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Ken Smith on motor racing


Ken Smith just can’t wait to get back behind the wheel of a Lola T332 Formula 5000 single seater.

He won one of his most memorable races , the 1976 New Zealand Grand Prix at Pukekohe, in one of the thundering open wheelers, and is looking to buy one to race at next year’s Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix meeting at Melbourne. He’s scouring
the US for one in good, original condition.

A full grid of the 5.0-litre V8 single seaters is expected to race in a support event scheduled for Melbourne.

Smith had originally planned on running an Australian-built Matich restored in Christchurch by former racer John Crawford, but the chassis is already spoken for.
Smith says that’s a pity because he believes the car, designed and built by an old sparring partner, Frank Matich, has the pace and the handling to win the Melbourne event. He knows that because he drove the car, which was down on power, at Ruapuna.

But the Lola T332 has a special place in Ken Smith’s heart and it’s a Lola he plans to
race next March.

Smith began his racing career with a Ford 8 special before moving to one of NZ motor racing’s most famous cars, Bruce McLaren’s Austin Ulster. That was in the mid-1950s, later he raced open-wheeled cars, culminating in the four-cylinder Ford FVC-powered March 732 in which he took the fight to the V8-engined Formula 5000s. Eventually, Smith capitulated and bought himself an F5000s, he moved into Formula Atlantics when the premier category switched to the Ford BDA-powered cars, among them a March 76B, the ex-Teo Fabi 1978 March, Ralt RT4s and finally Swift DB4s
which he still races in Formula Libre meetings, reprising his 1970s David and Goliath act against the classic racing fraternity’s Formula 5000s.

The Formula Atlantic era produced some of the most competitive top-level single seater racing ever seen in New Zealand, as young European and American stars in the making came to NZ to drive the cars in the summer series.Future world champion Keke Rosberg was among them, along with future F1 drivers Fabi, Danny Sullivan and Bobby Rahal who both went on to win the Indianapolis 500.Then there were local aces like David Oxton, Brett Riley, Dave McMillan (who runs racing an Infiniti Pro Series team in America), and US-based professional racer Steve Millen. Later came Paul Radisich and Craig Baird; lining up against them were young Americans like Ross Cheever (brother of Eddie), Davy Jones and Dean Hall.

“The racing was good,” Smith says of the Atlantic days (initially the cars were called Formula Pacifics in New Zealand).

“Oxton got the first RT4, it was produced in 1980 but was an 1981 car. David and I had some merry old battles in those cars [Smith driving the Apple Car Company Ralt]. McMillan was driving a Ralt RT1 [the RT1 remained competitive against the early versions of the RT4].

“They were tough. I don’t see anything different today racing against these kids [in the Toyota Racing Series]. They were fighting hard to win races.

“In those days the cars were a lot different to drive.”

Smith says young drivers straight out of karts find the Toyota Racing Series (TRS) cars easier to adapt to “[TRS cars] are like a kart with a six-speed sequential gearbox, but the car is difficult.”

Smith says that “jumping into an Atlantic car now and again” to race in historic Formula Libre races gives him a perspective on the differences 25 years of single seater development have produced.

“You get into the ’90 model Atlantic car and straight away you’re hammering it around but [the TRS cars] are so narrow and nervous.”

Smith believes firmly that New Zealand drivers could foot it with the best Formula Atlantic drivers of the day.The difference had to do with equipment, technical expertise and the international teams giving their drivers a little extra “edge”.

“When I bought the March that Teo Fabi had driven [and in which the Italian had run away from all rivals in the summer series], with the engine it had in it, I had no problem blowing Steve Millen away. But when I put another engine in it, the car was shit.”

Smith remembers shadowing Rosberg during unofficial practice at Manfeild, Rosberg in a Chevron B39, Smith in a March 76B.

“For 10-laps I ran within two feet of him on the Friday. He came into the pits and ranted and they changed the engine and he drove away from me.A lot of drivers could have done the same (as Smith did on the Friday) with equal equipment.”

Smith believes the current trend to short, sprint, races leaves drivers lacking a full understanding or racecraft, a view also propounded by Grand Prix great Alain Prost when discussing modern Formula 1 races which are a series of sprints between
fuel and tyre stops rather than a mini-enduro in which drivers must drive to counter tyre wear and excessive fuel consumption.

“In a longer distance race, you have to drive to get the car through to the end,” says Smith.

He is also nostalgic for a time when the world of motor racing was different, less win-at-any-cost. “The first thing with motor racing is the enjoyable part: you meet some nice people and there’s a good atmosphere. That was more so a few years ago.

“In my early days, people would have given you a helping hand to keep going, even if they were the opposition. They’d lend you a part. Today, it’s a rat race.”

In recent years, Smith has played a key role in helping further young drivers’ careers, using his network of international contacts to help open doors. Among those he has helped include Scott Dixon, Matt Halliday and Brendon Hartley. Smith says one of the most important categories in Dixon’s career was Formula Holden. “Scott says it was one of the best things he ever did. It taught him how to drive Indy Lights and other US-style cars. It had a heavy motor and it was a tough car.

“Twenty-seven of the Australian V8 Supercar drivers have raced Formula Holdens [among them Greg Murphy, Jason Bargwanna, Mark Skaife, Jason Bright and Craig Lowndes – Ed].”

Smith also believes time in a Formula Ford (he’s won an NZ GP in one, as well as in a F5000 and Formula Atlantic) is important in a young driver’s development.“A Formula Ford is a twitchy little car, and racing one is an absolute must if you get out of a go-kart. A driver really needs a season or two in Formula Ford. It teaches you how to be competitive without being dangerous, It’s an important learning ground because Formula Ford is the most competitive single seater class in this country.”

The relatively simple cars can also be run by a father and son team – Smith points to current champion Shane van Gisbergen and his father Robert as an example of a family-run team that can reach the heights. Smith is just two summers away from celebrating his 50th season in top-level motor racing, and will continue to drive a Toyota Racing Series car until the end of the 2008 series.He has no intention of hanging up his helmet once he’s achieved the 50-year milestone. He plans to turn out in his beloved Formula 5000s, and he may even have another crack at winning the one title that has eluded him, the NZ Formula Ford Championship.

Smith has unfinished business with Formula Ford, and maintains he was robbed of the crown by a bad decision on an alleged technical breach.But even if he doesn’t have one last try at the Formula Ford title, don’t expect Smith to get out of the cockpit permanently.

“People ask me what I get out of racing against these kids? But why wouldn’t you keep on doing what you enjoy, just because you’re 65?”

“Of course I’ll keep racing: it’s a disease isn’t it?” 

Interview by Mike Stock.

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