It’s late 2010, and Garrett Smithley is at a crossroads.
Fresh out of high school, Smithley has been given an ultimatum by his father: Take one year to see if this racing thing is going to go anywhere or find something else to do. In his first year competing in Legend Cars at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Smithley is worried his career might be over before it even begins.
College doesn’t seem like an option. Smithley admits he didn’t really apply himself much in school. His mind was always on racing.
But he needn’t worry too long because he’s about to catch a break.
“We met somebody from the Petty (Driving) Experience, and he told me that they were doing a driver development program up in Charlotte, and I knew from the moment I started racing I needed to get to Charlotte someway, somehow, someday,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “That gave me the opportunity to go.”
Even though he had never driven a stock car before, Smithley was among those picked to participate in the Richard Petty Driver Search.
“The finale was getting to drive a Sprint Cup car at Charlotte, going 190 mph, which was insane in September considering that in February I was still driving a 30-horsepower Bandolero on a quarter-mile track,” Smithley said. “It was a huge learning curve for me, but I did well enough that they offered me a job a couple of months later. I knew that was my shot to move to Charlotte.”
At 18 years old, Smithley made the move. Now 24, Smithley is in the midst of his first full-time Xfinity Series season with JD Motorsports after making a number of starts in the Camping World Truck Series and the ARCA Racing Series. In 23 Xfinity starts, Smithley has an average finish of 23.7 and has completed 94.7 percent of all laps run.
All of which was made possible because of the Petty program.
“It was everything to get me where I needed to go,” Smithley said.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: Who is Garrett Smithley?
Smithley: I’m somebody who tries to smile every single day. I’ve been completely blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and I don’t take it for granted. I know a lot of people don’t have that kind of attitude, but it’s a blessing to be running in the Xfinity Series, just being in the NASCAR industry is so cool. I have a strong family background; I’ve had support from them from the very beginning even if it wasn’t financial. It’s been a crazy ride so far. I enjoy what I do; I try to find the good in everything and try to be positive. Every car I’ve raced has a sign on the dash that says ‘Patience, never give up’ and I try to live my life by that every day.
NBC Sports: Coming from a military family, how did you decide you wanted to be a racecar driver?
Smithley: Both of my grandfathers were in the military and my dad is a pilot and he flew a lot of civilian military stuff with the company he was working for. He went to school at Embry-Riddle University, which is in Daytona, and he grew up down there watching NASCAR, going to Rolex 24 and was a huge fan of it. When I was born and when my brother was born, we grew up watching NASCAR. I was 2 or 3 years old watching with my dad in the basement. Knew all the drivers and the crew chiefs and the sponsors, I was just taken by NASCAR.
I didn’t get interested in driving until I was 13 or 14 – I was born in Pennsylvania, and we moved down to Virginia then moved to Georgia. When I moved to Georgia the racing scene was a little bit bigger than anywhere we had previously lived, so we started going to some races. We went to this amusement park with these little go-karts and I drove that and like a switch flipped in my brain and I said ‘This is what I want to do,’ and from that point forward, I was obsessed with becoming a driver.
NBC Sports: How was going the military route not pushed on you?
Smithley: My parents have been very instrumental in giving my brother and me the opportunity to do whatever we wanted to do, so they didn’t push me to do anything, but they put us in a lot of different things. Growing up we played baseball; we played football, we did the sports thing. They also put us in dance classes and theatre stuff because my mom has a big theatre background.
I think the reason we didn’t talk about the whole racing is it wasn’t really an option. I didn’t know that kids were racing at 5 or 6 years old. When I was 5 or 6 years old, I was playing with my Hot Wheels cars. It was always in my brain, and I look back at stuff from elementary school and middle school and doing different papers and different poems that always said I wanted to be a racecar driver, but I think it was never in my mind as a possibility. Even when I started, they just thought that it was going to be a hobby and just one of the things that I did on top of everything else because when I was racing full-time at 15, 16 I was also full-time in the theatre program in high school. So I had a lot of stuff to balance.
NBC Sports: Having a theatre and singing background is not something you normally hear about when it comes to a NASCAR driver. What are some of the things you did when you were younger?
Smithley: I’ve been doing theatre way longer than I’ve been racing. I was 6 or 7 years old when I did my first show with my mom; it was “Music Man.” I did a lot of that stuff in Virginia until we moved from Virginia when I was in fifth grade. We moved to Georgia, I went through that phase where I didn’t think it was cool anymore, so I didn’t do any of that. I still took piano and still sang in the chorus pretty much all the way through middle school and high school and then I got to high school, and one of the electives, my backup, backup, backup elective was drama. By the grace of God, I got put in drama and that pretty much changed my life and who I was, it gave me the confidence.
I wasn’t a very confident person when I was growing up and when I started doing drama it gave me that confidence, and I think that was a lot of the reason why I decided to be a racecar driver because you have to be confident to do that and make that decision. So I was secure in myself in saying, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ If I can sing and dance on stage in front of hundreds and hundreds of people, then I can go get in a racecar and go race on that same level.
All the way through high school I was racing full-time in Legends and Bandoleros, and there would be times when I had a race that afternoon, say on a Saturday, and then we would haul the mail back from the track to the auditorium at the school and do a show that night. They had to move shows for me to work with our racing schedule because I was going for a championship.
NBC Sports: Is there a driver you have tried to model yourself after in how you handle yourself?
Smithley: Dale Jarrett on a personal standpoint. When I was 2 or 3 years old I saw his car, and it was the American flag car and again, coming from a military background, I was always very patriotic, so that was the car I started cheering for. It turned out that Dale is one of the most well-respected racers in the garage and a Hall of Famer now. Personality-wise, I love his respect, I think it’s important to have the respect of your competitors, the respect of the fans.
When you’re talking about sponsors and promoting those who support you, I think it’s really important to do things in different ways, and Carl Edwards is another really big role model of mine. He’s probably one of the best out there to promote his partners and promote the people who support him in a way that people want to listen.
NBC Sports: Did you have a welcome to NASCAR moment?
Smithley: There was a time I was at Martinsville just going up to hang out with the Mitler Brothers (truck) team; I wasn’t racing so I was just wearing my regular street clothes. I was walking out of the tunnel and this fan called my name out said, ‘Hey Garrett can you sign this?’ I just kind of looked around and was like, who me? I wasn’t in my suit. That was a really cool moment for me because it’s easy to recognize somebody in a firesuit. Some fans just want your autograph because you’re in a firesuit, they might not know who they are. So that was pretty cool to have somebody recognized me and say they’ve been following me for a long time and were happy I’m getting the opportunity.
NBC Sports: How do you define success at JD Motorsports?
Smithley: It’s tough because we have such a unique situation where we got three cars, we’re obviously a team that’s up against a lot competing with the Cup teams. Success for us as a team right now is we really want to get Ross (Chastain) up into the Chase. That would be huge. For me personally, just running all the laps and getting max amount of experience and having respect; having really good runs.
I’ve been pleasantly surprised this year. I had no expectations going in. At the start of this year we were going to run the first three races and kind of see where it went from there. Johnny (Davis), I think it was after Las Vegas or Phoenix, said ‘I want to take you to California and see how you do there,’ and we did really well in California and he just kept taking me, and kept taking me, and kept taking me. Everybody just seems happy and as long as we can keep doing that these last 10 or 11 races we’ll be in good shape. Hopefully, that’ll give me some opportunities next year.