Three-time NHRA Pro Modified world champion Rickie Smith is making preparations to campaign — for the first time in his long and illustrious racing career — a turbocharged car in 2019. And this time, he insists, he’s serious.
In what can only be described as a major coup, the King, North Carolina native has partnered with another decorated world champion, tuner Steve Petty, to campaign a twin-turbocharged 1967 Ford Mustang with Pro Line Racing Hemi engines for power in the 12-race NHRA E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod Drag Racing Series. Smith’s Bahrain 1 Racing teammate, Khalid alBalooshi, will likewise debut a brand new Chevrolet Camaro with an identical engine and power adder combination overseen by Brad Personett, setting up a formidable and championship-caliber program.
Smith has been here before: three seasons ago, frustrated over the lack of parity among the power adders and the NHRA’s handling of such, he assembled a turbocharged car but broke off the affair before ever entering it in competition. As the history books will reflect, he’s added six national event victories and another championship to his resume since that time — but he’s never wavered in his belief that nitrous cars are at a disadvantage. And now, he feels, is the time to do something about it.
“I’m basically the fastest nitrous car out there in quarter-mile racing, and have been for eight years, and I’m getting to where I can’t qualify any better than ninth or tenth, and sometimes eleventh and twelfth,” Smith says. “There are too many good racers coming in, and when you’re the fastest car there with a given power adder and you qualify in the bottom half of the field, there’s no use in going back, not in my opinion. I don’t go to these races, and never have in my life, just to think I could qualify. That’s not my style, and if I don’t think I have a chance when I come in the gate to race, there’s no sense in me going.”
With Petty, he most certainly has a chance.
When Steve became available, that made this whole decision work. We all sat down and agreed on it after the Charlotte race. If it hadn’t been for Jose agreeing to let Steve come tune for us, I wouldn’t have tried to do it [a turbo program] again. – Rickie Smith
Petty has served as the primary tuner for Troy Coughlin and Jose Gonzalez over the last seven seasons in the NHRA Pro Mod series, earning three titles along the way (he’s also been a consultant for Sidnei Frigo); with Coughlin’s decision to step away from the driver’s seat again in 2019 and Gonzalez trimming his schedule back to six races, it opened the door for Smith. Gonzalez, a highly successful business entrepreneur in his native Dominican Republic, graciously offered his blessing for the new partnership, affording Petty the opportunity to race for a championship with one of the sport’s greats.
“Rickie has been kind of poking at me for three or four years wanting to do something with me, and when Troy decided to retire it kind of opened that door,” Petty shares. “Jose is my main guy right now, and his business is really, really busy; he’s such an awesome dude and he wanted me to have a chance at winning a championship. And he said he’d really like for it to be Rickie — he said let’s have a two-car team with Rickie, and it all just kind of fell into place.”
“When Steve became available, that made this whole decision work,” Smith adds. “We all sat down and agreed on it after the Charlotte race. If it hadn’t been for Jose agreeing to let Steve come tune for us, I wouldn’t have tried to do it [a turbo program] again. I hadn’t talked to Jose much before, but he’s just been so good to me, and I think we’re going to have a lot of fun working together.”
“I never really thought it would happen,” Petty goes on to say. “Rickie’s always been one of my heroes.”
While the partnership with Petty and Pro Line is a more recent development, things were set in motion months prior when Smith approached Pro Line about renting a turbocharged car for the World Series of Pro Mod in Denver. While time ran out to put the proposed one-race deal together, the talks between Smith, Pro Line’s Eric Dillard, and Petty continued into the fall, at which time Smith says a conversation with NHRA vice president of competition Ned Walliser sealed his decision.
“When Ned told me after the race at Charlotte that they saw nothing wrong, that did it. I forget the exact numbers, but he said there was something like four or six thousandths — not hundredths but thousandths — difference in these cars. I looked at him and said, ‘are you kidding me?’ I told him I just made the quickest and fastest run by a nitrous car in the world this weekend and I qualified sixth. If I had made the quickest pass ever with a blower or a turbo, I’d have been number one qualifier. Why do I have to be number six and you say it’s all even? He just stood there and looked at me. I said more power to him and walked off and went straight over to Petty and signed this deal. That, 200-percent, made me realize it was time.
“It’s really the NHRA that’s pushed this whole decision,” Smith adds. “I begged them to make some changes and they told me ‘no, no’. I just talked to one of the tech guys this morning and he told me there aren’t any changes being made, so hey, if they don’t want any nitrous cars, that’s fine. I guess they think I’m joking them, but if they think I’m joking them, then don’t change the rules and the nitrous cars are gone…unless you’re somebody that wants to come in and qualify thirteenth or fourteenth. With no changes, a nitrous car will be be lucky to qualify eleventh or twelfth and then he’ll have to make some damn good runs. We have another year on our agreement with Bahrain 1, and I don’t think I could have asked them to stay with me another year knowing we can’t be competitive. I’m just not that kind of guy.”
Smith says for the time being he’ll retain his nitrous car and may compete at some of the local Pro Modified events in and around the Carolinas, but adds, “if this thing goes like I’m hoping it’ll go, I’d like to sell it by the middle of the year. I like the nitrous cars — it’s hard not to like something you’ve been fooling with for twenty years, and it’s hard to walk away from it, but I’m also a competitive guy and I want to win, and if you’re going to race in NHRA Pro Mod, you don’t even need to show up with a nitrous car.”
I think it’s awesome that — I don’t know how long Rickie has raced…a long time — but he’s always been his own crew chief. So I think it’s pretty awesome that he trusted me and put it in my hands this year for the first time in his career. – Steve Petty
Smith assumed ownership of an already-in-progress 1967 Ford Mustang at Jerry Bickel Race Cars originally commissioned by Gonzalez that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks. The aforementioned billet Pro Line Hemi will be managed by a FuelTech FT600 ECU. Such a combination is already a highly proven commodity, thrusting Smith right back into title contention. But, perhaps more than any other competitor in the class, knows his hard work and success can be reduced with the stroke of a pen.
“If I go out and run good with a turbo car and win races, watch NHRA do something about it. And if they do, it’s a shame, because that proves everything I’ve said the last few years how they only penalize Rickie, they’re not really penalizing everybody else. We’re going to run good, and if we get lucky and win some races, they’ll do something about it, and that’s a shame.”
“Everybody thought Rickie had something in the bank, all these years. Well, I don’t, and I told them nobody else has to race and pull the heads off every two runs, “Smith continues. “We ran the car where we could get it through a weekend without pulling the heads, without blowing the scoop off of it. I just can’t race like that. I knew what we could do with these things and not get in trouble. It’s the NHRA’s fault for letting this deal get out of hand, and the way I see it, it’s going to get worse. The way this deal is going, in two years it’ll be just like Pro Stock where you’re lucky to have ten or twelve cars show up. And I don’t just think think so, I know so. This isn’t my first rodeo…I’ve seen exactly what’s happening.”
Smith isn’t just one of the class’ most vocal and outspoken individuals, but also one it’s most astute observers and scholars. Over the course of a 30-plus-year career, he’s been there and done that and stands by his thoughts — popular or unpopular — on how things ought to be, including how to make NHRA Pro Mod prosper for years to come. But he’s pulling no punches now that what’s done is done.
“I told them exactly what I’d do several months ago and nothing got done…now I’ve made the choice to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to make a change. I ain’t saying nothing…I’m going to sit back and ride the train like the rest of them have for the last seven or eight years. I ain’t gonna’ say nothing. The rules look good to me and I hope they don’t change them all year. They look pretty fair as far as I’m concerned. Let’s go racing.”
For Smith, the new venture with Petty, Dillard, and Pro Line isn’t just about the present and competing for a championship in the near-term, but more about laying the groundwork for his future in racing outside of the cockpit.
“I told these guys I don’t mind racing another year, go out here and try to win a championship. But my whole deal is I want to get out of the seat. I want to be a crew chief and a tuner, but I want to be able to make decent money,” smith says. “And they told me this is kind of what they’re needing: they need more tuners for their customers so they can expand their business. This is what we all talked about and I’m hoping that down the road I can become one of their tuners and they can help keep me in business being a tuner. I think this is going to be a good relationship between me and Pro Line and Petty and we can all learn together and I can turn this into a way to make a living.”
“I think it’s awesome that — I don’t know how long Rickie has raced…a long time — but he’s always been his own crew chief. So I think it’s pretty awesome that he trusted me and put it in my hands this year for the first time in his career. Rickie is one of the best chassis guys out there, so he and I will work hand in hand in that — I’ll handle the motor and application of power and I’m sure we’ll sit down and look at things and talk amongst us and make decisions together so we can both learn,” Petty shares.
I’m not getting any younger; I’ve pretty much done everything I’m supposed to do in life. God has blessed me a bunch — I’ve won 11 championships and it’s just stupid what I’ve done since I turned 60. – Rickie Smith
As far as rivalries in NHRA Pro Modified go, Smith and Petty have been right at the center of one of its finest: Smith’s car and those he oversees, and the turbo cars that Petty tunes have been the NHRA’s perennial frontrunners, duking it out for the title year after year. Now, the two, who have maintained a cordial — albeit highly competitive — relationship from opposing pit spaces, will form one of the more unlikely partnerships in drag racing.
“I’ve dealt with Petty off and on for six or seven years, and he’d ask me questions and we’d talk back and forth. I think Steve realizes I’ve never lied to him about stuff he’s asked me. Now, there might have been some things I couldn’t tell him, but he knows I’m not going to run him in circles, and maybe that’s why they decided to go with me. I think it will be a good deal and we can all stay in this business down the road. I’m not getting any younger; I’ve pretty much done everything I’m supposed to do in life. God has blessed me a bunch — I’ve won 11 championships and it’s just stupid what I’ve done since I turned 60. I’m tickled to death, and if I can get out of the seat and stand behind this car and and make somebody else run fast and make me an average living, I’ll be even happier. I’m at the age that I realize it’s time to step out, I just have to find a way to make a living when I do step out.”
For now, though, Smith only wants to step out onto the stage as a four-time NHRA Pro Modified champion.