One year ago today, Smokey Snellbaker passed away. I wanted to write a memory of mine about him that is very special to me. My first recollection of Smokey was him running the Gary Wasson #5. I was 5 years old watching guys like Smokey Snellbaker, Kenny Weld, Jan Opperman, Steve Smith, Bobby Allen, and Lynn Paxton racing at Williams Grove. What an All Star lineup of racers. Smokey quickly became my favorite racer, mostly because my Dad was a Smokey fan. As time went on, Smokey left the sprint cars and went to the super sportsman class at Silver Spring Speedway. I began going there when I got my driver's license every Saturday night. He drove for many great car owners at Silver Springs. I would see Smokey every Saturday night at the races and I would also see him around his Dover home through the week. Smokey was to me a combination of Elvis(rock star), The Fonz(Movie star), and Cal Ripken(athlete) rolled into one. He was a fun person who loved to make people laugh.
I used to say to Smokey, "you deserve to be elected to the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame." He said, "it would happen if it was meant to be." I brought this up several times and it wasn't something that he was worried about. I remember the Saturday morning in 2002. He told me that he had gotten the call that he was going to be a "Hall of Famer." I thought about this a lot. I wanted to go to Knoxville to see him get elected and be recognized as one of the sport's best. I saw Smokey again and asked him how he was travelling to Knoxville. He said that he was going in an RV that he was borrowing from Kevin Frey, and Kevin would be providing him a ride in a 360 sprint car at Knoxville that weekend for the Master's Classic race. The Master's Classic is for racer's that are 50 and over. I asked him if he would care if I followed him in my vehicle. He said,"Sure, the more that goes the better the time we will have." He had already had large group of guys that were going with him.
The following Saturday night at Silver Springs Speedway, Smokey's best friend, Donnie Kraut said to me, "I hear you are going with us to Knoxville." He then said, "Why don't you ride with us. There is plenty of room." I said, "No". The following Saturday night the same thing happened between Krautie and I. I again said, "No". The following Saturday, I got to the races and headed towards the #32 pit area and I seen Smokey motioning to me to come over to the trailer. He proceeded to tell me, "You are riding in the RV with us, and that's it!" How could I say no to Smokey Snellbaker. I know Krautie had asked Smokey to tell me that I was riding with them. I always thought a lot of Krautie and appreciated this kind gesture by him.
We were planning on leaving from Smoke's place at 11am on Wednesday morning. There was a planned practice session at the Knoxville Speedway on Thursday, the Master's Classic on Friday, and the induction ceremony on Saturday. The group of guys who were going, met a Smokey's place around 10:30 that morning. We were planning on leaving at 11am but Smoke lost his keys, so we couldn't leave until we found them. We found them around 11:20am sticking in the door lock on his garage door. There was some super guys that went in that RV. John Surma(Smoke's car owner), Harry Nunemaker(Smoke's crew chief on the 80), Stoney Galebach, Gus Albright, Krautie, Smokey, a young fellow who worked on Kevin Frey's pit crew, and I.
We got on the turnpike heading West towards Iowa. We hadn't made it too far and the motor popped going up a slight grade and we began loosing power quickly. We were running 35 mph on the turnpike. Smokey turned around and looked at us when the motor popped and said a couple curse words and kept the pedal to the floor. He said that there was truck stop at the next exit. He knew this from his experience driver for Preston Trucking because this was his old route. We made it to the truck stop and had to pull the alternator because it was bad. We also needed a battery. The truck stop had the battery but they didn't have an alternator. The fellow at the truck stop called around until he found one at a local auto parts. One fellow who worked at the truck stop, took John Surma to the auto parts to get the alternator. John was gone for hours. He finally returned and we replaced the battery and the alternator. We got back on the road at 8:30 pm. I remember Smokey saying to us, "147 miles in 9 hours, at this rate we will get to Knoxville by Sunday." Smokey drove non-stop through the night and morning until we got to Knoxville on Thursday. None of us slept much but Smoke hadn't slept at all. We all got showered at the hotel and then went to the track. That evening Smoke took out the 2k sprinter and there was bugs to work out of it. It didn't help that Smoke hadn't slept for 40 hours. That evening we got back to the hotel room and we all got a good night's rest.
The following day we went to the Hall of Fame and to the track for the race. This was the night that Smoke asked me to get his helmet, gloves, and head sock and hand it to him while he was getting buckled in the car. I had always wanted to do this and I finally had the opportunity. I was very emotional with happiness and I was looking at him. He looked back at me and winked to me. Wow, I was actually handing Smokey Snellbaker his racing equipment. I felt like I was child again that night. Hot laps went much better than the night before. I could see that the car was better and Smoke was well rested. Smoke time trialed 2nd quick and started the feature in 6th place. He was up to 2nd in the feature when the tires started to give out on him. He ended up 6th, a good solid finish.
Finally Saturday morning came, it was time for the induction ceremony. We toured the Hall of Fame and got pictures with cars that he had driven, the 880 and 56 Pocket Rocket. Smokey was treated like a VIP and he allowed all of us to go along for the ride. Smokey had written a few things down to talk about it but he was mostly going to wing it because he knew what he wanted to say.
We went in for the ceremony, which was held on the upper floor of the museum. Johnny Rutherford and **** Bergren were there. There was no discussion of when each driver would be called to the podium for there interview. The event started and Jack Hewitt was the first driver to get interviewed because he had to get to a race that evening. The procession started and one by one each driver or a representative from their family was called to the podium. Each time Smokey was getting more nervous. Finally there was eleven people that were called to the podium. It was time for Smoke. As the host read the introduction of his accomplishments, he finally said the name, "Please welcome, Larry "Smokey" Snellbaker". We all stood and applauded. It had finally happened, the man that I rooted for since I was five years old had made it to the Hall of Fame. The world that day knew that my favorite driver was one of the best ever to strap into a sprint car. He asked Smokey many questions. One in particular sticks with me. He was asked, "How do you keep the fire going into your 60's to keep racing?" Smoke replied, "It's the most fun I had with his clothes on." The host then asked him if there was anyone he wanted to thank. Smoke began thanking all his car owners. He then said, "You know I got a lot of fans. There is a lot of people to came out here that came to support me. Wanda Spangler and her family, Rick Nash(from Connecticut), Kevin and Lori Frey for providing the RV and the sprint car to race, John Surma, Harry Nunemaker, Stoney Galebach, Gus Albright and I. He then thanked Donnie Kraut. He said that he had asked Krautie to borrow his hairdryer that morning, although he didn't know why Krautie had a hairdryer because he didn't have much hair. What a great feeling getting recognized by him. He really appreciated us going along to support him. One thing **** Bergren said to Smokey as we were leaving, "Smokey Snellbaker, my hero, still kicking the young guys butts on the track. Keep it up."
That evening we decided to get back on the trek to Pennsylvania. Smokey had a race the following night at Selinsgrove in John's #32 super sportsman. On the trip back, Smokey allowed other people to drive. I wasn't one of them because he thought I didn't pay close enough attention and would probably wreck us. That was his opinion but I wasn't going to argue with him. We had passed the Chicago area on the way home and he came back to set with me. He said, "Did you have a good time, buddy." I told him, "Smokey, besides my kids being born this the best time of my life." I was so happy that I got to go and spend the time with him. Not a lot of people get to do things with there racing hero. We got to Selingrove after the battery got drained down several times and I was elected to change it at the rest stops. We had arranged to pull into the pits at Selinsgrove to hook up to a battery charger. Smokey ended up finishing 8th that night.
We left the track to return to Smokey's Dover home. As we were approaching Dover, the headlights on the RV were dim. They looked dimmer than two candles. It was about midnight and I asked Smoke, "How can see with those headlights." He told me that "he could drive this road without lights."
We then pulled into his driveway and got our suit cases and bags out of the RV and got into our vehicles. I once again thanked Smokey for one of the most memorable experiences in the my life.
I called Smokey, "The King of the Dirt Track" and to me he was all that and more. He was a racing legend, hero, and friend. I miss Smokey dearly and wanted to share this story with everyone.