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Where the rubber meets the road

How Whitewater's Robert Smith took his dream all the way to NASCAR's pit row

By Donna Lenz Wright/theWeek

(Published March. 2, 2007, 3:38 a.m.)

Not every kid who grows up in Walworth County knows agriculture, loves his family and has dreams of making a living in the world of NASCAR. But that's how you can describe Robert Smith.

Robert Smith, a 2001 graduate of Whitewater High School, grew up on a dairy farm just south of Whitewater.

Late last Tuesday he arrived in Bristol, Tenn., flying in from California with the rest of his NASCAR team, where Nextel Cup teams will be testing Car of Tomorrow models that will debut March 25.

Just last December, Smith made a major change from his years in the Busch Series where he began, to his current role as the tire specialist for the No. 84 Toyota Camry. The car, driven by up-and-comer AJ Allmendinger is owned by Dany Bahar and sponsored by Red Bull.

This was just another in a series of moves Smith has made in his short career-all aimed at improving his skills and knowledge as a NASCAR team member.

Even before graduating from high school, he had his foot in the door and could visualize himself in the NASCAR pits.

"When I was in high school I was a jack of all trades and a master of none," he said in a cell phone call from Bristol. "I really enjoyed the Vo. Tech. (vocational technologies) part of school."

He landed a job with Havill-Spoerl, which now has branches in Fort Atkinson and Jefferson, "starting out at the bottom end of the food chain working on cars, changing oil and stuff," he says.

And what is it they say about life's little forks in the road?

"So Jason Schuler comes in the shop-and I'm a young kid, 16 or 17-and I get an opportunity to work on his race car. That was cool as ever."

Schuler earned his spot in NASCAR after winning race after race at the Jefferson Speedway. He partnered with Matt Kenseth on the Roush Racing Team and continues to be a reckoning force in the loop and remains a very close friend of Smith's.

"We started up a Busch Team and I developed some contacts in the series," Smith said. "At end of senior year I had to make a choice."

He earned scholarships from Havill/Spoerl and SnapOn Tools and enrolled in Madison Area Technical College in Mequon where he earned a degree as an automotive technician.

Decision time again-should he go on to school and earn a graduate degree? Should he take the mechanic position Havill/Spoerl was offering him? Or should he follow the direction that his heart was really pulling him?

"I always had this bug in the back of my mind about racing."

At the time he was a member of Team Bradshaw with Tim Fedewa as driver. But he wanted more.

The combination of competition, attention to detail, promise of continued learning and adventure solidified his final decision.

"Havill/Spoerl was super understanding and said, 'Go ahead, do your deal. You have a job if you ever want it here.'

"So I made some calls and got a job in (Moorseville) North Carolina and went for it," he recalls. Bill Henderson, crew chief for (Kyle) Petty Enterprises, offered him a position on their team.

"I had $400, a duffle bag of clothes and an '84 Jeep Wrangler. My parents, Mike and Mary Smith, were scared if I'd even make it there, let along make it in NASCAR."

Smith was far less concerned than his parents. All he could hear were roaring engines in his head.

"I was young and dumb and knew I've got the best family in America with tons of love. They stood behind me 100 percent-my parents are my best friends. So I knew that if it didn't work out and I wasn't happy or successful I could always come back home and work or find work down there."

Bill Henderson gave Smith his first job in North Carolina. But by the end of 2002 he realized he wanted more organization in a team and began to look for a new team.

His next job offer came from Bobby Kennedy, crew chief for Michael Waltrip's Busch Team.

"I spent a whole year with them," he said. "We won Michigan, won Bristol-we had a phenomenal year. Then we went into '04 with a win in Nashville with a Busch car."

His next position was on the Roush Fenway Racing Team with Crew Chief Brad Parrott and driver Greg Biffle.

"I always admired Roush's organization and respected him a lot. On the No. 60 we won like four more races, I was thinking, 'I got it licked.'

"Then next year, 2005, the car stays the same, the crew stays the same, but we get a new driver-Carl Edwards. Everybody knows he's something spectacular and we get four poles and five wins and finish second in the year. It was a real fun, real good year."

In 2006 Smith was back with Biffle and getting more on-the-job training-his main goal. But before long he felt he'd capped off what he could learn with this team.

As has been the flow of Smith's career, another perfect opportunity presented itself to him like a gift minus the bow.

"Ricky (Byers) called looking for someone younger to join their team. He said he'd seen me around, seen my credentials. After negotiating for two weeks I knew this was going to be a good opportunity for me."

While Allmendinger failed to qualify in the first two races of this season, Smith's confidence is high. The other Toyota driver, No. 83 Brian Vickers, placed 10th at the California Speedway a week ago.

 

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