By Gabriel Stovall
HAMPTON, Ga. — By now everyone knows about Joey Logano’s win at the Daytona 500, and that the NASCAR driver got his start at Thursday Thunder, the Atlanta Motor Speedway’s grassroots racing series.
Logano will make his return to AMS this weekend for Sunday’s Folds of Honor Quik Trip 500 race. What you may not know, however, is that another alum of the quarter-mile “Thunder Ring” will also be returning to make his first rounds around a race track as a NASCAR driver.
Garrett Smithley, a former Peachtree City resident and McIntosh High School graduate, will also make his NASCAR debut this Saturday in the Camping World Truck Series 200 race.
Smithley, now a resident of Charlotte, NC, also began his racing career driving bandolero cars back in 2007 as a 15-year old during the 10-week summer racing series AMS, which is why the venue of his first NASCAR competition makes an already sweet experience sweeter.
“My early time at AMS is why this opportunity to race in the truck series for the first time is so awesome,” Smithley said. “It’s so special to come back to Georgia and my home track. No matter where I’ve been, I’ve always called Georgia home.”
Smithley was born in Pennsylvania, and his family moved to Virginia before they settled into the Southern Crescent area as a sixth grader. Since then, he’s built a fairly impressive resume as he’s steadily made his climb up racing’s ranks to be where he’ll be Saturday.
The green flag will wave Saturday at 5:30 p.m., right after the Xfinity Series — formerly known as the Nationwide Series — race has concluded. The truck series race is 200 miles (133 laps) and will feature 32 drivers sitting behind the wheel of full body stock trucks with anywhere from 650 to 700 horsepower.
Smithley said they could reach speeds of 190 miles per hour, which will give fans that come to the track a good show, and give Smithley an opportunity to prove his mettle as a budding NASCAR star on a mainstream track.
“This is the path that all of the guys you see now have to come up,” he said. “From the Jeff Gordons to the Jimmy Johnsons. Drivers don’t just come out of nowhere. We all started here doing events like this.”
For that reason, Smithley said watching Logano’s win at Daytona was a boost for his confidence. Logano got his start on the same Thursday Thunder circuit as Smithley. They also shared driving coaches at the grassroots level. Long-time legends car racer Tina Johnson tutored both of them.
Such facts cause Smithley to see himself driving under a checkered flag at a major NASCAR race one day as a real possibility, and not just a pipe dream.
“I had the opportunity to be at Daytona on pit road to watch Joey’s win,” he said. “I was so happy for him. He’s really grown with Penske in that No. 22 Penzoil car. Obviously seeing that bodes really, really well for us. He started the same place I started, and if he can win on the biggest stage, so can I.”
Smithley has already become well connected in the NASCAR family. While competing in his first Legends season at AMS, he was invited to compete in Richard Petty’s Driver Search, a driver development program through the Richard Petty Driving Experience.
He became an instructor with the Petty Experience in March 2011. That’s when the trajectory of his path as a NASCAR racer took a swift upswing.
“Originally I started as a buckler, buckling people in on pit road,” he said. “The Petty Experiences gives race fans a real unique opportunity to come out and drive or ride in a stock car, so soon I was able to move to driving the cars for people who wanted a ride along.”
And it wasn’t just a cruise around I-285, either.
“We would reach speeds of 165 miles per hour on tracks like the one in Atlanta,” he said.
Smithley’s experiences have given him the opportunity to travel to 15 different race tracks in the United States, including the chance to race at Daytona for the ARCA Racing Series’ Lucas Oil 200, Presented by AutoZone back on February 14.
“Every race car driver wants to race Daytona,” he said. “It didn’t really hit me until I’m walking out to my car on the grid. I got this rush of emotion, like, ‘Wow, it’s amazing that I’m driving Daytona and working for the Petty Experience.’ But as soon as I settled in my car and started up the engine, I had laser focus on the race.”
And that’s kind of how he expects things to go Saturday.
Smithley said he was amped up when the board that approves NASCAR driving licenses cleared him to drive up to a mile and a half on various tracks. When he found out AMS was one he’d been cleared for, he said the feeling was like no other.
“It’s really surreal,” he said. “And I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. Obviously I was happy when I found out I’d be at this race in Atlanta, but then there’s so much work to do at the track and off the track to get ready. So I’ve been focused on just trying to make it happen.”
That includes trying to pile up sponsors like HeroBox (herobox.org), a non-profit organization that supports deployed, injured, aging and homeless veterans.
He says he knows the feelings of pre-race anticipation will rival that of his recent Daytona excursion. But after he’s crossed the finish line Saturday, he said he’ll look forward to having a little bit of downtime to relish his recent achievements.
“You just really don’t have much of a chance to think about it when you’re preparing for it,” he said. “But after it’s all said and done, I’ll probably be able to sit back and take it all in.”
Then it’s on to the next level.
“My focus is on giving a good race,” he said. “Once I finish this, I’ll get back to NASCAR and see what I can be approved for next and just keep trying to climb.”
CONNECTING WITH SMITHLEY:
Here are links to Smithley’s website, Facebook and Twitter pages, as well as to his sponsor’s website: