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DI Interview: Rickie Smith

What would be your biggest regret in racing? What would you change if you could?

(Long pause) I would have to say, the only bad part I guess that I kind of hated happened was back, had to be late-‘80s, early-’90s—no, I was still running IHRA so it had to be in the ‘80s. Anyway, sometime back in that part, a long time ago, they used to have a race up in Suffolk, Virginia, up there at an old airport strip or something. I’d been up there maybe once or twice in my life.

That race used to be toward the end of the year and it was kind of up there and the guy that owned the track had been wearing me to death for two years to come up there and run that deal. It was not an NHRA points race, but it was NHRA rules and I only had one 500-inch Pro Stock motor; most of my deal was still IHRA big-motor stuff, but I went up there that year with this one motor.

So we get up there and the first qualifying round it drops a valve about half, three-quarter track. And I wasn’t exactly a booked-in car but I was kind of guaranteed a little bit of money to come up there. Basically, I had to race to get the money. I think he might have guaranteed me, back in those days I don’t know, maybe $500 or $1,000 or something; it was that type deal.

So I finally got there and blow up this motor and I’m trying to figure out what to do; whether to just pack up and go home, whether to stick another motor in, one of my 600-inch IHRA motors at the time, stick that in and try to qualify and get paid, or whatever. Because again; it was not an NHRA points race.

So I decided, okay, let’s put this other motor in. I’ll just go out there and ride beside the guy I’m running, get qualified, and do that just to put on a show. More or less do a show-race kind of deal, because all I had to do to get paid my guaranteed money was qualify. So that’s what we did. And it played perfect. I left with the guy and I rode beside him. I’d bracket raced enough before that I rode him out, just held about a fender on him and qualified somewhere in the middle of the field. It wasn’t like I was number-one or two qualifier; I was fourth, fifth, sixth, somewhere in the field. Anything was good and this was Saturday and we raced on Sunday.

No one but me and my guy knew anything about this at this point but then Big Jim Collins, the NHRA tech inspector, he still works with them, he comes up and maybe he kind of knew; I don’t know. Anyway, he comes up Saturday evening when we had almost loaded up and left for the night. He comes by and says that me and Morris Johnson, Jr. got picked out and he had to pump these motors (to check for NHRA-legal displacement size).

So I let him check it. We get it all out and I’m trying to bump the motor, just trying to bump it, trying not to let anything go out. Big Jim finally said, hey, you got to spin it. I said okay. So I spinned that thing up and when I did, it shot the O-ring right out the damn top of the tube. (Laughs) I didn’t want to laugh then; I was nervous as hell. This was the early part of my career, so I hadn’t run much NHRA at the time.

He puts the thing back in there, pushes it back down and says, do it again. So I bump it a few times, try to get the O-ring up a little bit in the tube. He said you’ve got to spin it. All right, so I spinned that thing again. Same thing happened. Big Jim just looked at me and said we’ve got a problem. I said I don’t know what the hell could be wrong, Jim, maybe it blew a head gasket, I don’t know. I mean, why would it be big? I’m trying to play innocent as hell. I said maybe it’s blowed a head gasket or maybe it’s leaking oil from the other cylinder, blah, blah, blah. I don’t know what all I said.

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We talked a few minutes until I said I’ll pull the head off if that’s what you want. He said, well, you’re going to have to, so I’m going down to check Morris and I’ll be back in a little bit. I said all right, give me about 30 minutes, we’ll have the head off. He got out of sight and me and that boy, we took the car and trailer, we loaded that son of a bitch up and I cranked the truck up and I left the track. I’m heading out the damn track. I ain’t looking for Big Jim; I ain’t looking for nobody; I’m just getting out. I’m thinking if I just leave this damn race track and get out of here, everything will be all right.

This was on Saturday evening now, so I guess with California time behind us it was probably 4:00 or 5:00 in the evening there and NHRA heard about it right away. Because Monday morning I got a FedEx registered letter envelope and I had to sign for it. Monday morning, my license had been revoked until they had a hearing.

And this was all over just some $500 appearance for me, no NHRA race, just running NHRA rules. And the guy at the track didn’t try to stick up for me, never done nothing. I never heard nothing out of him the whole time all this finally went down. I had to go at the end of that year down to Florida, to either the track at Moroso (West Palm Beach) or Bradenton, I can’t remember now which one they were at, but I had to go down there that winter because they (NHRA) had a meeting of some kind with a group of drivers that they had pulled in to a race they were having down there. There were some alcohol Funny Car drivers in there and several other people, a committee of NHRA drivers.

I was told later that everybody in there as far as drivers said look, this guy’s never done anything wrong before and we don’t see why he’d do this; why don’t we just let this slide, you shouldn’t take his license for this. So every driver in there but one spoke up highly for me. And I will not call this guy out, he don’t run Pro Stock. Never has run Pro Stock to this day, but this one guy just pitched a fit and said no, this is wrong. And I remember that guy; he still races today, sportsman stuff. I will call no names. But I’ll always remember that guy said that. But anyway, they ended up taking my license for NHRA for, I don’t know if it was six months or year.

The worst part was I had the Motorcraft deal then, so I had to call Ford and tell them what had happened. This was about the first of December when they had the race down there and they told me okay, if we don’t get any bad publicity out of it, magazines don’t pick up on it real heavy, and you don’t get any bad publicity out of it, by the time IHRA started in March, or April, whenever it was, I said I’ve got to sit here all winter, not knowing if I’ve got a sponsor. They said well, that’s just the way we got to do this. You’re going to have to wait while we see what happens in the next several months.

So luckily I didn’t really get any bad publicity out of it. I think there was one little article mentioned in some magazine, but it all blew over pretty much and they give me my deal back, right before that first IHRA race—and went right on with me for several years after that. But that deal right there, I came home and I cried like a damn 10-year-old kid. I thought I had screwed up the whole program, my whole career. And I had done won a couple of championships and all by then. I just knew I had ruined myself in this business.

But from that day on, I told my wife, I said as hard as I’ve worked and you’ve put up with me being gone and the way I dedicated my life to this shit, you can bet your ass they’ll never ever get a reason to throw me out and take my license again. I will never ever cheat like that again. Now, we’ve went to the scales five pounds light, 10 pounds light and yeah, they’re going to throw out your run or something—everybody stretches that rule sometimes; it’s done a lot. But running illegal fuel, running an illegal motor, doing something totally illegal that I knew was bad enough that they would take my license again and it would ruin my career, absolutely from that day on I have never ever done anything illegal in racing; other than like I say maybe being five or 10 pounds light at the scales, trying to get by with that.

I got a lesson early in life and luckily I took advantage of it and didn’t ever let it happen again. But that’s the only thing that I regret through my whole racing career; that I really wish I hadn’t done.

This story was originally published on April 25, 2014. Drag Illustrated

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Since 2005, DI has informed, inspired and educated drag racers from every walk of the racing life - weekend warrior and street/strip enthusiasts to pro-level doorslammer and Top Fuel racers. From award-winning writing and photography to binge-worthy videos to electric live events, DI meets hundreds of thousands of racers where they live, creating the moments that create conversations.