IN FOCUS: Tommy Smith, Top Fuel Rider

 

Looking Back –
Story by Dragbike.com Founder Marty Kane

In 1999 Dragbike.com founder Marty Kane interviewed Top Fuel Racer Tommy Smith. Tommy had just purchased ‘Mountain Magic’ the bike formerly ridden by the late Elmer Trett. Marty covers that first steps Tommy took from Funnybike to Top Fuel.





The following article has not been modified from its original version. We are always remembering Marty and what he did to bring us together as a community. Dragbike.com has now been around for 16 years because of Marty Kane’s vision. Thank you for all your support!

– Dragbike.com Staff



IN FOCUS: Tommy Smith, Top Fuel Rider
by Marty Kane


It’s hard to think of a guy who’s been racing dragbikes for over 20 years as a rookie, but that’s just what 43 year old Tommy Smith is… as he enters his second full season of Top Fuel.

In every other division of the sport, you graduate from rookie status automatically once you pass your first year. In Top Fuel however, it may take years… because until you demonstrate the ability to run sub-seven second performances on demand, you are not revered by your peers as a veteran.

Top Fuel is the sports most extreme division. No other class compares to the excitement drummed up by blown nitro powerplants, capable of producing 1000 horsepower, turning 15″ wide rear tires into molten blobs of smoking rubber, storming the quarter mile in six or less seconds, at speed over 230 MPH.

For many racers, regardless if they are in sportsman or pro classes, Top Fuel is the ultimate goal that most have… and few (less then 1 in 10,000) will every achieve. These racers idolize like gods, the big names such as Larry McBride, Tony Lang, Elmer Trett, Ron Webb, Russ Collins, Terry Vance, and so many others from the past and present. They all “hope to be” like them someday… but it’s all a pipe dream… and even if you could, only a few people can say they have the knowledge and skill it takes to build a Top Fuel bike from start to finish.

Nothing comes from off the shelf, and nothing resembles a production motorcycle. It’s the builders job to mate with precision, every last inch of tubing, spending countless hours machining exotic metal billets into thin lightweight components, and then matching them all together into a fire breathing rocket.

Because so few are ever built, there is even a smaller used market… and even if you find one… you may not have the experience or knowledge to figure it out. Without it’s builder to help you get it down the track and lend you some much needed experience… it’s a learning curve that could kill your bank account… or even worse, you!

Tommy Smith has raced in almost every class in the sport, including Super Gas, Super Comp, Pro Comp, Super Eliminator, IHRA Pro Mod, Pro Stock and then Funnybike. Coming into the ’98 season… he knew his time aboard his injected nitro Funnybike was limited. The fire had escaped him, and the enjoyment was simply not there any longer.

Having been friends with many in the Top Fuel category… he began dropping subtle hints around about his wanting to step up. He then got steered towards a bike which had been placed “in mothballs”, which Elmer Trett once rode. He called up Jackie Trett, and began what would become four months and literally a few hundred phone calls to bang through the possibilities. Finally, a plan made sense… and they struck a deal.

Before the ink was dry on the pink slip… the Prostar World Finals rolled around… and Smith saw no better time to get the bike cleaned up and ready for action. He drove his race rig through the gates and headed for Top Fuel alley.

With rumors spreading instantly about Smith’s recent purchase… the pit area was in a constant buzz. Smith had not even whispered a hint prior to the event… so was it true? Finally, he cracked the back door on the trailer… and there it was, Elmer’s old bike… in all of it’s glory.

“MOUNTAIN MAGIC”

Mountain Magic, the bike formerly ridden by Elmer Trett, captured a Prostar World Championship… and ran a career best 6.51-second E.T., before being retired in 1992.

He rolled it out of the trailer, and like a ghost, it sat perched next to their rig… it’s original paint job still shiny and neat, complete with the #1 plate Elmer once rode to victory with.

It sent chill’s up my spine looking at it… and it was great to see the bike back. The smile on Tommy and Jackie’s faces made it even more special… and when Jackie explained her thought about Tommy being the best person to carry the torch… it just made me breath deep thinking about Elmer’s presence once again.

After soaking it all up, I returned to my reporter mode and asked Tommy what his plans were. He quickly explained that he had no plans on breaking the world in half. Their goal was simply to gain some experience with the bike, and in time (no mention of when…) they would get with it. I asked a few times how quick the bike had run in the past… and if that tune-up was still in the bike… he continued to impress that was not what it was about… they were there to learn, and when they were ready… they would turn it up a little bit at a time.

 


Mountain Magic, the bike formerly ridden by Elmer Trett, captured a Prostar World Championship… and ran a career best 6.51-second E.T., before being retired in 1992.

 

One day later, Smith rolled into the staging area for his first pass. It was an ominous sight… and there was a real weird chill in the air as he fired the bike. I guess… to many of us who remember… it was like a memorial to Elmer as fire shot out of the pipes for the first time since his death atop a drag strip surface. It was a great thing to see… and though no words were ever said over the PA, it’s what was on everybody’s mind at the time.

Being a “new rider”, Prostar’s rulebook dictates that a solo run is given to allow the rider his time to focus. After a longer then normal pause… Smith rolled towards the water box. Because his safety was my responsibility as a Prostar official, I walked over and checked he and his bike out with a fine tooth comb. Everything looked in order, except for the fear I saw in his eyes. I can’t even begin to think what it must have been like… his first time on the bike, in front of the crowd and all of his peers, with the legend of Elmer hanging over his shoulders… wow!

As he paused, no doubt taking a few deep breaths, I said a prayer for him. When he cracked the throttle, his first burnout was not picture perfect… but heck, he did great… and we all cheered as he backed up and began his staging motion. As he rolled into the staging beams… he once again did so very slowly. When the starter gave the go, Smith left the line smoothly and clicked it off at the 330′ mark… just as he said he would.

As the weekend progressed, he continued shutting it down at 330′, and he bettered his time from a 9.71 to 8.86 by the time qualifying was over on Saturday. Not exactly the quickest pass ever run… but that was not what it was about for Smith.

At the end of the off season, Smith started out the ’99 season with the same plans. “We’re here to get some experience, learn about the bike, and get better in time”. They continued with 330′ runs… and as they felt more comfortable… he hung the gas open farther and farther down track.

By the close of the season, they had registered a best time of 6.70-seconds. That benchmark however was not at the end of the season, it was done midway through the year in Chicago. What eventually was learned about the bike… was that old technology was biting them… and there was no way to consistently tune the bike for the track and air conditions. It was pure luck that gave them that ’70… and they all realized at the end of the year… that many new parts would have to be added… if they would keep up with the pack.

Smith’s riding skills did gain constant ground… so the team felt that they had reached their learning curve goal. Their focus shifted somewhat from let’s do some learning… to it’s time to get ready. The impressions of those of us intently watching also shifted… from I hope he can, to yes he certainly will.

Over this past winter, Smith’s crew made some major improvements. Their goal was to add the predictability and consistency that is needed to give the bike power when and where they would need on the track regardless of conditions. They turned to Steve McBride, who prepared one of his legendary clutches… one similar to the one used on his brothers bike. They also updated their transmission to modern technology, and went through the entire fuel system adding some of the bells and whistles which had been developed in recent years.

Smith came into this season with a whole new confidence. Yes… their plans were still to roll slowly at it… but, he knew this season would be the time they used to start stepping it up in small increments. His exact words were “We’re going to bring it around right.”

At Prostar’s season opener in Gainesville, everybody had heard that Smith had been getting help from all of the other teams and crews out there. Odds started going his way, and we all knew that things would change in a big way.

“A lot of the time, it’s like one big Top Fuel team out there, and that it is” Smith explained, describing Chris Hand’s exact words to him when he first offered to help. “Even know we all pull up to the starting line knowing we’re going to beat up on each other sooner or later, it’s all about being a family.”

New combination blues netted Smith a cylinder dropping 7.17-second best lap. Even though the bike was nearing readiness… the opening event would not be the time or place for it to happen.

Returning to the same track two weeks later for the NHRA Gatornationals, they came more prepared with added knowledge about the clutch and fuel system. On their first pass, they put forth a 6.97-second lap, and a 6.85 to follow. Their speed also increased to a best of 216 MPH, and things were starting to look up.

Two weeks later at the AMA/Prostar’s Star Racing Nationals, Smith came out of the box with a 6.70-second, 216 MPH, qualifying shot, and everything looked just great upon examination of the engine. Taking a clue from McBride, they left everything just the way it was… and returned to the track for another lap… which slowed to a 6.85. They later discovered that an ignition timing problem resulted in the performance falling off.

This past weekend, the fuelers ran in an exhibition at the NHRA event in Houston, and Smith came out of the box with an early shut-off run showing 7.23-second on the board. Smith told me that the bike got a little crossed up, and he overcorrected it putting him into a worse way. To keep himself safe… he lifted and coasted through. They did however run a 4.40-second 1/8 mile time on that run… and the bike had never run that quick on the first half of the track before… they knew there was a number in store for the next round.

When the call came down to report to the line, butterflies flew in the teams stomachs… and they vaulted to the line to blast off with a stunning 6.42. Yep… it was a career and bike best run… and everybody in the pit was jumping for joy. Smith however was proud… but knew inside… that the whole time, this is what the team was methodically working towards.

Smith told me that they always felt they had it… they just wanted to wait until they were ready for it. In Houston, all things were ready… and they finally arrived.

Because people are always pessimists… could Tommy do it again everyone wondered. It did not take too long for them to find out… as he laid down two more runs, a 6.61 and a 6.42, and bettered his 1/8 mile time to a 4.09.

“What we did over the weekend is all because of the great help we’ve had through the course of doing this.” said Smith.

“The whole class is a bunch of great people, who are out here simply to enjoy themselves. It’s not a full time profession for any of us, and it’s great to see how well all of us work and race together as a family.”

Again… I tried to pull some number predictions out of Smith, but he would not commit to anything. He did say that he knows the bike is probably capable of running in the low sixes the way it sits… and with a little more work, it’s probably capable of a five… but, just like before… they are still trying to creep into it slowly… and do not want to set a goal they are not ready to meet.

Smith credited the bike’s performance this past weekend as not his riding skills doing the job… he said it’s all about the hard work that everybody has put into it. He said that not only his crew (Jim Toner, Jerry Davis and Clark Cook) who do all of the fabrication and maintenance on the bike… but also because of his sponsors (Cooper Performance, Trett’s Speed & Custom and MTC) who give him the funding needed to make it possible. He also further noted that all of the other racers and crewmen (Jackie Trett, Tony & Gina Lang, Larry & Steve McBride, Chris Hand, Steve Romanski and Andy Wall to name a few) have lended hands, knowledge and hugs when needed, and in the times when they were all long faced in the pits… it was the race fans who came by and picked them back up again.

It’s great to see a guy who is so humble. He’s in a position where he could take so much of the glory… and yet he refuses to accept event the slightest bit. It’s not about the legend of his bike, it’s not about the excitement of the runs… to Tommy, it’s all about his extended racing family, and the friendships and fun that it allows him to have.

:MK