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Inside Dirt Late Model Racing

Column: Dad was ‘real life hero’ for Jeff Smith

November 1, 2023, 5:30 pm

Nearly three weeks removed from his father Freddy Smith’s passing on Oct. 14, Jeff Smith has had time to process the personal loss of the Hall of Fame driver he called his “real life hero.” Freddy’s memorial services on Oct. 18 helped. So did a trip with his son, Zack, to the Oct. 20-22 Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio.

Just two days after Freddy died at the age of 76, though, Smith, 57, was dealing with a whirlwind of emotions as he sat on the front porch of his home in Dallas, N.C., and spent more than an hour chatting on his cell phone about his father.

“There’s so much going through my mind right now,” Smith said that Monday evening with the situation still so fresh. “Part of me is numb, part of me is trying to absorb everything I see and read about him. There’s moments when I break down.”

He paused for a moment, coughed, and then added, “I sucked so much snot crying I’m having a hard time keeping my throat cleared out.”

It was a trying stretch for Smith, the only child of Freddy and his wife of 58 years, Naomi. A mere month-and-a-half passed between the first indication that Freddy was facing a serious health problem and his death — and amid his deterioration, Naomi was in-and-out of the hospital as well.

Smith said his father, who two years ago moved back to his native North Carolina from Seymour, Tenn., with his wife to be close to their son, was referred to a hematologist following a routine checkup in late August because some numbers in his bloodwork were off. He went to that appointment before attending a car show in late September, which he left a bit early because he wasn’t feeling well. The next day, despite bouncing back physically, he saw his doctor for another blood draw and soon learned he had developed leukemia and was immediately admitted to Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C., to begin treatment.

The hope was that Freddy would be able to return home after five days of chemotherapy. He handled the treatments well, but “he got a touch of pneumonia later that week,” Smith said, “and it continued to get worse.” His condition steadily declined and he remained hospitalized until his passing.

“It caught us off guard,” Smith said. “It went really fast.”

Smith had posted an “unspoken prayer request” on his Facebook page when his father was first diagnosed with leukemia. He made another post on Oct. 13 revealing that Freddy was “very ill” and asked for his family’s privacy to be respected. One day later he confirmed that his father had died.

There were poignant moments during Freddy’s final days, none more than when Smith and his wife, Heather, brought Naomi, who was in a rehab facility recovering from her health issues, to Freddy’s hospital room as his condition worsened.

“We actually went and got mom and took her to the hospital so she could see him, because that’s all my dad was concerned about,” Smith said. “He kept saying, ‘I gotta get out of here so I can go see momma. I gotta get to momma. I gotta see momma.’ That was his entire focus of life right then.”

Later, Smith said they wanted to put Freddy in hospice care at Naomi’s rehab facility but he wasn’t strong enough to make that trip. He was moved to the hospital’s hospice unit and Heather brought Naomi back to be by his side.

“It was beautiful,” Smith said. “We got momma in there and rolled her over by his bed. He was asleep and we woke him up, and his eyes got big and bright and he leaned over and they held hands, and he was rubbing her arm. They were having their own little conversation and me and Heather sat over on the couch and just watched. I mean, it was beautiful that they had that time together.”

Freddy and Naomi were married for 58 years, tying the knot three months after they began dating when Freddy was 19 and Naomi four years older. Smith said his father’s brother and his mother’s sister were married, and Freddy and Naomi “met when my mom was babysitting my cousin.” They were inseparable forever after, familiar faces together at racetracks across the country throughout Freddy’s distinguished career.

“There’s not many that loved like they did anymore,” Smith said. “There’s still some exceptions to the rule, but their love was amazing.”

Smith had his own experience with his father the day before his passing.

“He didn’t see anything the whole next day until me and Heather were leaving that night,” Smith recalled. “I said, ‘Dad, Can you hear me?’ and he mumbled, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘We’re going home now. You get some rest.’ And he said, ‘OK,’ and I told him I loved him, and he told me he loved me, and that was the last words we ever spoke. The next day he slept all day. He was peaceful.”

Smith said he was holding his father’s hand when he succumbed. It was of course a heart-wrenching moment for Smith, but he found solace knowing what his father had done less than two weeks earlier.

“The biggest peace I got was the morning of October the 3rd when he gave his life to the Lord,” said Smith, who had discussed his father’s salvation with him and their pastor. “He was still in a great frame of mind, before he started his downhill turn. I was fortunate enough to be with him when all that took place.

“There was a calm and peace that came over him at that point, and I knew I had my confirmation that my dad had given himself to the Lord. And that’s something I’ll never forget, and I’ll hold dear to the day I die. I’m just glad I was able to be a part of it.”

The pain of losing his father was eased for Smith by the “outpouring” of calls, text messages and, especially, social media remembrances that followed.

“It’s unfathomable for me really,” Smith said. “Just to get on Facebook and start scrolling, my dad is, like, every post. And you don’t see many of them that just have a couple of hits on them. There’s lots of likes and shares on just about all of them. There’s so many ,and I want to read every single one because … I don’t know, it comforts me to know the outpouring of love and friendship from people, family, friends, fans, that thought that highly of my dad. I mean, it’s heartwarming. It gives me some peace.

“I don’t go on and read all the comments, because there’s so many, but if there’s somebody who took the time to put their own words above a share or make the own post, I’ve been trying to stop and read those as much as I could.

“Everybody talks about how humble he was, and how easy he was to approach and talk to, what they thought of how good he could drive a race car and how he was always willing to help,” he continued. “It was all just good, positive stuff, and that’s where I get some of my peace and comfort, from the admiration that people had for him.”

Freddy’s exploits on the racetrack rushed through Smith’s head as well. Smith was his father’s side for many of his greatest successes, including so many of the Southern Gentleman’s memorable runs in the Dirt Track World Championship that he won five times, a record tied on Oct. 22 by Brandon Sheppard of New Berlin, Ill.

“I’m gonna say I was in attendance for four of the five (DTWC victories),” said Smith, an accomplished Dirt Late Model driver in his own right who still competes in regional events. “The last one he won (in 1998 at Thunder Ridge Racing Complex in Prestonsburg, Ky.), me and him started on the front row together.

“I probably remember the ones he should have won more. One race (at West Virginia’s Pennsboro Speedway) he followed a guy the entire 100 laps right on his bumper but he wouldn’t bump him to move him out of the way and go on. That was Larry Moore. There was one where he got squeezed into the guardrail off of turn four and ripped the left-front wheel off. There were another three, possibly four, that he should’ve won … at West Virginia (Motor Speedway in 2000) he got together with (Scott) Bloomquist on a restart (while leading), broke a wheel.”

Smith recalled his father’s uncanny ability to navigate the egg-shaped Pennsboro oval, where four of his five DTWC triumphs were earned.

“He knew how to maneuver that bridge in (turns) one and two better than anybody,” Smith said. “That came up in a discussion on a podcast a couple of years ago that Kyle Armstrong had us both on, and dad told the secret. There was a certain way to work the pedals, getting to (the bridge) and going across it and coming off it. He had it mastered.

“I chimed in and I was like, ‘You didn’t even share that with me when I went up there!’ He knew the secret of getting across the bridge and he didn’t even tell his own son.”

Smith laughed at that thought. He needed that light moment, just like he giggled a bit at a comment his son made shortly after Freddy’s passing.

“I was like, ‘You know, I bet grandpa (Freddy’s late father Grassy Smith) is already working on a motor and dad’s working on a race car. They’re reunited, they’re ready to go.’ And Zack said, ‘Shoot, Papa Grassy already had that motor sitting there waiting.’”

Smith noted that his 28-year-old son is too young to remember Freddy racing in his prime. He said Zack was in victory lane in Freddy’s arms after the 1998 DTWC, but he was just 3 at the time. “Dad’s kind of got his head pulled back looking at Zack smiling,” Smith said of a picture documenting that moment.

“Zack, he works down at Wesley Page’s (shop),” Smith said. “Wesley was talking to me one day and he said, ‘You know, I don’t think Zack really understands the magnitude of what Freddy did around here and how people look up to him. He was people’s hero, and Zack really doesn’t realize how big a deal Freddy Smith is.’ ”

Considering that comment, Smith realized that he probably didn’t fully grasp his father’s stature as well. He certainly didn’t see his father act like a racing God.

“He would just get out and wave to the crowd (after wins),” Smith said. “I can’t tell you how many times people were like, ‘You don’t even act like you’re excited.’ He just didn’t show out like that.

“He was one of the more humble people you’re ever gonna find in this sport. Even to the end, when people would come up and say, ‘You’re my hero,’ or, ‘You’re one of my favorite drivers,’ he was so humble. He didn’t view himself as being in the spotlight or somebody who people looked up to like they did.”

It took a comment from one of Smith’s closest buddies for him to find some true perspective about his father’s legacy.

“One of my best friends growing up, we kind of disconnected after high school, reconnected just a few years ago and our friendship resumed where it was,” Smith said. “I was talking to him the other day, and he said, ‘Dude, I just want to thank you for who you are, and thank you for sharing your dad with us. I just don’t mean me. I mean everybody. He was your hero, but he was my hero and a lot of of other people’s hero too. You shared your dad all those years he was racing with the whole world and you did it gracefully. You could have been that guy who was angry about it or carried a chip on your shoulder about it, but I just want you to know how much it means to me that you shared your father with us.’

“I didn’t say it to him,” he added, “but I’d never thought of it that way.”

Ten things worth mentioning

1. During Freddy Smith’s funeral services Oct. 18 in Kings Mountain, N.C., he was eulogized by the pastor from the church the Smith family used to attend as well as veteran racer and promoter Ray Cook. A resident of Brasstown, N.C., who is well versed in Smith’s towering presence in the Tar Heel State, Cook raced with Smith often late in the legend’s career.

2. Smith’s memorial services were held at the family’s church because Jeff Smith realized the chapel at the funeral home they used wouldn’t have been large enough. Jeff remarked that when the funeral director asked if he wanted to use the chapel there, he couldn’t help snickering. “I looked at him — and I wasn’t trying to be a smart aleck — and I said, ‘Do you know who my daddy is?’” Jeff recalled. “He said, ‘Freddy Smith … is that not right?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, but obviously you don’t know who Freddy Smith is if you think this little chapel is gonna hold all the people that are coming.’ ”

3. The funeral director, of course, wasn’t familiar with Freddy Smith’s iconic local status. Said Jeff: “He started asking the questions about dad, and I told him he was a race car driver and he said, ‘He did that for a living?’ I said, ‘Yeah, for a long time.’ Then he said, ‘Are there any accolades you want to mention?’ Heather spoke up and said, ‘Well, he’s the only five-time Dirt Track World Champion and he’s in the inaugural class of the Dirt Late Model Hall of Fame,’ and he looked up and said, ‘Oh, this guy is good, isn’t he?’ It was just funny for somebody to be from Kings Mountain and not know about dad.”

4. Jeff Smith said his father’s death was especially hard on Freddy’s former car owner and longtime friend Clayton Christenberry. The 82-year-old retired trucking company owner wasn’t able to attend Freddy’s funeral services, but he did travel from Knoxville, Tenn., with his son, Gus, to visit Freddy just hours before he passed away on Oct. 14. Jeff said Christenberry has always been “one of them people who didn’t let his emotions show,” but he couldn’t hide his feelings while seeing Freddy in his final moments. “When he got ready to leave (the hospital room) he said, ‘Fred, you just keep ‘er pinned on the right-front,’” Jeff remembered. “Then he walked down there and touched dad’s foot under the blanked and he got all choked up, and he pointed at him and he said, ‘That man right there was my best friend.’ I about lost it then. I knew Clayton meant that.”

5. Plenty of reminiscing about Freddy’s racing career is coming up for Jeff and Zack Smith. They have a treasure trove of Freddy Smith relics to peruse “When we moved all of mom and dad’s stuff down here from Tennessee we got a container and put it all in and it’s down at a friend’s place,” Smith said. “That’s what dad would do some days when it wasn’t so hot — he’d go out there and just start going through some of that stuff. They made some shelves in there and he was just kind of laying stuff out, finding some old pictures they had, finding old trophies. I think there were a couple of scrapbooks in there, but he never did get to go through all of it. He had stuff he didn’t even realize he had, and I’m sure me and Zack are gonna be amazed when we go out there.” A couple special mementos from Freddy’s racing years are already in Smith’s shop: the first race helmet he ever wore (a fiberglass shell with some leather on the inner lining) and the doorpanel from the car that Freddy drove to a Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series victory on July 11, 2008, at North Alabama Speedway in Tuscumbia.

6. Everyone attending this week’s World of Outlaws World Finals at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in Concord, N.C., will get their first glimpse of Mike Marlar behind the wheel of his new Skyline Motorsports ride — and it will take some getting used to. While the veteran from Winfield, Tenn., will continue to sport his No. 157 as a teammate to Tyler Bruening of Decorah, Iowa, the Longhorn Chassis carries a bright red wrap with back accents. It’s a definite departure from the blue-and-yellow scheme that he’s used most recently driving for Ronnie Delk.

7. Speaking of Marlar’s number, I like when car owners allow their hired-gun drivers to keep using their familiar numbers. Unless the team a driver is joining has an especially iconic number — like the No. 1 on the Rocket Chassis house car — I think it provides some nice continuity for a racer to stick with the numeral they’re most identified with.

8. During the recent Dirt Track World Championship at Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, Tyler Bruening’s crew chief, Zeb Holkesvik, relayed a story to me about doing some coon hunting in Iowa with Marlar’s crewman Josh Davis and Jerry "Donk" Sprouse. Along on the hunt, of course, was Holkesvik’s dog Walter, an experienced hunter who is a familiar sight in racetrack pit areas. Walter is getting up in years, though, and Holkesvik said he wasn’t fully engaged at the start of their expedition, which led Sprouse to doubt Walter’s ability as a hunter. But Holkesvik noted that no one should question good ‘ol Walter, who responded by running away from the group and triumphantly nabbing a coon.

9. How about the summer-like weather that graced East Alabama Motor Speedway in Phenix City for last weekend’s National 100 festivities? With afternoon highs reaching the upper 80s, those personal propane heaters that many fans bring into the EAMS stands to battle the usual cold conditions were certainly not needed this year.

10. This isn’t a Dirt Late Model note, but it’s racing-related so I wanted to give it a mention. On Saturday night my wife were at a pub in Delaware with friends and witnessed a Halloween costume contest that was one by a person who thought up one heck of a motorsports-themed ensemble. This guy came in dressed as Miles the Monster, the massive concrete-appearing statue that sits outside the main entrance to Dover (Del.) International Speedway. There was no way this costume was going to lose the contest, not with the entrant’s attention to detail (the mask had the statue’s glowing red eyes and he had a small model car to hold in his right hand for photos) and even some special touches (he stood inside a rolling model of the Dover mile complete with grandstands, working lights and mini cars on the “track”).

 
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