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September 20, 2019

Meet Garrett Smithley: Patience, persistence at core of NASCAR career

Garrett Smithley
Chris Graythen
Getty Images

On the dashboard of every car Garrett Smithley has ever driven is written one phrase that has defined his life as a race car driver: “Patience, never give up.”

By chance, it was scrawled on the very first used Bandolero his parents helped him buy — the only equipment they ever bought him — when he was 15 years old and initially began to dream of a career in NASCAR. He liked it, and it stayed.

It has been on the NASCAR Xfinity Series cars he has driven for JD Motorsports for the past four years he has been the full-time driver of the No. 0 Chevrolet.

And it has been in his car for all 11 of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series races the 27-year-old has driven in over the past two years.

“If I kind of live my life by that, then I have a better shot to make everything happen,” Smithley says.

Patience helped him get to NASCAR in the first place, as Smithley grew up an avid fan of racing but never even stepped foot into so much as a go-kart until he was 15 years old. One perfect turn on a lap and he was hooked with a realization he had been waiting his whole life for that feeling.

Persistence has allowed him to not only take a chance on himself by learning every aspect of the sport — from driving to securing sponsorship — but moving from Georgia to Charlotte at age 18 on the hopes he could get noticed despite his limited experience.

Smithley knows he got a late start in the racing world. He knows he has only driven for small teams and has had to scrap to sell his own sponsorship deals and use his background in theater to showcase his charismatic personality.

But he believes there’s a place in NASCAR for him, too — even if Kyle Busch grumbled last week in Las Vegas that he wasn’t qualified to race at the highest level after making contact with Smithley’s lapped No. 52 late in the race.

“There’s no set path to get to the Cup Series,” Smithley says. “There’s no path that says, ‘Hey, you need to do this, this, this and this and this.’ I feel like my path is one of the more unique paths — kind of doing it grassroots and getting to the big stage relatively quickly after having a late start.”

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Matt Sullivan | Getty Images
Matt Sullivan | Getty Images

Smithley has been watching NASCAR races for as long as he can remember. With no family connections to the sport, he never imagined it as a career option. His father and grandfather both were in the military, with his dad’s pilot job taking him from Pennsylvania to Virginia to Georgia.

He played with Matchbox cars and auto racing video games. He remembers attending his first race at Dover when he was 6 years old — and he fell asleep in his mother’s lap. That was the extent of his early racing experience.

Instead, he played football and baseball. And his mom loved theater, so by age 5, Smithley was singing and acting, too. When he was a junior in high school, he landed the lead of Charlie in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Yes, that’s a musical.

His life changed when his parents brought him to an amusement park where he drove a go-kart at age 15.

“There was one turn that I remember,” Smithley says. “I was out toward the wall and drove into the corner, apexed the corner and hit the lines perfect and swung out to the wall. It was that corner, and I know it sounds cliché, but I was like, ‘Wow, that was really cool. I feel like I can do that for a living.’ “

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Somehow, his parents never doubted him — but they didn’t know how to go about helping their son get into the sport, either. So Smithley began googling. At Senoia Raceway, near his Peachtree City, Georgia, home, he learned he could test drive a Bandolero for $40.

“I spun out three times, but didn’t hit the wall,” Smithley remembers.

Eventually, that led to Smithley’s parents buying him a Bandolero — the one with the quote — as he tried to figure out how to race it. When he showed up to a practice race, he realized he still had a lot to learn. He didn’t have safety equipment. He wasn’t sure how anything worked.

“I didn’t know how to buckle myself in,” Smithley says. “We had to ask the next family over how to buckle me in. We had no idea what we were doing.”

Around that time, Tina Johnson first spotted Smithley zooming around the track — and wrecking often. The driving instructor who raced Legend and Bandolero cars for 15 years noticed the talented young kid who had no fear and plenty of drive. When Smithley came to her to ask for guidance, she was thrilled.

“You can see in kids the drive or if they’re scared,” she says. “Garrett never had that (fear). Every time I tell him to do something, he listened so well and he always saved his cars and was just a go-getter.”

She helped him learn the details of the sport, how to drive without wrecking, how to shift gears when he moved to a Legend car. In his first real race, he finished fourth.

“Probably it took me 15 minutes and Garrett knew how to drive a clutch system,” Johnson says. “That is not easy, but he had it. He is such a quick learner.”

When someone recommended Smithley attend the Richard Petty Driving Search in Charlotte in 2010, he didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t racing — he served as a driving instructor for the Richard Petty Driving Experience — but he’d still be around cars while in the epicenter of the sport in Charlotte. That was one step closer to NASCAR.

Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images
Smithley has dubbed his No. 0 Xfinity Series team #NumberNuthin. Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

During five years with the Richard Petty Driving Experience, Smithley focused on learning the business side of the sport — how to sell sponsorship, how to cold-call CEOs and ask for funding. All the while, he still dreamed of racing at the highest levels.

Brian Keselowski ran the Richard Petty Driving Experience and in late 2012, recommended that Smithley drive in an ARCA test session at Daytona.

“He was like two-tenths quicker than our other driver,” Keselowski said. “I still haven’t figured out how he did that. How did you do that at Daytona, of all places? It’s pretty much just a wide-open, hold-it-down track. I was pretty impressed with that.”

It was, it turns out, Smithley’s big break. He landed three ARCA races in 2013 from that test, and then four Gander Outdoors Truck Series races in 2015.

In 2016, he talked to Johnny Davis about driving three Xfinity Series races. That turned into 32 of 33 races that season, and he has been driving for JD Motorsports ever since. His best finish of fifth at Daytona last season buoyed his 22.1 average finish in 2018.

It is not the conventional route, Smithley realizes. He was patient and persistent and it worked.

“I did things completely backwards,” he admits.

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Kyle Busch says Smithley “killed our day” last weekend in Las Vegas when his No. 18 Toyota found the rear bumper of Smithley’s No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Ford as he tried to maneuver around the lapped car late in the South Point 400.

“We’re the top echelon of motorsports and we’ve got guys that have never won Late Model races running out here on the race track,” Busch told reporters after finishing 19th. “It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go.”

No, Smithley has never won a Late Model race. He never even raced in one. He took his unconventional route to NASCAR by finding sponsorship that helped him land his first Monster Energy Series race in 2018 at Michigan — where he drove 215 mph when he had never approached that speed before, and was in awe of who he was sitting next to at the driver meeting.

But Smithley still wants respect for where he is and how he got there.

STATS: Analyze Smithley’s career

“I completely understand Kyle’s frustration,” Smithley says. “I get why he was upset. He’s running for a championship; it’s high stakes. I totally get it. I wasn’t mad that he was upset. But I feel like I did everything in my power to hold my line. Two cars got around me and one didn’t.

“What I took offense to is when he calls my career into question, when he says, ‘Oh, guys who haven’t even won Late Model races are out here running the Cup Series.’ Yeah, I didn’t have the opportunity to run with the best of the best. He’s been in that position for a lot of years. Obviously he’s a great race car driver. There’s no question he’s one of the best out there and he’s a future Hall of Famer. I’m not taking anything away from that. I just haven’t had those opportunities.”

Smithley has only driven for smaller teams like StarCom Racing, Spire Motorsports and Rick Ware Racing in his Cup Series races.

“They do everything they can to be able to compete all race long and every week, but they’re probably short on engines and tires and all the things that make race cars go fast,” Keselowski says.

Smithley says there’s a special gratification that comes for driving for smaller teams and seeing the impact made by tiny gains. He sees the passion that drives smaller teams to still compete, and it inspires him.

Still, he wonders what might happen if he had a chance to drive for a bigger team.

“I kind of joked around, but I was serious when I said if Kyle put me in something he owned, Late Models or Trucks, there’s no question I could win,” Smithley says.

Hey, you never know. Patience, never give up.