Race Weekend Central

Beyond the Cockpit: Garrett Smithley on His Accelerated Ride up the NASCAR Ladder

Oh, how much can change in a year’s time. 

For Garrett Smithley, the 24-year-old Georgia native was working as a driver instructor at the Richard Petty Driving Experience following a successful run in Bandolero and Legend cars, before he even stepped foot in a NASCAR stock car. At the start of the 2015 season, Smithley made his Camping World Truck Series debut at the very track he started racing: Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Getting a taste of the XFINITY Series by the end of the year, the high level of unknown regarding his future in NASCAR was eliminated when a phone call from Johnny Davis put Smithley back on track.

Through 20 races in 2016, Smithley has not only gained experience on the track alongside the sport’s biggest stars, but has gathered notes from his JD teammates toward clinching five top-20 finishes thus far.

Sitting down with Frontstretch at Watkins Glen International this month, Smithley spoke about his beginning in Legend cars, his quick path up to the Truck Series and how the transition has blossomed into the XFINITY Series.

Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: What are your thoughts on road racing and here at Watkins Glen?

Garrett Smithley: Man, road racing is awesome. Any time we can do something different, it’s a cool deal. I’ve always been a fan of road racing since I was in Legend cars and Bandoleros. I did two or three [road] races in a Bandolero and actually won three or four in a Legend car. A lot of fun.

This is my first time in a stock car [at a road course]. Watkins Glen, it’s such a legendary track, I raced on it in video games for years. It’s cool to come around here and see those light-blue walls, there is nothing like this place.

Catanzareti: Going back to your Legend car and Bandolero days, you raced at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Lanier, places like that. Describe the learning process in those cars, were those the first cars you ever raced?

Smithley: Yep, Bandolero was my first car. Every step, there is a bigger and bigger learning curve. The biggest learning curve for me was going into Bandoleros, because I had never done anything before. Getting that base of what a racecar driver needs, what the car needs, how to communicate what the car is doing, the car feel and learning how to race, really.

Atlanta Trucks 2015 Garrett Smithley Mike Neff
Driving for Mike Mittler, Smithley’s Truck debut outweighed expectations. (Photo: Mike Neff)

It was a huge learning curve there and each step, for me, it got easier and easier. Going from Bandoleros to Legend cars, that was a pretty big step. But I already had a base of what I needed as a racecar driver. Then going from Legend cars to ARCA, that was a pretty sizeable learning curve just because being in stock cars, going from a small 130-horsepower Legend car to a 750-horsepower stock car, it was pretty big.

After that, going into Trucks and XFINITY, each time you just have to get better and better and learn as much as possible. You can run maximum laps and get good feedback from your crew chief, from your spotter, maybe teammates or guys you’re racing with. You just have to keep moving up the ladder.

Catanzareti: Do you think Bandolero and Legend cars are good places to learn how to drive a racecar?

Smithley: Yeah, obviously, I’m partial to Legend cars and Bandoleros because that’s where I started. I really do think – Bandoleros, it’s kind of like a go kart with a body, but it’s oval asphalt. If you want to make it to the Sprint Cup Series, you are going to run the majority of your races on ovals and asphalt.

I think you see a lot of guys who are becoming Cup champions, guys like Kyle Busch. Joey Logano is really good nowadays. Other guys like Reed Sorenson, David Ragan, who made it to the Cup Series. Even Dale Jr., all those guys started in Legend cars.

I think it gives a really good base. Everybody who said they drove Legend cars or anybody who is in Legend cars says that if you can drive a Legend car, you can drive anything.

It’s definitely worked out for me so far getting into the XFINITY Series.

Catanzareti: What was that first experience at Atlanta like for you? Driving on that frontstretch track. When you drove into there was it a really big deal for you?

Smithley: Yeah, I was a huge NASCAR fan starting at 2 or 3 years old. My dad went to school in Florida, so he became a really big race fan. We always watched it as kids and the first race we went to was Dover when I was 5 years old, so running Dover early in the season was very special for me.

We moved from Pennsylvania to Virginia, then Virginia to Georgia, and that’s basically where I grew up in Georgia about 25 to 30 minutes from the track. I think it was a the first or second year we lived there, my dad got tickets from a friend. I can’t remember what it was – I think when you win the championship in Atlanta, you get suite tickets, pit passes and get introduced on stage.

I think the first time I was ever in the pits was in 2008 after I won the Bandolero championship. It was mind-blowing being there. I think we got to see Bobby Allison, got to meet him. We got to see all the drivers. I was a little starstruck when I first started going there. Then going back and making my Truck Series debut there, that was incredible, insane.

Catanzareti: Talk about that Truck debut. I bet the emotions were high when you passed that little short track in the infield for the first time when you looked over.

Smithley: It’s funny because the way they had it set up, they had the Cup guys in the Cup garage and then the

29-30 July, 2016, Newton, Iowa USA Garrett Smithley ©2016, Brett Moist NKP
Smithley credits his early years in Bandolero and Legend cars toward his current pace in XFINITY. (Photo: Brett Moist NKP)

XFINITY cars in the XFINITY garage. And then the Trucks were in the media parking lot and my very first race in a Bandolero was on a Cup weekend in 2008. We parked in that same exact parking lot, so rolling in there in the Truck Series, parking in the same parking lot and then going out on track at your home track, you can’t even describe what that’s like.

Going in and out of there hundreds and hundreds of times through the tunnel, and then walking out of there as a Camping World Truck Series driver, it’s really humbling. It really made me happy knowing all the hard work was starting to pay off at that point.

Catanzareti: In your transition to the Trucks, was there a big realization moment for you? Something that happened that made you feel how big a deal it was and that you had a lot of learning to do?

Smithley: I’ll be honest, I was really, really nervous for that first Truck race at Atlanta. I had been on it with the Petty experience and had been around that track several times with those cars but it’s completely different thing. I had never driven a truck before at 180 mph. I was watching interviews, watching tape and trying to learn as much as possible before going in there. And everybody was saying that Atlanta is one of the hardest 1.5-mile tracks.

I was just thinking ‘Am I ready for this? Am I ready to go at Atlanta in a truck? Am I going to wreck it first lap?’ There is a lot of pressure, because if I go out and wreck it, then nobody is going to give me a shot after that.

I was going into it really cautious. But I knew, as soon as I did 3/4 of a lap, I got through turns three and four, I was completely comfortable. I said ‘Oh, OK, I got this. This is good.’ I just think doing that first start, we started 29th and finished 18th. We were super happy with that.

I didn’t get to race again until Pocono in August. I had been out of the truck for so long, so it was kind of a second test. Let’s make sure that wasn’t luck that I got that finish. We went out to Pocono and finished 16th and then went to Michigan two weeks later and finished 14th. Every time I got on the track, I got better and better. It really gave me the confidence to say ‘Hey, maybe I can do this. Maybe I do belong here as a driver.’

Catanzareti: Has it been the same for XFINITY or did you have more confidence since you did it in the Truck Series?

Smithley: I made my XFINITY debut at Homestead last year with Derrike Cope and the No. 70 car. I couldn’t believe how comfortable I was getting into the car. Obviously running the Truck, I didn’t know any better, that’s all I ran that year. I got in the XFINITY car and was super comfortable. I was like ‘Well, this cold be pretty cool.’

2016 Pocono I Xfinity Garrett Smithley Anthony Lumbis Sr.
Smithley currently sits 17th in driver points, likely needing a win to make the Chase. (Photo: Anthony Lumbis Sr.)

Going into 2016, we were looking to go Truck racing because I had some connections there, had some truck owners who I was talking to but nothing was really happening. We didn’t even look at the XFINITY Series. Then I got a call from JD Motorsports and they told me to come down. Johnny [Davis, team owner] wanted to talk to me and I started racing for them.

This year, it has been really, really good. I didn’t have any expectations. This is the second highest stock car series in the world, let’s see how we do. I was actually really nervous that maybe I was going too fast. Again, starting right off the bat at Atlanta Motor Speedway, I was comfortable. My crew chief from my Truck debut came on board for me this year with JD, Danny Gill. He’s given me a lot of confidence. Every time we have a different hurdle, we’re able to jump it.

Catanzareti: How big of year was 2015 for you? You did Trucks, got to XFINITY. It seemed like a really big learning year for you.

Smithley: For me, it was a dream come true. Ever since I watched NASCAR, ever since I wanted to be a driver, I was 13 or 14 years old when I go that inclination ‘Hey, I want to drive.’ My dreams since then were ‘Hey, I want to be a NASCAR driver.’

When I show up and I look at my suit and it says ‘NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’, it was like ‘Wow, this is real.’ And then to go do it and do well at it and exceed all my expectations, they were just really happy with it.

Catanzareti: Talk about that NBC ride along you got to do last year with Dale Jarrett and those guys. You called that one of you best moments of your life.

Smithley: Yeah, I could’ve died happy that night! Dale Jarrett, since I was a little kid, was my all-time favorite NASCAR driver, my favorite racing hero. I got a call from the producer of NBC Sports Network and he said ‘Hey, what are you doing today?’ And I said ‘I’m just hanging out, probably going to go to the track later.’ He said ‘Well, if you can come to the track we’d like you to do an event for us. How would you like to be on track with Jeff Burton, Bobby Labonte and Dale Jarrett?’ I was like ‘Sign me up! Let’s go!’

I just couldn’t believe how that worked out. We got to drive the Petty cars for Jeff Burton’s hot laps for NBCSN segment. Just being able to stand there, I posted a picture to my Facebook, all four of us, me, Jeff, Dale and Bobby, we’re all in NBCSN suits. I was just looking and till this day, I just can’t believe I’m standing next to my hero and these legends of the sport.

Catanzareti: On track, were you just driving behind them just looking at those guys? I bet you never had that type of feeling before.

Smithley: No, no. Dale retired a few years back and I said that I wouldn’t be able to ever race with Dale. That’s the closest that I can get. Just to be on track with those guys, even thought we weren’t racing or running very fast, it was still a super cool experience to just be there, look around and say ‘Man, I’m on track with some legends of the sport.’ It was a really cool experience; I’ll never forget it. To this day, it’s one of my favorite experiences that I’ve had since I started racing.

Catanzareti: In the Richard Petty Driving Experience, you’re an instructor. What do you do there and why did you get into that?

Smithley: In 2010, after I graduated high school, I did a development program with them called the Ricard Petty Driver Search. It was a four-day training camp and that gave me the opportunity to work for them. I got a call after the training camp. At that point, I didn’t really know where I was going to go. I was still living in Georgia and knew I had to get to Charlotte. I didn’t really know what I was going to do. They called me and said ‘Hey, do you want a job with us?’ And I said ‘Absolutely.’

I moved up in March of 2011 and worked for them, started buckling on pit road, being a flag man and just learning the company, learning what they do and then graduated to driver introduced. I still do riding events for them ever once in a while.

I give a lot of my success on track to the experience I got working for them. I got to drive 13 or 14 NASCAR tracks before I even competed in NASCAR. Going up to Atlanta, I knew all the bumps, the lines, the car feel. It was a huge opportunity because I didn’t have the money to do super late models or anything above Legend cars. That gave me the opportunity to not only make a living, but learn.

Catanzareti: Did you jump from Legend cars right to the Driving Experience? Was that your first stock car driving?

Smithley: That was my first stock car driving, going in there. Then, my first time in an ARCA car was Daytona. And then my first time competing in the ARCA Series was at Pocono. I made a huge jump from Legend cars to ARCA and they still tell me I was crazy for doing that. The opportunity was there, I had the sponsor who wanted to be on TV. I couldn’t say no. I just had to do what I had to do. Luckily it worked out, it could have gone really bad, though.

Catanzareti: Another opportunity has come here with JD Motorsports. Describe the process of joining this team. You said it was a phone call you got from Johnny to get everything started?

Smithley: Like I said, going into this season, it was about two weeks out from Daytona and nothing was happening, all the deals were falling apart. I really had no idea what I was going to do this year. I was really worried, really nervous. It was originally supposed to be the first three races and then we were just going to go week to week to see what we could do.

We did so well in the first three races that Johnny said ‘Let’s just keep going.’ So we went to California, did really well there. Texas, did really well there. Went to Bristol, Richmond, kept cars clean, kept cars together, had good finishes. We’re 17th in points right now, I think 22nd in owner’s points.

Johnny was really happy and I’m just working on my sponsorship side, JD is doing the same. Its really cool to get a shot with an established team with so much respect like Johnny has. I haven’t heard a single bad thing said about Johnny before I got here and since I got here.

Catanzareti: Was there pressure when you first started? I guess it wasn’t a full-time deal to start?

Smithely: Yeah, there was definitely pressure. It was basically a job interview. When I went to Atlanta for the first time, I was interviewing for my future with JD. I knew I needed to perform, I knew I had to keep cars clean, I understood his program. I wanted to come here and improve the No. 0 program, hopefully help the [Nos] 4 and 01. It’s been really cool working with both Ross [Chastain] and Ryan Preece and learn a ton from them. Ross has a ton of experience, a ton of short track experience. I told Johnny in the beginning, I said ‘Whatever you want, I’m here to improve the team and help you guys out as much as possible.’

Catanzareti: Your teammates, how do you guys compliment each other? You seem to be really broad together, Ryan on the short track side, You’re a good plate racer this year.

Smithley: Any time you have teammates you can bounce off when you go out and make a run, say I go out first, we’ll talk to each other. All of our cars, we have different driving styles but we have a similar setup under them. Sometimes they’ll throw something in my car to test and they do the same with Ross or Ryan.

It’s really cool to have that, especially being my first year and being a rookie not having a lot of laps – before this season I had a total of maybe 10 stock car races under my belt.

Catanzareti: Of the three of you, who do you think talks the most?

Smithley: Oh, I don’t know, we are all pretty talkative. It depends on the situation I guess. It depends on how our cars are running, whoever’s car is running the best, that person probably talks the most.

Catanzareti: What would you say is your biggest positive from this season? The moment you point to and say ‘OK, we’re definitely making progress.’

Smithely: Charlotte. That was, and still is, my best race of the year. We ran 12th at Talladega, 13th at Daytona, which were really good. But plate races, it’s a crap shoot. You don’t know whether you’re going to finish first or finish 30th upside down in the grass.

Charlotte was really, really good for me. I love the mile-and-a-half tracks, that’s my favorite type of racing. Going there and finishing a legitimate 15th, we had really good speed, we got the car driving really good. Being able to compete with those guys, passing some of the guys that are Cup teams, that was really cool.

A lot of guys after that came and congratulated me on that finish, a lot of my peers I race with.

29-30 April, 2016, Talladega, Alabama USA Ross Chastain (4), Garrett Smithley (0), Darrell Wallace Jr (6) ©2016, John Harrelson / NKP
Smithley grabbed a season-best finish of 12th at Talladega in May. (Photo: John Harrelson / NKP)

I don’t want to say it was a turning point because, since the first race, we’ve improved. I don’t think we’ve had a race that we’ve had issues with. But that race, everything came together, the car wasn’t driving good to start with but Danny made good adjustments and we got it really fast.

Everything about that race was really cool. To do it at Charlotte, a track that so high-speed, you have to have a good equipment to run 15th there.

Catanzareti: What’s it like racing around those Cup guys?

Smithley: It’s interesting. They’re Cup guys for a reason, they have a lot of experience. I remember Atlanta, my first race this year, going off into the corner and Brad Keselowski came around me, I got under him a little bit and I saw his front tires [turning hard left through the corner] and I was like ‘Wow, he is really digging in that thing!’

I think it’s so important for us to race around them because it shows them that – you try to gain respect and you try to show them that we’re not going to get around you, we’re not going to get in your way. Obviously, you want to race them and pass them but certain situations, you just want to show them that ‘Hey, I’m a rookie, I’m not going to be in the way and wreck every corner.’ Especially at plate races and the faster tracks to build that trust to race door-to-door with those guys, it is really important.

From a personal standpoint, it’s really cool because I used to watch those guys when I was a kid. Guys like Kevin Harvick, Brad and Kyle Busch. Before I started racing, I was watching those guys. Now I’m racing door-to-door with them. We’re equals so to speak. It’s really cool.

Catanzareti: Why do you race?

Smithley: That’s a good one. My very time I got interested in NASCAR as a driver, I was 13 or 14 years old in Georgia. I’ve always been a NASCAR fan and I got on these amusement park go karts, doing laps and I got off those go karts and it was like a light switch. I told my parents I wanted to be a racecar driver right then and there.

From then on, that’s always been what I wanted to do. I love the feel, I love the speed, I love every part of it. I love the media side, the interviews, I love the fans, everything about racing, there’s nothing I don’t like about it. Even the business side of it, I’ve really gotten interested in the business side of it, the sponsorship and marketing side. I just love it all.

Ever since I got on that go kart, I don’t think I really realized what was all involved. Once I learned about it, that was it.

Catanzareti: Do you see yourself going to Cup soon? You’ve been to Trucks, XFINITY, one or two years from now, where do you see yourself?

Smithely: I hope so. It just depends on the opportunities. I couldn’t tell you that I’d be sitting here in the JD Motorsports hauler racing full-time in XFINITY six months ago.

I hope so. That’s the goal. My all-time goal from the beginning when they opened the NASCAR Hall of Fame, I’ve said it from the beginning, I want to be there as a driver one day. That’s the ultimate goal and we’ll see how it plays out. It’s been a ride so far.

[Below is a video capture of our conversation with Garrett Smithley.]

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