Written by Pete McNae
Ben Smith is a lot like his All Blacks namesake – a little under the radar until you relax, then he can ruin your evening in a hurry.
The Nelson stockcar driver made a surprise return to Nelson’s Milestone Homes Top of the South Speedway for the second to last meeting of the season on April 6, surprising because his Rees-Holden was trashed in a big hit at the South Island championships at Woodford Glen, a shot that buggered up the front half of the car. Early assessments were that the chassis was not worth salvaging but Smith, a 28-year-old Port Nelson employee, sent a few photos away to Rees Race Cars in Himatangi – and got the answer he was hoping for.
“Pete [Peter Rees] messaged back and said `it’s just steel’ and they’d just fixed one similar so Tony Frost dropped the car off when he was up in the North Island and three days and $2300 later, it was ready to pick up,” Smith said. Frost again helped out by bringing the car home and, with the latest front end and associated bits installed, the 93N car set the quickest lap times in all three stockcar heats in its return to racing. Both Ecotech Homes cars (Smith and Brad Frost) will be on the grid from 4pm on Friday for Nelson’s final race date of the season, the Easter Extravaganza, presented by Nelson Automotive Solutions.
“I guess a lot of people had written me off for the year because the damage was pretty major. I figured the hit was coming, heat three of a championship and a bit of an ongoing thing between me and some of the Blenheim guys,” Smith said. “We can file it away for another day.”
The fact Smith isn’t hunting Eastern States cars already is a sign of his maturity and development in the class. While younger brother Liam was a frontrunner in the ministock class in Nelson, Ben was already too old for the youth ranks when the family got involved again in speedway. Instead, he drove the car in adult ministock meetings and freely admits that while Liam was a natural, he’s more of a “grinder”.
“Liam could make any car go fast, he was always at the pointy end – I didn’t have that natural flair but I wasn’t afraid to put my foot down and have a go.”
The brothers shared an ex-1NZ car owned by Whanganui’s Gerry Linklater when they first moved into stockcars, then the Smith family bought the former Ralph Gillespie car that had a happy habit of posting podium finishes in South Island title meetings. Ideally, budgets would have allowed a car each but the siblings swapped the drive at alternate meetings.
“It wasn’t the best, especially with me feeling like I had more to learn. You’d have a good meeting and want to get back in and build on what you’d picked up – but it would be Liam’s turn to run the car. Then we would break something and the car was out for a couple of meetings and neither of us could race – but it was what we could afford, so everyone worked with that.”
Then things shifted for the Smiths. Ben had work going on during the Christchurch rebuild and a bad road crash on the Lewis Pass saw him suffer a painful hip injury that would eventually require surgery. Meanwhile, Liam had suffered a number of knockouts, with one final, big one while teams racing for the Thunder forcing him out of speedway. With the energy and enthusiasm waning, the car was sold back to Blenheim, minus the good Midwest Ford motor.
That could have been the final phase for the family until Cody Teece’s championship-winning car came up for sale. Knowing its pedigree, Ben bought the car, which had a broken Buick V6 between the rails, and had it ready for Nelson’s first practice this season.
“Previously, my parents have had a big stake in the cars but this one is mine,” Smith says. “I felt like I couldn’t make that final season I raced be the one I remembered. I wasn’t ever really comfortable in the [Gillespie] car and I thought I had a point to prove to myself, that I could actually drive a stockcar all right.”
Canterbury’s Cylinder Head Specialists tweaked up the broken Buick (a Holden in light disguise) for regular engine builder Craig Griffith in Motueka to assemble and Smith was having a strong season until Jamie Boulton caught him in turn four at Woodford Glen and wrecked the car. An earlier, more hot-headed, version of Ben Smith would have reacted poorly but he’s simply accepted that payback could take some time.
“Part of how I drove was that red mist. I thrashed round the track and it wasn’t always fast and it wasn’t always very successful,” he said. “I hear he might have parked the car for a couple of years but that’s cool. If he comes back, I might get the chance for some square ups.
“If that’s how the Blenheim boys want to play it, that’s all good. I’m not scared of anyone and never will be.”
In line with a few other fields in Nelson this year, the stockcars have struggled mightily to put on a show with broken cars and dwindling numbers resulting in less hitting than usual. The low point came in February when the Thunder were forced to skip the stockcar teams champs due to a lack of willing and able drivers. Smith said next season should see a revival with the Hall brothers back, Michael Paynter set to return and Frost hoping for a better run in his new car, which suffered engine failure this season and now has that Smith/Gillespie Ford in it.
“I see myself doing this a couple more seasons before it’s time to buy a house so I want to make them good ones,” Smith said. “Next year will be huge – the Thunder will be back and I want to have a really good shot at the New Zealands in Greymouth. I want to start chasing some titles, that fire is in me.
“And we are definitely going to be supporting Nelson speedway every night they put us on the programme. I’m really happy in this car, it’s comfy and fast and it suits me … I feel like I can do well in it.
“That payback thing is always in the back of your mind but I’m not going to lie awake thinking about it. If the cars I want happen to end up in front of me, well, happy days.”
- Ben Smith thanks his family, Tony and Brad Frost, Shane Harwood, engine builder Craig Griffith and his crew for their continued support and efforts through the season, and for their mentoring and set-up help. His sponsors are Ecotech Homes, NVD Logistics, Footprint Signs, Wakefield Auto Services, Hauler Engineering and D Smith Contracting.
- Friday’s meeting starts at the earlier time of 4pm to mitigate cooler temperatures and earlier nightfall. Other classes on the programme include sidecars, TQ midgets, production saloons, streetstocks and youth ministocks. The stockcar class will have visiting drivers from Canterbury, the Coast and Blenheim. The Nelson club will also have a few Easter treats lined up for the younger fans.
- The Nelson Speedway Association sends its very best wishes to club members and competitors Alicia Mclauchlan and Alex Hill who will be married locally on Saturday. We look forward to seeing them both back in their respective classes next season, and thank our sponsors, competitors, volunteers and fans for their support throughout the 2018-19 season.
Photos, Tom Laney, www.imagepress.co.nz