The motto that drives Garrett Smithley‘s career is summed up by a decal on the dashboard of every car he races:
“Patience, never give up.”
It’s guided the 25-year-old driver for the last decade since he began driving a Bandolero in Peach Tree City, Georgia, and finished fourth in his first race on Oct. 27, 2007 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
In the years since, Smithley has won numerous trophies and awards that are spread out over his living room in Kannapolis, North Carolina, his parent’s house in Dallas, Georgia, a golf cart shop in Peach Tree City and both his grandparent’s houses.
But one award, a Rookie of the Year plaque from that first year of racing, means the most to the man who grew up rooting for Dale Jarrett and now drives the No. 0 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.
“I think it’s just because I was 15 years old when I started racing and that first season I didn’t have any idea what I was doing, neither did my dad,” Smithley told NBC Sports. “Looking back at it, knowing what I know now, I don’t know how we won any races because we had no idea what was going on. … For me it’s just because I had to figure it out, I had to pick it up. That was the moment where I knew I had some driving talent because I went out there, first season and won Rookie of the Year without ever racing anything else in my entire lap.”
Now Smithley is 52 starts into his Xfinity career. In his second season with JD Motorsports, Smithley has earned two top 10s, in February at Daytona and June at Iowa Speedway.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed.
NBC Sports: After the first Iowa race, you snuck up behind your teammate Ross Chastain during his TV interview and you looked like it was your birthday. When was the last time you had that feeling after a race?
Smithley: I guess it would have to be Daytona, I’m trying to think. We’ve had good runs here and there this year. I would say honestly that was the first time this season since Daytona that we’ve had that. It’s such a good feeling. Again, with that race, I had one set of sticker tires the whole day to finish like that. Who knows what could have happened if we had a little bit more tires. For Ross to go in there and finished fourth and for me to go in there and finished 10th. Harrison (Rhodes) unfortunately had an issue on his car, but he was probably going to be racing with us. … Anytime that we can do that, it’s a David and Goliath story. We’re up against these multi-million dollar teams that spend millions and millions on just one car and we’ve got probably not even a million on all three cars. To do that is special for sure.
NBC Sports: Do you feel like you’ve made it in NASCAR?
Smithley: That’s a good question (laughs). I would say to some I’ve absolutely made it. I still see guys I raced with when I was a kid who have way more experience and way more money and way more talent that aren’t currently racing anything right now. I think to a lot of guys I’ve raced with, that I’m friends with, absolutely. I think for me I’m happy where I’m at. It’s surreal just to be in this position at all. To be racing full-time and making a living at it. But at the same time, for me I set my goals extremely high, and I think with that you’ll never stop working. So for me, I’m not going to stop and I’m not going to quit until I make it into the NASCAR Hall of Fame and that’s my ultimate goal.
For me, if I have that goal, no matter how many wins I get, no matter how many championships I get, no matter what I do, I’m always going to be chasing that goal and it gives me something to work toward, no matter what I’m doing. I’m always going to be happy where I’m … I’m not (always) going to be happy where I’m at, but I’m always going to appreciate where I’m at and I’m always going to enjoy it. But at the same time I’m not going to stop working. If I fall short, I fall short and I feel like that goal is high enough to where if I do fall short, hopefully I’ll have accomplished a lot along the way.
NBC Sports: If you were competing in the Bristol Cup race, what would be your intro song?
Smithley: I’m maybe a nerd for this, but I don’t know if you watch Spongebob (Squarepants), but it’s called “Sweet Victory” and it’s when Spongebob plays at the Bubble Bowl.
NBC Sports: Why that?
Smithley: I think that’s such a cool song. I’m like a huge Spongebob fan. And I can see the pyrotechnics and could just envision what that would look like to people.
NBC Sports: What was your first car?
Smithley: A 2001 Pontiac Montana minivan. … I drove it in high school. Peach Tree City is notorious for golf carts and there’s like 90 miles of golf cart paths throughout the city. I didn’t get my license until I was 17 and a half and had been racing for a year and a half in Bandoleros. I didn’t feel like there was a need to drive because I had golf carts. When I was 15 I could drive my golf cart. We drove golf carts to school and to the store and everything like that. So it was pretty crazy. But my parents had a minivan they bought new in 2001 and they said, ‘Here, you can have the minivan’ and I was like ‘All right.’ At first I was like, it’s a car, that’s fine. Then it ended up working out because everyone wanted to ride with me cause I had plenty of room. So I was popular. To this day I still wish I had that minivan cause I love that car.
NBC Sports: If you have a free day, how do you spend it?
Smithley: I’m out so much and doing things that when I do have a free day I just want to stay in and do nothing. There’s two things I really like to do when I just want to get away from life. One is put my headphones in, listen to really loud EDM music and play “Counter-Strike” on my computer, it’s a first-person shooter game. I do that or iRacing. I’ll get on a road course. They just came out with Nürburgring, I’ll just get in a Legends car or something like that and just drive it on Nürburgring, just for fun. Or I will go downstairs, I have a piano. I used to take piano lessons when I was a kid. I took them for like years. I’ll go down to the piano and play music.
NBC Sports: What songs can you play?
Smithley: ‘Let it Be’ is my favorite. ‘Let it Be’ by The Beatles. I can play ‘Apologize,’ (by OneRepublic), ‘I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing’ by Aerosmith. There’s a couple of others that aren’t coming to my mind. I enjoy playing.
NBC Sports: If you could have a conversation with Dale Jarrett, what would you ask him?
Smithley: Funny enough, in 2015 I got a call from a producer from NBCSN and Jeff Burton does those hot laps every week before the Cup races for pre-race. So he called me and said ‘Hey, are you going to be in town for the Charlotte race?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m planning on going.’ I wasn’t racing at that point. He said, ‘I wanted to see if you could do some laps for us.’ … He said ‘You’re going to be driving along Bobby Labonte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett.’
I was like, ‘Wait, what? I’m going to drive with them on-track?’ He was like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to be in Petty cars and you’re going to do this for a segment.’ Then I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s incredible.’ So I got to be in the production meeting with all the NBC executives, Rick Allen, Marty Snider and Dale Jarrett and all the drivers. It was just incredible. … At that point I only had three truck races under my belt. So I’m sitting here with a hall of famer, a champion and a guy who won several Cup races. I’m here at this like, ‘Hey, I’m Garrett. I’ve really only run three races in the Truck series.’ It was pretty surreal. So I got to talk to Dale that day. I just went over and said ‘Hey, I hate to be a fan, but you’ve always been my favorite driver when I was a kid and it’s really, really cool to be driving with you.’ He said, ‘Hey, just never give up. Keep digging. You’ll get there.’ For him to say that, now I can’t give up because my hero just told me that I can’t.
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