Sebring History Doug Smith and the Smith Family Legacy
With the Sebring 12 Hour, America’s oldest and favorite endurance race taking place this week, it would be easy to do a lead in story on a driver or team who has had some recent success at the fabled ex-World War Two bomber training base formerly known as Hendricks Field. But The Motorsport Diaries always strives to bring you the stories that you won’t find anywhere else nor those you already know about or questions you know the answers to.
With that in mind I thought you might find interest in a brief delve into the history of one of the drivers whose family has more Sebring history than perhaps anyone else’s. We all know that the event was the idea of Alec Ulmann. When he became besotted with Le Mans after a post WW2 visit, he wanted America to have its own version of the world’s most famous and toughest race. Perhaps it’s a good thing then that he decided to make his event only 12 hours…I’m not sure how many cars would ever have finished at the notoriously punishing track had he gone for the Full Monty! Although it was his vision that kicked off the legendary institution, it was the Smith family who carried it on after Ulmann stepped down.
Reginald Smith was the race secretary and right hand man to Alec Ullman for many years almost right from the start. He was not one to seek the limelight nor sing his own praises and thus his story is not well known, unlike that of the flamboyant boss.
He was certainly not lacking passion mind you and at Ullman’s retirement Smith became the promoter, and his two sons Reggie and Doug of course became intertwined with the fabric of the event and its history. Reggie once told me in an interview that it all felt very “normal” to have people like Fangio and Moss visiting at the family home. I’m sure that in retrospect they realize the gravity of the dream situation in which they lived. It gives me goose bumps just to think about it.
Reggie went on to race and Doug had plenty of involvement with team management. Their father was posthumously inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame in 2010 and Reggie was invited to accept the award on his behalf. As it happens, the brothers are having a reunion with Stirling and other old friends at the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance while I write this. The story doesn’t end there though – in fact I’ve barely even touched on it.
Fast forward to present day and one of Doug’s twin sons Doug Jr. is the latest in the Smith family line to maintain the ties with their favorite track. (Brother Erich is also in the car world, but aside from brokering high line and classics his main interest lies in the Concours world where he organizes and judges as well as helping out at race weekends). Not coming from a family with drawers full of silver spoons, Doug has had to work for his living and by using his skill and determination – always for the better in my book than one who arrives with bags of cash. I asked Doug to give me a glimpse into where it started for him and of course the answer was an obvious one: “I was naturally born into it. Whether it was granddad’s involvement in Sebring or going to watch Reggie when I was a kid, realistically,” he pauses, “it was really all I ever wanted to do.”
Growing up with so much race history and culture literally in his blood, the first time in a race car must have been a day to remember. Doug of course, does remember well. “Go Karting over in Naples. That was when I was a teen,” he muses. “Mum and dad didn’t have the means to stroke checks for me to go racing, so I worked all summer and bought a kart off Steve Shelton Jr.” The Shelton family of Ferrari dealer fame being old acquaintances of the Smith clan.
“So I did a couple of club races and the Naples Shelton dealer I seem to remember had a sponsorship deal with the local track. The service manager had a key to the place and I can remember going over there and driving although it wasn’t often enough to get good at it.
“After high school I got to sit in one of Reggie’s old Formula Fords that he had at the time and it progressed from there,” Doug tells me. ” I did four or five years of club racing with a 1600 and then a two liter but I always wanted to do USF2000 which was an SCCA Pro series. We scraped together what we could and went off to do some racing with the car and an old lawnmower trailer. The first race at Sebring in 2002 I got a class win, then on the second day I had the biggest wreck of my life so that didn’t work out quite as well! That first year I finished second in the B class.
“Then in 2003 mum and dad mortgaged the house and we bought a two year old Van Diemen with a ZTEC in it and I did USF2000 for the year in that with no real results. I had teamed up with a young team instead of experienced people and it turned out to be a steep learning curve for all of us.” This kind of hard graft went on through 2004 until in 2005 Doug got a brand new car and finished 5th in the championship. This ended his single seat career and to use Doug’s words, he went on to become a “journeyman racer”.
Continuing to hone his trade, Doug worked as a pro instructor at the Justin Bell driving school for three years before switching to the Audi Driving Experience and Panoz driving schools at Sebring and Road Atlanta. Always trying to keep options and doors open, team management and coaching followed with such teams as Bell Racing who competed with the Aston DBR9 in 2008, although hope for a drive at Petit never materialized. For the past four years he has been an instructor at the Porsche Sport Driving School at Barber Motorsports Park in Alabama as well as coaching drivers in the Trans-Am and TUSC series.
“I had to push the entire time … It’s definitely 24 hour sprint racing.” – Doug Smith
Doug had met Florida fruit grower Jim Rogers of Packers of Indian River in 2003, who by 2005 had acquired one of the ex-works Audi R8 LMP1 machines and also the ex-Group 44 Inc. Jaguar XJR7 – coincidentally, the same chassis #001 that uncle Reggie drove as a tester on its debut at Daytona in 1985 for Bob Tullius.
“I drove (the R8) the very first time they bought it out to Moroso. I wasn’t supposed to but Jim said, ‘If you’ve got your stuff, hop in!’ and that’s when I first met (ex-Champion Racing Le Mans winning team members) Marcus (Haselgrove) and Bobby (Green).” As is always the case with successful team members, they always pop up when you least expect it, and to complete the circle, several ex-Champion Racing members regularly work on the cars with crew chief Bobby Green retained as a full time employee at Rogers.
Jim Rogers now has two factory Audi R8s in his stable and Doug campaigns them with legendary team mate and Le Mans winner Andy Wallace. The driving duo recently took an overall win in the Champion liveried car at the Daytona Classic 24. It was a fortuitous weekend and one which was a catalyst for Doug’s most memorable weekend to date.
Whilst at a meeting in Daytona prior to the Rolex 24 – a fortuitous one as it turned out – the 50 Plus team needed help. The Prototype team was looking for another driver as it turned out. “I was literally walking to the car park and saying my goodbyes to the guys in the historic paddock when (HSR president and 50 Plus co-driver) David Hinton’s wife said, ‘I think David wants to see you’ and then (other co-driver) Jim Pace walked over and said, ‘Have you talked to David yet?’ No. I’m about to,” said Doug slightly apologetically. “Things are looking like they need some help. We’re gonna need a fifth guy. Are you interested?” There’s a long pause. “Is the pope Catholic?” says Doug in his naturally deadpan delivery. “I spoke to (IMSA race director) Beaux Barfield and he said, ‘You’re good to go’ and at that point a whole lot of stuff happened real quick!”
The 50 Plus Racing team was co-founded by AC/DC front man Brian Johnson. With its play-on-song-title “Highway To Help” emblazoned down its flanks, its mission is to raise awareness and money to help fight Alzheimer’s disease. The car was not running the latest aero or brake upgrades meaning that it was a good two seconds per lap down on the pace of the front runners.
After being given the nod to race, Doug had a lot of paperwork to do, but had literally no time to prepare. Did he even have a seat fitted? “No. I had to get in and make do. I literally had an hour to get everything done. I almost didn’t get through tech. I got there and they were closed! There was no one there. They’d all gone to dinner! And I had to be in the car for my three mandatory laps of night practice. Thankfully, the IMSA guys came through right at the very last moment. Plus I’d never even sat in the car before I climbed into it on the pit lane.”
Being a reserve driver means that you never know where you are on the rotation. You may not even get to drive, so hanging around, wringing hands and trying to stay focused is all you can do. Doug knew already that his time would likely be the wee hours graveyard shift as Kevin Doran who fields the car had told him that he “was going to wear me out at night”. At around 11pm Doug climbed in while the field was under yellow flag conditions. It must have caused a few heart palpitations getting in for the first time. “It’s one of the blessings I think of being slightly older and getting the opportunity rather than getting it younger in my career – yes, I was nervous – but I didn’t really have time to get nervous, as quickly as it all came about with the ride, I was busy getting licenses and helmets and tech and all this stuff done, so I never really had time for the, ‘Oh my God this is really happening’ thing to absorb in. Once I was in the car I was able to switch off the nervous energy, visor down and get to work.”
Doug had his wits and reflexes tested almost literally right out of the pit box: He almost became a hapless victim in someone else’s crime as is so often the case in endurance multi-class racing. “At the restart I encountered an absolute melee exiting turn one. I had to lock up and slide the car to a stop as one of the LMPC cars and a Rahal BMW got together just ahead of me. Actually, the BMW slid past me locked up and backwards . ‘Oh, this is fun’ I thought and the tires were so hard and so hard to get temperature into and I was locked up and sliding. The only spot I could go was where the other cars had come together and left literally a DP sized parking space between them on the left wall which is not where you wanna be, but when that’s your only option, that’s where we’re goin’!
“I’m locked up and trying to keep it off the wall and watching the mirror to see what’s going to drive in the back of me, and thinking this is going to be the end of…a lot. Lo and behold, I stopped, the wreck in front of me stopped and nobody drove into the back of me!” Having not had anything other than his three quick night laps and no time to acclimatize, he had to quickly figure out where reverse was and get going again. “I drove the next two hours with flat spotted tires but that’s what you gotta do.”
After a brief nap Doug was awoken by text message to report back to the pits for his next stint at 4:30 AM. The cars was on scuffed tires and cold ones too. If you haven’t been to Daytona in January, it is quite cold. I know I’ll get flack for that from our northern readers, but hey, it was cold for Florida. In an effort to get some quick heat into them “Kevin Doran told me that I could do the biggest burnout I’ve ever wanted to do leaving the pit box! Every car guy is thinking, ‘Really?’. So mission accomplished on the burnout.” After a trouble free run and two stops, Doug was back out on cold tires as dawn approached.
“Tires at that time of the morning were going to take a conservative five to six laps to really get to usable temperature. It was ‘hang on by your finger nails” at that point. Someone stopped on track causing everyone to cycle through on stops and at the restart I found myself second in line behind the Taylor car and the Ganassi cars are behind me. The pressure cooker situation. I was going, “Wow! I could be that guy who really messes the show up!” The journeyman driver thoughts start creeping in. We were multiple multiple laps down and each time I got in, Kevin would say, ‘The objective here is nothing to gain. Everything to lose. Got it?’ Yes sir.
“Coming around NASCAR three and four, you think you’ve done everything in the world to keep up tire temps, but you come down on that flat part by the pit entry there and everyone starts to accelerate and you start to roll in the throttle, except your car starts to yaw sideways as the rear tires spin. It was another of those moment that could have got really exciting in front of everyone, but thankfully the tires hooked back up and carried on until the end of my stint which was basically the end of my part of the race.”
Looking back now at the race, he must have felt pretty elated to have saved a few potentially race ending moments as well as having been able to climb the leader board while nursing what the team knew from the drop of the flag was a potentially race ending engine issue. “In my last stint after the restart I got to run with the fast traffic. In a car that had some shortcomings, I’m not sure who ran the fastest lap in the car, but I know that I was able to keep up with the fastest laps. It wasn’t the intention – I was just doing what I was told but it felt pretty good.”
An observation Doug made to me that has been made by many others in the past, is that at night the smell of camp site food cooking is almost overwhelming. It’s not something that most would consider as a distraction when racing. But put yourself in the drivers’ situation and think hard on it. Likely you’d be either very hot or very cold (depending on your steed), tired, hungry, dehydrated, aching and possibly nauseated. Makes sense.
The team had been made aware ahead of the race of a possible engine issue and was advised to lower maximum revs by 500. Despite heeding this warning, the car did indeed go flat at around three quarter distance. “We parked it and waxed it like so many have done there and then did the Dan Gurney ceremonious last lap in order to classify as a finisher. To finish at my first attempt was pretty amazing and pretty emotional. The amount of congratulatory texts, emails and social media messages was overwhelming and to be able to run with my friends and hold my own was very special.
“Having been around the place in other machinery – probably faster – the impressive thing is the pace you have to run in the car. You used to have more of an endurance rhythm that you’d get into, but I had to push the entire time to get the times everyone was running…you’re going. It’s definitely 24 hour sprint racing.”
Was the Rolex one of the races that he had always aspired to drive in? “Yeah sure. I’d been there in race week many times before, but got bought out of the seat. For me wanting to do sports car racing, it’s one of the biggies: Le Mans, Sebring and Daytona.” His historic racing background comes to the fore when he quips, “Maybe throw Goodwood in there for fun! Although I’m still scratching my head after doing it and thinking, “What was that all about? Why’d I wanna do that so bad? What time in the morning is it?” he says again jokingly.
At the end of the day, 36 year old Doug Smith raced at his first Rolex and brought the car home with nothing more than a bit more brake and rubber dust and a few Florida bugs. His lap times were where they been told to be and the car did its job by bringing home the message of the 50 Plus team. And all accomplished without a big bag of money. Just talent, hard work and a little bit of luck.
Will we see Doug at Sebring this week? It remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure, the legacy of his family lives there and grandfather Reginald would quite rightly be very proud of his boys.
The 63rd running of the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Fueled by Fresh From Florida starts at 10.15am Saturday March 21st
by James Edmonds. B/W photos courtesy of the Smith family archive. All others Thomas Murray/James Edmonds