Don’t be fooled by Chandler Smith’s age.
The late model driver from Jasper, Ga., might’ve just turned 15, but his youth belies his toughness.
On the track, Smith is tied atop the Southern Super Series standings as the Super Late Model tour, in conjunction with the Deep South Cranes Blizzard Series, returns to Five Flags Speedway this Friday.
“There wasn’t any pain,” he proclaimed.
Smith hopes to inflict some pain on his rivals Friday night at the famed half-mile asphalt oval, as a blockbuster field arrives for the Universal Fabricators 100.
Drivers entered include the nation’s top SLM drivers, past Snowball Derby champions among them. Highlighting that list will be reigning Derby champion Christian Eckes, a fellow teenager and close friend of Smith’s, and 2010 winner and hometown she-ro Johanna Robbins (née Long).
“It has been awhile,” said Robbins, who hasn’t raced competitively since the 2015 Derby. “But once you’ve done something for so long, it just comes naturally.
“The opportunity to get back in the car and have some fun again and do something I look forward to? I can’t wait for Friday.”
The Faith Chapel Outlaw Stocks, The Dock on Pensacola Beach Sportsmen and the Lloyd’s Glass Pure Stocks join the SLMs. Gates open at 4 p.m. Friday with Blizzard Series qualifying set for 7 and pre-race festivities slated to begin approximately at 8. Admission is $15 for adults; $12 for seniors, military and students; $5 for children ages 6 to 11; and free for kids 5 and under.
While it has been nearly 20 months since Robbins raced, the one-time NASCAR Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series driver has stayed busy.
She and husband Hunter Robbins, a former late model stalwart who now works as a race engineer for Kyle Busch Motorsports, welcomed their first child nine months ago. Baby girl Rory will be in Pensacola this weekend, and her doting mother hopes the noise won’t be too much.
“I don’t know if she can handle it, but we’re gonna try,” Johanna Robbins, 25, said. “It’s always good to come back. Everybody in Pensacola has been so supportive over the years. It means a lot to me and to my family. We don’t have any expectations. Just have fun; do the best we can.”
Smith, 10 years Robbins’ junior, has been having a ball since he hopped in a go-kart at age 4. He earned national championships at every level he competed in from quarter midgets to Bandoleros before taking the late model plunge last year.
While Smith is still looking for his first victory of 2017, he has a trunk-load of podium finishes and boasts top-10s in each of his 17 late model races.
Under the watchful eye of crew chief Ricky Turner, Smith has quickly transformed himself and the red No. 26 into a contender every week.
“I’m thankful to have an opportunity to work with a man like (Turner),” Smith said. “I love working with this team. They’re like my brothers. Racing aside, they’re fun to hang around.”
Turner, a past Derby champion himself, has built a cottage industry in recent years, molding young late model drivers into champions. His most notable former protégé is current Monster Energy Cup star Chase Elliott, who helped bring Smith and Turner together.
“You gotta be able to drive (the car) when you’re coming up off the corner,” Smith said, repeating a mantra Turner has taught. “It means sometimes you won’t have turnability when you’re on the throttle because you risk being loose and wrecking. And that just kills your right rear tire and you’ll have no tires at the end of the race.”
Although Smith made his Pensacola high banks debut barely a year ago, he is well-versed in how important tire management is at Five Flags.
As a 13 year old last April, Smith blew the doors off the competition and turned heads in the pits and around the grandstands when he set the track record during a qualifying run.
In December during the prestigious Snowball Derby week, he walked away with a pair of top-five finishes in the two biggest late model races short-track racing offers — third in the Snowflake 100 for Pro Late Models; fifth in the Derby, a few spots behind close friend Eckes.
“It’s definitely an accomplishment,” Smith said. “In the Super, I felt like I had a little more proving to do.”
That proverbial chip on his shoulder is the driving force behind Smith’s ascension on the Southern Super Series this year.
Currently tied for the points lead with Stephen Nasse, Smith has finished no worse than 10th in the eight races that have been run in the 12-event schedule. He has fourth- and sixth-place finishes in the two Blizzard Series races that have been waged this year at Five Flags.
Smith’s best finish of the season was third, a podium result that first came at Mobile International Speedway before he matched it once again at iconic Bristol.
“We’re trying to get wins,” Smith said, “but when I started looking at the points recently, I said, ‘Let’s hit it and go for the championship!’ But, if you have your mind on points, you’re not going to get the best finish.”
That’s a lesson even the most hardened veteran would be wise to learn from the baby-faced Confucius. Smith is not your average teen, though. His actions, abilities and ambitions have already proven that.
“I eat, sleep and breathe racing.”
-By Chuck Corder, Five Flags Speedway.
-Photo Credit: Speed51.com photo