carrying the banner for grassroots racers around the country, his competitive fire is every bit as strong as anyone else in the 32-driver field.
That means that he’s only got one thing on his mind this week: trying to collect a trophy in victory lane.
“It’s an honor to be one of the guys carrying the banner for the short-track racers across America, but I don’t go to the race track to run around. I go to win, and that’s what we’re here for,” said Smith. “We might be a long shot, but I’m here to win the race.
“If we can do that, that’s great, but if we can’t then I just want to finish all the laps.”