by John Stratton
The 2011 late-model-car Track Champion at Waterford Speedbowl returned to his roots on June 7, as he shared a closeup look at his car and his philosophies with 19 Third Graders at Lyme-Old Lyme’s Center School.
Jeff, now 21, is an Old Lyme native. He was also a student of their teacher, Leanne Williams, back in his Second Grade at Mile Creek School a dozen years ago. That was a couple of years after he began his racing career in quarter-midget cars. Close readers of The Resident may even recall a December 2004 feature that highlighted Smith’s trophy-winning early career.
His star appearance on the green fields behind the Lyme Street school was the culmination of a series of lessons in reading and understanding created by Williams, who asked the students to prepare a written list of questions for Smith based on their readings of stories and books, notably “Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog” which combines racing ideals with family challenges. In addition, the students viewed track videos of Jeff in action at Waterford Speedbowl, learning to analyze and describe the drivers’ challenges.
In fact, Jeff’s path to the 2011 championship in Waterford in his “American-Canadian Tour” Late Model racing car, the 2004 Monte Carlo-bodied number 15 emblazoned with sponsors’ names and logos, was not just about winning races, but more about 21 top-five finishes in the 22-race championship schedule.
“Winning a race feels pretty good,” Jeff said in response to a student question, “but it’s better to win a championship made of many races.” Since he started racing at age 7, he figures that he’s been in 10,800 races and heat races—some short, some long, all learning experiences.
Known as “Big Country” because of his six-foot, five-inch frame and easy-going, quiet nature, he’s developed a reputation for class and sportsmanship on the track, a point emphasized by his crew chief and father, Wayne Smith. Wayne and his own father also raced at Waterford years ago. Jeff’s mother, Karen, serves as a communicator and general organizer for the group.
Eager hands go up, with questions, many questions about his car, his life, his team and his teamwork with other racers.
So, what’s it like to zip down the straightaways at over 100 mph, slow for the corners at 50, and avoid contact with many others doing the same thing, trying to win?
Jeff answers: “It’s about focus and concentration. I really know at all times where I am on the track, the corner I’m in, the number of laps I’ve gone, my position, and where I want to be next.”
Not a bad life-lesson for a Third Grader, watching attentively.