J. Merle Smith Kneeling & Driver Richard Childress Inside His Racing Car
Dayton International Speedway - 1971
Walt WiImer remembers how easy it was to talk to J. Merle Smith. He remembers Smith's relaxed manner, his bright smile and his willingness to talk to somebody he just met, regardless of how busy he was. By all accounts, that's just the kind of guy Smith was.
Wilmer, who has been around the local auto racing scene formore than 50 years, began writing for various publications in 1968. In his time on the job, WiImer said Smith was one of the easiest guys to talk to, in a sport where many drivers and car owners are reluctant to speak to the media. "He was a super-nice guy," Wimer said. "He had a real good sense of humor. He always had the time to do a little talking down in the pits, and hewas a friendly fell0w." Smith, who died Tuesday at the age of 83, was a native of Avonmore and spent much of his adult life racing cars all over the eastern United States. Although he never raced in one of his cars, Smith was involved in every aspect of the operation as the team's owner.
His career spanned three decades, with his familiar No.72 orange modified blazing around such tracks as Lernerville, Clearfield, Tri-City, Pittsburgh, Bedford and Marion Center speedways. Big-name drivers such as Bob Wearing Sr., Clate Husted, Bob Wearing Jr. and Ron Watson drove his cars and often had unparalleled success in them.
Smith's cars also raced at other asphalt tracks, such as Daytona International Speedway, Dover Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Former NASCAR drivers Neil Bonnett, Lennie Pond, John Anderson and Richard Childress took the wheel in Smith's cars. That league, called the "Mod Squad," was formerly known as the NASCAR Modified Series and is now called the ARCA series.
But Smith is remembered more for his warm smile and quick wit than he is for his racing career. Most who knew him said he was a great car owner, but an even better man.
"Merle was a nice guy," said Fred Woodward, who runs the Lias Tire Racing Division and knew Smith for more than 25 years. "He would walk into the shop and everybody would want to sit down and talk to him. He was one of those guys who could come behind the counter and sit down at one of the desks. Then he'd tell you a story about something that happened long ago."
Smith first got into the ownership end of racing in the early 1970s when he took a modified to the area tracks and became one of the more successful owners around, as his drivers amassed multiple feature victories and points championships. But Smith wasn't content to stay local, as he took his No.71 asphfalt modified to the NASCAR Modi fied tour and gained success there, as his drivers won pole positions and had good showings in many races.
Childress, who raced Smith's car in the mid 1970s, used the lessons he learned as a young man and turned them into a profitable business. He now owns Richard Childress Racing, the NASCAR team that fielded Dale Earnhardt's car. But Smith, who made a living as a self-employed coal man, primarily became known all over as the owner for whom all the drivers wanted to work. His decision-making and willingness to listen to the crew made him a favorite of drivers who wanted an owner who did more than just foot the bill for an expensive hobby.
"We were competitive 95 percent of the time," said Husted, who has been a driver for more than 40 years. There were very few times when we didn't qualify for the feature. If we needed something for the car, he'd get it. He always had the best equipment. He was that kind of an owner."
Wilmer, who has known hundreds of drivers, repeated Smith's reputation. He was very well-respected as a car owner," Wimer said. "He always had some of the best drivers around driving for him, and a lot of guys wished they could drive for him. The drivers he had worked for him for a long time, and they all were successful."
Known affectionately as "The Old Guy," Smith always had a smile and a joke for most of the people he met. No matter who the person was, he or she usually appreciated the fact Smith took the time to listen to them.
Jeff Geesey, who grew up around Marion Center Speedway and now is the publicity director for the Mid-Atlantic Championship Series, met Smith for the first time as a teen-ager when he worked a part-time job at Lias Tire on Fifth Street in Indiana. "He was a very soft-spoken man," Geesey remembered. "He never was angered about anything. He was just generally a nice person to be around."
There was also more to Smith than just racing. "I had a great time with Merle," said Husted. "We were good friends. We kind of lost contact the last few years because of his health, but I probable hadn't talked to him in about four years.
When we were younger, he would come to my house and he'd come with Bob Wearing and Ed Boyer and some other guys and we'd all ride bikes together. He was a good friend, and we used to do a lot of things together, other than just racing." Yet no matter what he was doing, racing was what Smith lived for. "I think the fun part of his life was racing," Husted said. "He just loved it."
And despite his passing, Smith's memory still shines for those close to him and for those lucky enough to have spent even one minute talking to "The Old Guy." "He was just a great guy," said Woodward. "We always looked forward to talking to him. He knew so much and he was so friendly. I don't think I knew anyone who didn't enjoy talking to Merle."
Transcribed by Maury Tosi
A Featured Article in the Indiana Gazette, Dec. 7, 2001
Written by Matthew Burglund, Sports Writer