Controversy certainly is nothing new to the NHRA’s Pro Stock Motorcycle gang or to Steve Johnson and Matt Smith in particular. They have been in the class so long they have seen more weight dropping and being added in the bike pits than at a Jenny Craig center.
But they’re locked in an ugly verbal clash that escalated online Wednesday, churning more drama than anyone expected for the class’ first spring trip to Las Vegas for this weekend’s Denso Spark Plugs Four-Wide Nationals. It’s all about the latest Tech Committee’s rule changes following the bikes’ season-opening Gatornationals three weeks ago. It’s another predictable and likely ineffective tip of the see-saw, this time in the Suzukis’ favor, one that even benefitting Johnson mused that “honestly, I don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference.”
So why are the two harboring such animosity about a decision that four-time champion Eddie Krawiec shrugged wasn’t even worth arguing about? And what enraged a usually happy-go-lucky Johnson enough that he would attack Smith, accusing him of “stealing” and admonishing him for un-champion-like behavior? And what did Smith allege about Johnson and the entire Suzuki class?
Johnson was delighted about the new rule that added 15 pounds to bikes using V-Twin engines (Harley-Davidsons, Buells, and EBRs), especially after he missed the cut at Gainesville. And he was offended that Smith called the pro-Suzuki ruling a “knee-jerk reaction” and referred to the Suzuki riders as “hobby racers.” So he fired the first salvo in a Facebook live event that mocked and rebuked Smith and somehow managed to drag the #MeToo movement into his argument.
Smith was no slouch in denying Johnson the last word Wednesday night. He retaliated with a blistering delivery of his own. He doubled down on his earlier statements, swatted away Johnson’s challenges, taunted his rival for missing the cut at the class-opener and missing meetings to bring the bike racers together. Moreover, he suggested the Suzuki teams need to “go do their jobs” and “get to work,” and even wondered aloud if Johnson possibly slipped off to Denver to “smoke some stuff.”
So the dueling soap-box sessions got down and dirty. Smith didn’t back down, insisting the Suzuki engines have the power to keep up with the class frontrunners if only the tuners challenged themselves rather than whining to the sanctioning body.
“It’s not a knee-jerk response, as reported by Competition Plus. It doesn’t make sense to have a knee-jerk response,” Johnson said. “To Smith,” he said, “flat out, you’re wrong. OK? It’s not a knee-jerk response. Rules are there to create parity.”
Johnson said, “What happens is something goes on in competition in each category and it triggers a thought or a review. They come up with data. They come up with numbers. They do whatever they do, the sanctioning body. It’s not just one guy – a team does it. That is analyzed. We have oranges racing apples, so to speak. They made some changes in the rules, and with Pro Stock Motorcycles, this has been going on for a long time. Technology has moved forward and blah-blah-blah. And now the Buells have come out with this aerodynamic device and body and it’s really, really cool. It costs $25,000. It’s just technology. They put it on and they’re going faster. Good for them. But the sanctioning body stepped in and put 15 pounds on.
“Is it going to do anything? I don’t know. It’s not my job [to say]. I have an opinion. Honestly, I don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference,” Johnson said. “They put 40 pounds on Vance & Hines’ Harley-Davidsons and Buells in 2004 or something like that at St. Louis and went to Denver, and by the time we got to Sonoma they were kicking our butts again. I’ll tell you about the rules: when you read what the sanctioning body has done, they talk about that they reserve the right to monitor the class and make changes as it goes on. This isn’t a final change, so it’s really not great to say it’s a knee-jerk response when it’s not.”
Smith held his ground, saying, “A knee-jerk reaction is what NHRA did. It has happened in the past. I’m going to stand by my deal. I think this was a knee-jerk reaction.
“I’ll give you some examples. In 2007, when I set the national record and won the race at St. Louis, Missouri, the girls – Karen [Stoffer] and Angelle [Sampey] – had won the previous three races on a Suzuki. I set the national record and win the race, and what does NHRA do? The next day, they slapped 10 pounds on all the V-Twins. And at the time, I said, ‘That’s a knee-jerk reaction.’ We go to the next race, which was Englishtown, Angelle resets the national record and the next thing you know, NHRA takes the 10 pounds back off of us. I would clarify that as knee-jerk reaction. They didn’t have all the facts they needed to have facts on. Fast forward to four years ago . . . My dad, at Atlanta, set the Pro Mod national record, E.T. and speed, fastest car ever to go over 250 miles an hour with a nitrous car. What did they do? Put 50 pounds on ‘em – 50 pounds. Two races later, they took half that back off because they knew they had made a mistake. I’m going to stand by my [declaration]. I think this was a knee-jerk reaction.”
Smith said, admonishing the NHRA. “They shouldn’t slow the class down. They should be making our class faster and supporting the racers. They didn’t come and talk to us to see what needed to be done to help them guys out.”
Johnson declared, “Matt, you are stealing. You are stealing from us. You’re stealing from the sanctioning body. You are stealing from the Coca-Cola company [the Mello Yello Drag Racing Series sponsor]. You’re stealing from everybody who’s trying to create a brand in an organization that’s on an uphill. What sponsor would look at our class plus the sanctioning body if the drivers and riders are saying half the field’s hobbyists?
“I just am wound up because you do so much damage to what’s going on. We do 100 things that are great, and you throw out something about people being a hobbyist,” Johnson said.
In an attempt to define what he meant when he said last week that some competitors are “hobby racers,” Smith said, “A hobby racer goes and races for fun. Even though they’re still looking for sponsorship to do this stuff and be out here on the circuit as a professional fulltime, that still doesn’t mean they’re not a hobby racer. There’s plenty of hobby racers out there.”
Smith said Johnson used the name Karen Stoffer, so he spoke about her in particular. “Karen, in my opinion, is like a hobby racer. She runs Suzukis. She has a normal job [Technical Business Process Leader] with [Baker Hughes, a General Electric company]. She has a great job. She comes and races Suzukis at NHRA to what I’m taking as a hobby. Her house, her car payments, all that relies on her . . . making money at G.E. That’s her fulltime job.”
Johnson swept the #MeToo Movement into his arguments. Noting that “50 percent” of the Suzuki contingent is female, he criticized Smith: “You’re saying they’re hobbyists. I’m OK with it. I can handle any of your words. No problem. But it’s not fair to these girls. These girls are digging. This is the #MeToo era. You’re stealing from their brand. You’re trying to say that Kelly [Clontz] wakes up every day and lays [sic] on the beach? She doesn’t have an engine program – she’s a hobbyist. She works every single day at raising money, trying to get sponsorship so she can go buy the best engine she can and go out and race. And you’re saying she’s a hobbyist. Jianna [Salinas], she’s having fun. What right do you have to label what she’s doing? You have no right.
“I guess you have an opinion. I think if you were a little bit more thoughtful in your words, you wouldn’t steal from those people. Karen Stoffer is one of the smartest girls I know. She’s sponsored by Skillman [the Indianapolis-area auto dealer family]. So to [Ray] Skillman, he’s spending this money, and now you’re saying, ‘You’re a hobbyist.’? I think that’s stealing from her trying to promote the National Hot Rod Association and one of the four professional categories,” he said.
Smith had a ready answer. He said, “I’m all supportive of the girls. I have two girls on my team – I have my wife, Angie, and I have Kelly Clontz I’m helping tune. And I’m coaching her because I want her to be a better rider – and she’s already proved to be a better rider than she was all last year. She’s already made her quickest and fastest runs at Gainesville, at the first race. She out-qualified Angie, at that, at the first race. I haven’t tuned a Suzuki since 2004, the last time I rode a Suzuki. A lot has changed since then, but man, I seemed to do just fine, getting her in the show. Why didn’t you get into the show? Probably because you didn’t go test. So maybe you need to focus on testing and running your own program [instead of] running to NHRA about rule changes. That’s probably what I would do.”
Johnson ratcheted the rhetoric: “Just think about your words. Don’t be a knucklehead. The people, what they call you online, I ain’t going there. And then you have fans. There’s an opportunity to promote our sport. There’s an opportunity to give your opinion. But it’s not an opportunity to drag stuff down, to steal a brand. It’s not your right to create dissention, unless, of course, you’re maybe doing what anybody else is doing – and that’s trying to create some drama in our class,” Johnson said.
“Don’t steal from our brand, Matt Smith!” Johnson scolded.
Smith had some scolding of his own up his sleeve.
“Saying that I bashed the brand of NHRA and Pro Stock Motorcycle? This is my normal job. I am a professional fulltime racer. If I don’t make it, I lose my house, I don’t put food on the table, and for all I know, Angie’ll divorce me because I don’t have a job no more. I’m out here to support NHRA and support our class, and I’m all about going fast. And I work my butt off and I make it happen. I go find sponsors. Don’t get the money you’re asking for sponsors, by no means. But I take what I get, and I make it work. And that’s because I do all our stuff in-house, plain and simple. We drive our own truck. We work on our own rig. We work on our own bikes. It’s just me and Angie at the shop. I can’t afford to pay a crew guy to work in the shop. I’m just thankful that I’ve got guys who’ll fly to help me work at the track.
“I do support our class. We have a Pro Stock Motorcycle organization, Steve. You’ve missed so many meetings over the last year it’s not even funny. And every time we try to talk to you about stuff, you have your own little things to say, this and that,” he said.
Smith said that two years ago, the two-wheeled group hired Natalie Jahnke. “Every Pro Stock Motorcycle racer out here has told her that they’ll give her $25 for covering our class, promoting our class, pictures. She does a great job. There’s one person that does not support that – and that is you. You, Steve Johnson, have never put one dime in Natalie’s pocket, at $25 a race. And she still takes your pictures and talks about you, and I don’t think she should do it. But it’s a shame that you won’t jump on board and support our brand, because every other person does that. Shame on you for not doing that.”
Johnson’s parting advice for Smith was this: “Be smart. You’re a champion. Act like one.”
None of the trash-talking seemed to faze Smith, who was adamant that “Suzuki, to this day, can still compete and run with the V-Twin with the right people riding, the right bikes out there, and the right people tuning it. They just have struggled here lately. The brand people, they know that, and they know that for a fact.”
He said, “Suzuki ain’t going to run 200 [mph, the chic new plateau] – unless y’all get to work,” he said. “That means go test, go try some stuff. Put fuel injection on your bike. Fuel injection is the future.” Smith contended that the Sukuzi contingent is “not taking advantage of your rules.”
Smith said he told Gary Stoffer, Karen’s husband and tuner for Jianna Salinas that “if they’ll give me that bike that Scotty [Pollacheck] was on last year and a couple of motors, I’ll put fuel injection on that thing and I’ll show ’em how fast it’ll run. And then they can have it back and pay me for the fuel injection. But I can promise you it’ll run fast. All you people say the V-Twins have an advantage. That’s not right.”
According to Smith, the Suzukis “can run faster than what they have – promise you, promise you, promise you. Maybe the guys that run the teams for the Suzukis need to be looking at their tuners and their riders. I don’t think it’s the engine that’s doing it, because I had one of their engines on my dyno, and it made good power, good enough power for them to run 6.70s.
“We have good parity. But the four or five people that’s running Suzukis right now, they’re not doing their jobs,” Smith said. “They’re not testing. They’re not spending the money to go and work and go test. Plain and simple: these guys need to go do their jobs. And Steve Johnson calling me out was not the right thing to do. He probably should have been testing somewhere, [rather] than using all week to get up a script to call me out on stuff.”
Whether they got their insults out of their systems or whether the fuses to the dynamite still are burning will give observers one more reason to follow this weekend’s four-wide race from The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
— Competition Plus (@competitionplus) January 4, 2019