STUART DAVID SMITH
1946 - 2010
RIP 'Smithy' - thank you for so many wonderful memories and for enriching the lives of countless stock car fans.
The awful news that stock car legend Stu Smith Snr had passed away has shocked and saddened the world of stock car racing.
The personal tribute that follows was written in 2006 but I have updated it with pictures and additional thoughts that I hope do justice to his legacy.
Stu Smith retired from F1 Stock Car racing at an emotionally-charged Belle Vue stadium on 7th December, 1986, when fourteen other World Champions were present to pay their respects and compete in the Daily Mirror sponsored Champion of Champions Race in front of a capacity crowd. It was won by 199 Mike Close followed by 396 Doug Cronshaw and 212 Frankie Wainman Snr, with Stu finishing 4th ahead of the Dutchman Friedhelm Welters H8 - the World Long Track Champion.
Just recalling the occasion brings back so many personal memories of Stu Smith's 20 year racing career. I'd like to share with visitors to this site a few of those memories and, using models from my collection, recall the most successful cars he drove.
But first, where did it all start and how was Stuart David Smith introduced to unsuspecting stock car fans?
In 1964, Stu was an apprentice motor mechanic and wielding the spanners for a driver called Ken Chapman, who had introduced him to stock car racing at Belle Vue. He built his first car for £65 from bits acquired from scrap yards and it took him six months. It had a Morris front axle, Humber rear end, a Jaguar power unit and the bodywork was formed from a Renault 4CV.
His first race was at Long Eaton on April 24th 1965 and he led for eleven laps, refusing to give way to faster cars. Inevitably, he got stuffed into the fence and everything seemed to fall off the car: the engine, the gearbox, the radiator - it got towed home in bits and took all the following week to repair. During the remainder of that season and most of 1966 he managed to rise up the yellow grades helped by replacing the Jaguar engine with a Buick. But in August of that year, with financial help from his father, he purchased the car used by 178 Albert 'Tiger' Griffin. It was difficult to drive given the tricky combination of a lot of power from the 348 cubic inch Chevrolet and the very short wheelbase. Keeping it going in the right direction was a feat in itself and although Stu began winning in it virtually from the start, he could just as easily end up facing the wrong way or in the fence. It made him a firm favourite with the crowd.
In the first grading period of 1967, Stu went from yellow top to star. He persevered with the ex Griffin car, which during the 1968 season was fitted with a 425 cubic inch Buick 'Wildcat' engine, until building a longer wheelbase car for the 1969 season. He won his World semi final at Coventry and immediately afterwards fitted a brand new 427 cubic inch Chevrolet 'big block' power unit, which was to become such a dominant force in the sport. With it he lapped everybody but the second placed man Jim Esau at the World Final at Belle Vue.
The rest, as they say, is history!
During his illustrious career Stu Smith won 501 Finals, 6 World Titles, 13 National Points Championships, 3 British Drivers Championships, 1 European Championship and countless other trophies and titles. He enhanced the image of the sport and became its best known representative, even being invited to a BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award evening. He had a huge dedicated following of fans but also plenty of others who couldn't stand the arrogance of his skills and desperately wanted to see him taken out by other drivers. But everyone agreed that his participation in a meeting was guaranteed to add an air of expectation to the terraces and lively on-track action.
Excerpts from a treasure trove of memories:
Many fans know that the car 252 Dave Chisholm used to win three consecutive World Finals in 1973, 1974 and 1975 was built by 396 Doug Cronshaw. But (as fan John Tompsett reminded me) who else remembers that Doug did not really enjoy driving it and sold it to Stu Smith early in 1973 as Stu had problems with the engine in his own car. Stu found the cab a tight squeeze and regularly wore a bandage on his right knee where it made contact with the cab side. Nevertheless, in typical Smithy fashion, he weaved his set-up magic and won six Finals in four weeks. At that stage the damaged engine was repaired and he reverted to his old car. He sold the ex Cronshaw car to Dave Chisholm and Chick Woodroffe and the history books show that Dave went on to record his three World Final victories in it with Stu finishing second on each occasion. So it could be argued that Stu contributed to making Dave Chisholm a triple World Champion!
On the 3rd September 1977 the World Final was held at Coventry. Stu had failed to qualify from his semi final at Rochdale. He came out for heat two ever the showman resplendent in sparkling silver overalls - guaranteed to wind up his detractors. He could divide family loyalties! My sister-in-law, a dedicated 212 fan was almost purple with indignation. How dare he try and steal the show, he hadn't even qualified for the World Final, she yelled!! During the race Smithy looked set to lap the entire field before the union jack had been waved. He went past 268 Jim Sanders on the outside of the pits bend forgetting that he had given Jim a hefty wallop during a recent Skegness meeting. As he went broadside across his front end, Sanders put his foot down and took Smithy into the fence removing his rear axle in the process. The crowd went wild and Jim became an instant hero for my sister-in-law and many other fans. But Smithy was not to be outdone. He had the knack of turning a disaster to his advantage and commenced a lap of honour stood on the back of his severely damaged car behind the tow truck waving and blowing kisses to the crowd. My sister-in-law was rendered speechless - a rare event even to this day!
On the 30th July 1978 at the Hartlepool World semi final the F2s were sharing the bill. Stu Smith decided to race both formulas that day. He won the F1 Semi and the F1 Final and as F2 number 500 won Heat, Final and Grand National. The only reason he didn't compete in the F1 Grand National was because he was completely exhausted - hardly surprising. Everybody who was there left that meeting talking about having witnessed a demonstration of stock car driving skills that bordered on sheer perfection. It was a privilege to be present.
The 1980 World Final at Coventry saw a false start and by the time the cars had been brought to a stop many had sustained damage, including the 391 car. His supporters waited anxiously as Stu's team of mechanics proceeded to change the radiator before the restart. You could almost touch the tension in the stadium as part of the crowd willed them to finish on time and another part hoped they failed. The rest of the field were lined up ready to go as Stu was strapped into the car and fired up the engine. That he went on to become World Champion was a tribute to the efficient way in which his team dealt with the repairs.
I will never forget the way individual drivers competed wheel to wheel with Stu despite his fearsome reputation and there were many occasions on which they got the better of him but what entertainment they gave to the fans - 396 Doug Cronshaw, 2 Willie Harrison, 190 Len Wolfenden, 212 Frankie Wainman Snr, 272 Dave Hodgson, 199 Mike Close, 306 Mick Noden, 252 Dave Chisholm and so many others. The 70s in particular was an amazing era for F1 stock cars.
And what about that wonderful time when sew-on badges were all the rage? My son was a keen Smithy supporter and always wanted the latest sew-on. When years later he left home, his racing jacket was left behind. Naturally he'd long since outgrown it but before it headed for the charity shop I had the good sense to unpick all the sew-on badges and mount them in a scrap book. A laborious task maybe, but the outcome was page after page of terrific memories. (See the end of this tribute for examples)
The models in my collection of Stu Smith's F1 stock cars.
The 1972 World Final winning car:
1973 The Wildcat car in the colours of sponsors Auto Enthusiast Magazine:
The Super Do-Do (so called because it wasn't short of wings but didn't fly!) introduced in 1976.
The Do-Do in Hertz colours in 1977:
The so called 'Bread Tray Special' (the front grill was a reworked bread tray from a bread delivery van) lightweight machine launched in 1979 and virtually destroyed at Belle Vue, requiring a complete rebuild and revised bodywork that went on to win the 1980 WF. Models of both cars below:
Stu's last construction introduced in 1981 that went on to win three consecutive WFs in 1983, 84 and 85 in three different colour schemes. Models of all three cars below:
And if anyone thought 'The Maestro' had lost any of his track skills in retirement they were proved wrong at 33 Peter Falding's testimonial meeting at Coventry on 8th June 2008 when Stu competed in a Champion of Champions race against 55 Bert Finnikin, 97 Murray Harrison, 53 John Lund, 318 Rob Speak, 391 Andy Smith, 390 Stu Smith Jnr among others and he won! The only time that Stu competed on track against his two sons.
The Maestro was in son Stu Jnr's rebodied car specially sign written for the occasion. My model of this car is pictured below:
Watching the BBC Gears and Tears documentary earlier in 2010 and seeing Smithy's enthusiasm and passion shining through in support of his sons.
In 1986, recurring back problems after 20 years of competitive racing and the desire, at age 40, to find time to do other things with his life brought about Stu's decision to retire.
There were many reasons for his extraordinary success in stock car racing: attention to detail, natural driving skills, fearless, mechanical knowledge, never accepting he was beaten, lightning reflexes, uncanny knack of anticipating trouble on track and knowing how to avoid it, making his own luck, exploiting bad breaks, a natural showman - the list could go on and on. The fact is that every now and then in any walk of life, someone comes along who is that extra bit special. He was 'The Maestro', 'The Master', 'The One and Only', he could argue 'I'm One Why Try Harder'. He thoroughly deserved and earned all the accolades.
I count myself as hugely fortunate to have coincided with Stu Smith's era in BriSCA F1 Stock Car Racing.
It is so hard to accept that we will never again see him at stock car meetings up and down the country supporting his sons Andy and Stuart Junior and finding time for a chat with the fans.
He leaves a massive, lasting legacy to the sport he loved so much and will never be forgotten. So many thousands of words have been written and spoken about Stu Smith over the years but for me a sentence sums it all up:
Stuart David Smith, stock car legend, simply 'The Greatest of the Greats'
UPDATED DECEMBER 2016
By way of a personal tribute to Stu Smith Snr on the 4th anniversary of his passing, I published a diary for 2015 that incorporated a photographic appreciation of the most complete stock car driver ever to grace the oval raceways. He is an enduring legend whose memory will live on forever.
Click on the link below to preview the complete diary:
During the year I built two more of Smithy's iconic cars - the 1973 Wildcat car in Auto Enthusiast Magazine colours and the car he used at 33 Peter Falding's testimonial in 2008 that was son Stuart Jnr's car, rebodied for the occasion. It brings my collection to 13 and they are pictured below: