Since day one, Will Smith has dreamed of driving an NHRA Top Fuel dragster. From his youth spent learning the ropes to his professional career working in the industry, Smith has dedicated his entire life to pursuing his dream. Now, at just 32 years old and without having been born into a drag racing dynasty or having unlimited funding, the highly-determined man has made it happen – and he’s motivating countless others to do the same with his inspiring story.
Smith got his first taste of drag racing when he was a child in the NHRA Jr. Dragster ranks. He spent a decade there before obtaining his NHRA Super Comp and Super Gas licenses through Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School. “I wanted to be a professional at a young age. When I was 14, I went to Steve Johnson and he let me help at this shop and taught me things,” recalled Smith, grateful for the guidance that the famed NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle racer gave. “Throughout high school and college, I worked for teams as a volunteer so that I could learn everything I possibly could.”
When he was 16, Smith began helping Pro Modified racers Mike Castellana and Shannon Jenkins, but wasn’t able to go on the road until he graduated from school. “I started college in 2009 and the Al-Anabi deal took off,” he added of his time spent with the top-tier team on the NHRA tour.
Smith graduated from the University of Alabama in 2012 with a degree in marketing. Although his goal was still to be a racer, he had a solid “backup plan” that enabled him to work in the industry he loved while working to achieve his dream; since 2016, Smith has worked as the Director of Marketing for the PDRA and recently came on board for Virginia Motorsports Park with the same title.
I just looked at everyone else and thought, why can’t it be me? – Will Smith
By 2017, Smith had added an NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster license to his repertoire and began driving Hirata Motorsports’ A/Fuel Dragster. It was three-time NHRA Top Fuel world champion Larry Dixon, though, who ultimately was the critical link in Smith being able to make good on his lifelong objective. The two met through Johnson and grew closer over the years.
“Larry was my mentor and I called him whenever I had questions. At the end of my first year in the Top Alcohol car, he asked if I thought I could drive a Top Fuel car now. I felt that I could but knew I didn’t have enough runs under my belt,” shared Smith. Dixon did believe that Smith could do it, too, and encouraged his protégé to gain as much seat time as possible.
Smith spent four seasons with the Hirata group and took Robin Samsel’s car for a spin at the 2022 NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series Southeast Division 6th Annual “Baby Gators” in March at Gainesville Raceway. There, the Alabama-based racer captured a coveted Wally trophy when he ended the weekend with a win.
Throughout it all, Dixon always encouraged Smith to keep pushing toward Top Fuel. “He had a similar story of how he rose to success. He recognized my passion and determination and work ethic,” explained Smith, who has had to work his way up rather than be born into the driver’s seat, or with the blessing of family financing.
Without a bolstered bank account to back him, Smith worked relentlessly to secure the funding he would need to get to the Top Fuel level. Many found inspiration in his story, believed in his mission, and stepped up to help. As a result, Smith assembled his “Band of Brothers,” which includes Dixon, crew chief Tony Shortall, the entire Larry Dixon Racing crew, as well as McKinney Motorsports, Robert A. Tull Inc., Schepel Buick GMC Cadillac, Greenbrier Excavating & Paving, Fabstar Industrial, Gallegos Family Racing, Western Beef, TeaCo Geophysical, Asphalt Consultants Inc., Frederick Line-X, Clevite, Hussey Performance Copper Gaskets, and ProThings Apparel.
Of course, Smith’s parents, Ken and Suzanne, have also been behind him from the very beginning. “They paved the way for me with my Junior. My father was a bracket racer who loved the sport. He and my mother put me through college, but they couldn’t afford to finance my racing,” said Smith gratefully.
Once he realized that he had accumulated enough capital and that it was finally time to take the next step forward, Smith headed to US 131 Motorsports Park in Michigan in early August of 2022. There, he needed to make one 1/8-mile pass and two full 1,000-foot blasts in order to upgrade his license from Top Alcohol to Top Fuel.
Surprisingly, Smith wasn’t apprehensive about strapping himself to the nitro-fueled monster. “It’s scary how calm I feel when I’m in the car,” he laughed. “I think that’s the good Lord above telling me this is where I belong, this is what I’m made for.”
While there weren’t nerves, Smith was aware that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. He began analyzing and overanalyzing the different aspects of the run, breaking down segments and thinking about the more extreme rate of acceleration. “Larry told me the car will launch the same as the A/Fuel car, I’ll get a few hundred feet out, and it’ll just keep accelerating,” detailed Smith of the instruction not to overcomplicate things. “He told me not to overthink it and that I would be fine. It was the best advice I received.”
On his first half-track pass, Smith had a moment where he realized his life’s work was coming to fruition. Incredibly, he made his two following full-track passes, 3.94 at 313 mph on Saturday and 3.87 at 309 mph on Sunday, and secured his NHRA Top Fuel license while feeling comfortable and confident. “I acclimated really quickly,” said the natural wheelman.
There were times I was close to giving up, but I couldn’t bring myself to quit. As long as you keep going, there’s always a chance. – Will Smith
Having accomplished step one, Smith knew there was only one big task left to check on his bucket list item: racing in competition. Rather than pick an event where the field may be smaller, though, he decided that, if he was only going to have one shot at it, he wanted it to be on the biggest stage possible with the best of the best around him: the NHRA U.S. Nationals at Indiana’s Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, over Labor Day weekend.
Smith made his debut driving Dixon’s Top Fuel dragster and not only carried a wrap to pay homage to the black-and-gold Miller Genuine Draft livery in which Dixon first won, but also with a competition number of 200 in tribute to Bill Mullins. “Bill is just one of a handful of big-time drivers from Alabama. I met him a few years ago, we became friends, and he’s helped me in a lot of ways to make this possible. This was his number when he ran back in the day,” noted Smith, an old soul who loves the golden era of drag racing and was humbled to carry on the legacy of one of his idols.
“Between licensing and Indy, I made about a thousand runs in my mind,” Smith stated of how he prepared for the event. “Coming out under the arch as the first car on Friday night under the lights, that’s when it really hit me that it was happening.”
Worries that he might not pick up where he left off from licensing were quickly dispelled when Smith’s first qualifying run took him right down Broadway with a perfect pass. He followed suit with four more runs, and, although his best effort of 3.832 at 315.71 mph ranked him 20th of the 25 entries, Smith wasn’t upset at having not made the field.
For him, it was more important to know that he’s inspired others to chase their dreams, their goals, and their passion. “Along the way here, a lot of people laughed at me and told me I couldn’t do it,” confessed Smith, who refused to quit. Now, his success is surreal and he’s joined an exclusive club of the few who have ever wrangled the supercharged chaos of 11,000-horsepower down the dragstrip. “There were times I was close to giving up, but I couldn’t bring myself to quit. As long as you keep going, there’s always a chance. I want to make an impact on this sport and pass the torch to the next generation like Larry did for me.”
Now that he’s done what so many considered to be impossible, Smith is focused on keeping his momentum going. He knows he will have to work even harder to bring in enough marketing partners to continue, as NHRA Top Fuel is exponentially expensive, whether it’s for one more race or for an entire season. “Even if I don’t move forward, I’ve accomplished my life’s goal and I’m thankful for it,” the inspiring rookie racer shared. “My ultimate goal, of course, is to work with Larry on a full fuel car season.”
“You don’t have to be wealthy or born into racing – it’s obtainable if you truly believe in it and work hard enough to make it happen,” said the man who doesn’t have an ounce of quit in his body. By smartly leveraging his skills, assets, and connections, Smith showed the world that yes, it is possible for the “average guy” to race at the top level of the sport. “I just looked at everyone else and thought, why can’t it be me?”