In this edition of Speedway Media’s first seasons’ column, we catch up with two-time NHRA Pro Stock winner Angie Smith. Smith has been competing on the NHRA tour since 2004 and currently drives the DENSO/Stockseth/Matt Smith Racing EBR machine in 2021.
During this interview, Smith discussed how she got into the sport of drag racing, why she chose the Pro Stock Motorcycle class and her introduction to George Bryce, Smith’s former team owner. She also spoke about making her debut at Gainesville in 2004 and scoring her first career victory against her husband Matt Smith.
SM: You entered the NHRA scene back in 2004 racing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class when you were 25 years old. Briefly discuss what it was like debuting at that age and why you were interested in racing in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class?
AS: “I was racing in the Outlaw Pro Street which was a no wheelie nitrous class before that and Pro Stock is the elite of Motorcycle drag racing, so that was the end goal,” Smith said. “Everybody that drag races motorcycles wants to go Pro Stock racing. That was my goal to go Pro Stock racing and at the age of 25, I debuted at Gainesville. I’m glad I did it then because I learned a lot since then.
“I had a lot of nerves and emotions going into that race because when you never race in front of thousands of people you’re very nervous and you want to do well. There’s a lot of nerves that go into a race like that.”
SM: As you chose the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, you began racing for the Star Racing Team owned by George Bryce. How did you connect with Bryce and get your first opportunity in NHRA? I read that you went to a drag racing school and impressed him right out of the gate.
AS: “I got connected with George (Bryce, former Team Owner of Star Racing Team) when I was racing Outlaw Pro Street,” she said. “We raced a series in Georgia that was called the Southeastern Motorcycle Drag Racing Association. I won a championship in Outlaw Pro Street and I was the only girl to ever race and win a championship in Outlaw Pro Street. I also used to buy one of my parts from Star Racing Team.”
“He (George) invited me down to the Drag Racing School he had. I went down there and got my seat wet on a wheelie bar bike because I had never ridden one before. I did really well at the school and we talked about going to Pro Stock racing and we started racing at Gainesville.”
SM: Through the first couple of years of your racing career, you competed off and on, only racing one to three races a year and even taking a year off in 2006. Was it hard managing expectations being a part-time racer through those early years, knowing you would only have a couple of races under your belt? What was going through your mind in the early stages of your career?
AS: “It really was hard,” Smith said about managing expectations. “When you jump in Pro Stock racing, all you want to do is go Pro Stock racing. With being part-time, it was really hard, but what I had to do was look at my goals and figure out a plan to get those goals. If part-time was the only option I had at the time, then that’s what I was going to do.
“So, I raced part-time. After several years, Matt Smith (Angie’s husband) asked me if I wanted to come race his Pro Stock bike. Me and Matt were fierce rivals at the time because Matt used to race Outlaw Pro Street too. We really didn’t have a good connection so I didn’t think being a teammate to him would be a good idea.
“I finally took his offer up in 2007. I went in and tested at Rockingham Dragway and when I did that, I really knew that’s where I needed to be.”
SM: Eventually, your debut came at the famous Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida in 2004. You had a first-round matchup with Joe DeSantis. Before we get to that first-round matchup, what were the weeks like leading up to your debut at Gainesville? Were you starting to get anxious or nervous, or were you more like, ‘I’m ready to rock n roll. Let’s get this thing going? What were your emotions leading up to Gatornationals?
AS: “I was really, really nervous,” she said. “I don’t think you’re ever prepared to go to the track if you’ve never made your debut because it is very overwhelming. From fans to expectations, to media, you always have a lot going on at your first race.
“I will say, the weeks leading up to that, I was very nervous. A lot of people talked me through it. However, when I put on my helmet for the first time, I thought I was going to throw up because that’s how bad your nerves are going into your first race.
“I think the only thing I could have done differently is not debut at that race (Gainesville 2004) or I should have got a little more seat time before that race,” Smith said. “I think seat time is the biggest thing in NHRA and if you don’t have enough seat time going into your first race, then with all the emotions going in your first race, you could never have enough laps, especially when your nerves take over.”
SM: Following the off-and-on seasons from 2004 to 2007, you entered the ‘08 season racing a career-high 14 races that year. By 2008, were you starting to get more comfortable with the bike, or was there still a learning curve process since you had never run a full season before then?
AS: “There’s definitely a learning curve,” the two-time winner said. “I think I was learning all the way up until the last several years. You always continue to learn, like I am still learning today. How you have to be smooth on the bike, etc, everything is a learning curve.”
SM: What were you doing to stay actively involved in the sport despite being a part-time competitor? Did you want to run a full schedule?
AS: “I did (want to run a full schedule),” Smith said. “I was racing with Matt (Smith) and I went to all the races with Matt, but unfortunately I didn’t have the funding to race and that’s part of the process too. Learning to deal with those emotions and that this thing is a money pit. You can’t spend every dollar you have in your name on it. You have to have sponsors to go do this.
“That’s part of the emotions, where you can race this race, but you can’t race this one and go out there and learn. I didn’t go to college for Marketing, I went to college for Computer Science. Learning the whole marketing aspect of what you need to and how to make yourself different from everyone else, that was a whole learning curve.”
SM: Your first-ever career round victory came in 2008 racing against Wesley Wells. What did that victory do in terms of momentum and confidence? Were you ecstatic you got your first-ever career round victory?
AS: “Yes, you’re always ecstatic when you get your first-round victory in NHRA because it’s a tough crowd out there,” she said. “It’s so tough because all the riders out there are tough and you’re racing against the best of the best. When you make it to the next round these days, you can give yourself a pat on the back.”
SM: In 2008, you raced to two semifinals at Dallas and Memphis. Do those still somewhat sting knowing you were just one round away from getting your first elusive victory?
AS: “It didn’t sting at the time, because I was proud of what I had accomplished in a small amount of time,” Smith said. “Everybody has a desire to win and you just have to take baby steps. It (winning) doesn’t come easy and it doesn’t come without a lot of hard work.
“I was proud of my semi-finals finish. Yes, I wanted to go to the finals and yes, there’s nothing more that a driver wants to do than hold a Wally (NHRA’s trophy) at the end of the day. Though you have to walk before you can run.”
SM: It wouldn’t be until 2014 at Epping when you would score your first career victory against your husband Matt Smith. What does that victory still mean to you to this day and have you ever had a chance to watch that race back?
AS: “Actually that race gets watched a lot, only because we’re the only husband/wife that do this deal together,” she said. “For both of us to be successful and to be able to put both of our bikes in a winner circle, be a team effort, that’s all you want to do. If you can have your teammate in the final, then it’s a win-win for everybody no matter who wins.
“Your first victory is always a very special one for sure.”
SM: What was the conversation like following the victory? Was Matt giving you a hard time beating him in the finals or was he very supportive knowing it was your first victory? I’m sure it was a great moment between the two of you.
AS: “No, he was proud, because when I win, he wins as a Team Owner,” Smith said. “He’s won a lot of races. He hasn’t shifted his focus, he still wants to win every weekend and win championships every weekend. But, for him to win it as a Team Owner/Crew Chief, those are the things where he’s the only driver to have ever done that.”
“Matt is the type of person where he likes to do things that other people have not done. If I were to win a championship, or if Scotty (Pollacheck) was to win a championship, that would be something he’s never done before. He would be very proud of it.”
SM: When you look back on your early years of racing in Pro Stock Motorcycle, are there any races that come to your mind where you wish you had another chance to do it over again? If so, what races stand out the most?
AS: “There’s a couple of races,” she said. “One of the races that stand out is where I helped people win a championship. When you’re a blocker for Matt, I think the Memphis race against Andrew Hines (stands out the most). Hines and I had a staging battle and when I beat Andrew, that helped Matt (Smith) end the championship hunt that year.
“He (Matt) didn’t win the championship that year. He lost the title by three points, but when I beat Andrew Hines, I took him out of contention because Memphis was one of those races where it’s late in the Countdown (NHRA’s version of the NASCAR Playoffs).”
SM: Continuing to reflect on your early career, what are some of your fondest memories of racing in NHRA and entering the sport?
AS: “Racing early on, I really struggled in the beginning,” she said. “The fondest memory I have is me winning Epping (2014, Angie’s first career victory) and being in the Top 10 for the first time in my career. That was a big turning point in my career and it really helped me to know what it takes and know what to do to win races and finish the season off in a good position.”
SM: Some drivers keep their own memorabilia and some don’t. Are you a driver that collects your own merchandise and if so, is there anything in your collection that reminds you of your rookie years?
AS: “I always get a different set of leathers every year and I have a lot of helmets,” she said. “Sometimes, I do two helmets a year, and potentially one helmet a year. I have never sold any of my helmets or leathers, I still have every single pair that I ever owned. One day, I probably will get rid of some of them, but at this point, I’ve never got rid of any. The last day I took them off (helmet and leather), they are all hanging in our shop.”
SM: Which wins mean the most to you? The 2014 Epping win against Matt, 2020 Vegas win against Steve Johnson, or your first-ever round victory?
AS: “The one with Matt was special, because both of our bikes were in the finals,” Smith said. “I think the (victory) that means the most to me is the 2020 one (Las Vegas victory against Steve Johnson) because it was such a trying year with COVID and our team, with me winning. We won half the races that year and (winning) was special.
“When I won in 2014, there were always the naysayers where they would say, well Matt laid down for her or he let her win and so I had to shut up all the naysayers when 2020 came because I beat Steve Johnson in the final. He had a better reaction time than me, but I drove around him and I drove a really good weekend. After that, nobody could say anything, because that (winning the 2020 Vegas race) was a legitimate win. My teammates weren’t in the other lane. Nobody could say anything except for, I got it done that day.”
SM: It’s hard to believe your debut came 17 years ago. However, if time travel was available, what would a 42-year-old Angie Smith tell a 25-year-old Angie Smith? Is there anything you would do differently?
AS: “Yes, I would do a lot of things differently,” Smith said reflecting back on her career. “I didn’t start working on the bike and learning how to assemble motors until about five years ago. I would tell my 25-year-old self that I needed to do all that because it made me a much better rider and I can give Matt much better feedback of what happened the following run. I wish I would have learned the mechanics a lot earlier because I would be that much further along at this point in the game now. Just being really involved, I wish I would have done that earlier.”
In Smith’s career, the Winston-Salem, North Carolina native has amassed 191 career starts dating back to 2004, has made 103 first-round appearances, 49 career quarterfinals, and has 15 semi-final finishes. In addition, she has scored two career victories at Epping in 2014 and Las Vegas in 2020. Smith’s best career elapsed time came in 2021 at Sonoma, where she ran a time of 6.736 seconds and 203.06 mph. She has made the Countdown five times in her career.
For the 2021 season, Smith has one No. 1 qualifier that came in Sonoma, three first rounds, has made six quarterfinal appearances and one semi-final in just 10 races. Her best career points finish was fifth that came last year.
Special thanks to Angie Smith for taking the time out of her busy schedule to conduct the interview.