Garrett Smithley is one of the youngest active NASCAR drivers today. In fact, his career started when he was a sophomore in high school at age 15, two years before he even got his official driver’s license. It might seem counterintuitive, but Smithley says he actually thinks that, in some ways, driving on the road is more dangerous than racing.
“It’s funny because my mom gets asked all the time, ‘Aren’t you nervous about him racing?’” Smithley said. “And while it is dangerous — you know, we saw that at Daytona this year — we’re still strapped in, we’re all going the same way, we’re all laser-focused, there’s no distractions.”
The accident Smithley is referring to occured in February when Ryan Newman was seriously injured in an unexpected crash. Still, Smithley points out, “We have helmets, we have fireproof suits, we have the safety equipment. You don’t really have that on the road.”
For everyday drivers, the only safety equipment is a seatbelt and an airbag.
Inspired by family
Smithley says his dad inspired his love of NASCAR, but he’s not a legacy driver.
“He never raced competitively or anything like that,” Smithley said of his dad, who he says studied to become a pilot at a school near the famous Daytona track. “He was just always a big fan and so that passion turned to me.
“I was 6 years old when I went to my first NASCAR race. I’ve always watched it on TV, and grew up watching all the sponsors and the drivers. My favorite driver growing up was Dale Jarrett, and now to have met him…”
Smithley is grateful for the opportunity to drive alongside all of his racing heroes and drivers he calls “future hall-of-famers.”
The path to NASCAR wasn’t a fast-track for Smithley, who says his family didn’t have the resources to pour into a professional racing career. So, he says he got his start “the old-fashioned way.”
His career really took off when he got a job at the Richard Petty Driving Experience, a recreational track for amateurs and enthusiasts to try their hand behind the wheel of a race car. Eventually, Smithley said, he worked his way up at the company to driving instructor, eventually leading to his career now as a racer.
Making roads safer
The focus required on a racetrack is one thing Smithley said he wishes he saw more of in drivers on the road.
“One of the things that I get frustrated by most when I’m on the road is seeing distracted drivers or people driving erratically,” he said. “Safety is so important on the road and it’s not just your safety, it’s everyone else’s safety. If one person makes a mistake, it could cause lifelong damage to somebody else that wasn’t even at fault.”
Driving while distracted is a particular problem for teen drivers. Data shows that over 2,000 people were killed by distracted teen drivers over a five-year period.
“It’s so inviting to reach down to that phone to see what that notification is, what that text is… it’s just not worth it,” Smithley said. “It’s not worth your time, it’s not worth your life. It’s not worth somebody else’s life.”
Just because you’re not going 200 miles per hour like on a racetrack doesn’t mean your car isn’t moving incredibly fast.
“If you hit something at 60 miles per hour, you’re most likely going to get hurt regardless of if you’re wearing a seatbelt or not,” Smithley said.
He says his own driving record backs him up. He’s not even tempted to use the full power of his Chevy Camero.
“I leave that for the track,” he said. “It’s just not worth it.”
Smithley may have gotten started racing before he got his driver’s license, but says he was actually 10 years behind many of the racers he was driving alongside.
“A lot of guys that I was racing with started when they were four or five years old,” he said. That’s why, for anyone who wants to get started in this business, he says “It’s never too late to start racing.”