By CAMDEN PROUD
The lead was really not the place to be in Saturday night’s $2,063 to win Doug Worthing Tribute event at the Five Mile Point Speedway – unless your name was Rusty Smith.
Leaders Stewart Friesen, Nick Petrilak, and Danny Johnson all encountered mechanical problems while holding the top spot. Meanwhile, Smith was slowly charging through the field from nineteenth.
First, Friesen’s run came to a screeching halt due to a broken bird cage with less than twenty laps complete. He had just taken the lead. That gave the number one position back to early leader Butch Getz, at least until Nick Petrilak powered right past him on the ensuing restart.
Petrilak smoked the field for the next twenty circuits, right up until there were only three laps remaining. That was when heartbreak struck. Petrilak was forced to pull off the racing surface with problems. He was well on his way to a win. This gave the lead to Johnson, who almost immediately broke a rear end rounding the backstretch as he approached the white flag. That now gave the lead to Smith – who wound up in victory lane.
Although the BLUEOX sponsored No. 34 car only lead one lap, it was the most important one. With the exception of Getz, Smith was the only leader of the 46-lap long event to not find himself enduring mechanical woes.
“We had a really good car all night,” commented Smith. “I got in a little tangle in the heat race and we got sent to the rear, then got back up to a decent spot and passed a couple cars in the consi to win that so I knew we’d have a pretty good piece going into the feature.”
After picking up a relatively easy win in his consolation event, Smith knew it was going to be an interesting feature. A big lap 1 pileup on the backstretch began the extensive list of miscues. Missing that mess was the first step. It allowed Rusty to get by more than five cars all in one lap.
“You really had to bide your time in the feature tonight,” Smith said. “That wreck right off the bat on the first lap was a big deal because it kind of set the pace of how the whole race was going to go and we were able to pass five or six cars right on the first lap.”
On the second lap, the race was slowed again when Byron Worthing spun in turn one. Six laps later, Tyler Siri slowed, causing the caution lights to come on for a third time. By that point, Smith had already cracked the top twelve. While many were watching Getz and Friesen battle for the lead, Smith was slowly sneaking his way up through the field. Little by little, he chipped away at it.
“I just kind of decided I was going to ride on the bottom for a little while,” cited Smith. “I felt like there were a couple cars holding me up at one point and I went to the outside and was able to zip around three of them, then pull back down. I just put the car wherever I could and was able to maneuver it really well. It was rougher than hell out there, dusty, and you couldn’t see, but everything worked out in the end.”
Even before the race started, Smith knew it had the potential of being ‘one of those nights.’ An abnormally large field of nearly 60 cars, an early season event, and some extra cash on the line made for a wild feature event. Just cracking a top ten amidst the unbelievable field on hand was certainly an accomplishment. As the race continued on, however, Rusty realized he was not quite finished yet.
“When you start nineteenth in a field of 57 cars, even when I got to the top ten I was happy,” noted Smith. “Then I got to six, then fifth, and fourth and then from fourth to second in a matter of a lap and said alright, this is pretty good. I went to the outside of the 15 (Getz) at the right time and tried to make the same move on the 72 (Petrilak) before he broke. I really didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize second when I got behind Danny (Johnson), but he broke and that made things a whole lot better for me.”
Anyone can say what they want about the three different race leaders finding themselves pitside early. It really didn’t matter. Smith was not gifted a win by any means. He had to work for it. By the halfway point, he had advanced ten positions into eighth. With fifteen to go, Smith made his way by Joey Colsten and Brian Malcolm. He then stalked Mitch Gibbs for a top five spot, who he later drove around with ten to go.
Smith then rode in fifth for the next seven laps right up until Petrilak broke while leading. Enter the Doctor as the new race leader. While all that was happening, Smith capitalized. The leader breaking allowed him to move into third, but he next blew by Getz and Nick Nye to advance right up into second. A yellow flag for Pat Ward, who had spun out in the first turn, gave Smith the perfect shot at Johnson. He was right there to make the pass, until Johnson broke exiting that very same corner.
“My wish is that I had a shot to pass him,” said Smith of Johnson. “I had a nose underneath him going into turn one before he broke, then was going to go for it again in three and four, but he slowed coming out of two and obviously that made it a little bit easier for me to get it done. At this stage in the game, I’ve lost a lot of them like this too so I will take it if they are going to give them away.”
It was a good start to the season for Smith, who picked up the first two wins of his Five Mile Point career less than a year ago. He again plans to run as many shows as he can there throughout 2019 while also campaigning a weekly entry at the Afton Motorsports Park. He won the Short Track Super Series ‘Supernationals’ there just two seasons ago. Other plans call for five or six shows in a pavement SST Modified – the same car type of car he began his full scale career in – and of course, spending more time with his son who is very busy piloting Microds and Quarter Midgets.
“I have a racing problem in my life. It’s called I do too much of it,” joked Smith. “I have a pretty big pavement background, but we sold my pavement tour car recently. We are going to do at least five or six races in a SST car at Wyoming County and then run Afton on Fridays. Last year, I committed to Five Mile weekly, but my boy races Microds on the same day about a half hour up the road and the hardest thing for me was having to miss that. I only made one race and it was one of the most difficult things of my whole life. Him and I have done this together since he was four years old and had a lot of success, so I really missed that last year. It was three weeks into last season when I decided I didn’t want to miss it anymore and took him racing instead. This time we’re going to plan to hit or miss at Five Mile when there are Saturday shows that my son isn’t racing Microds.”
In addition to spending time at Afton, Five Mile, and in Perry, Smith will also be trying something new this year. He has always had a personal goal of competing on a higher level with Hoosier Racing tires. His team does have some prior experience at the Utica-Rome Speedway, where Hoosiers are run weekly in the DIRTcar 358 Modified division. Smith Racing has pieced together a 358 engine for their second car, which they will be taking to Utica at least a couple times a month. Rusty doesn’t want to win or even finish top five, he’d just like to get some laps. He hopes that will improve his game with the Hoosiers down the road.
“We put a 358 together and I’m excited about that,” mentioned Smith. “One of my things in my life is when I’m struggling with something or I’m not at a certain level that bothers me and Hoosier tires are one of those things I’m horrible on. I said you know what, let’s put a motor together and we’ll go up to Utica and try to get some laps once or twice a month and try to get better at that. I don’t need to win or be top five to be successful on the Hoosier tires, I just want to be a little more competitive. We want to get more laps on a big, slick race track with those tires, so I think that’s what we’re going to try to accomplish.”
Saturday’s race was held in tribute to Doug Worthing. For those that don’t know, he’s one of the Southern Tier’s all-time greats. The ‘Junkyard Jet’ was the 1993 track champion at Five Mile and has 46 wins there which is now fourth all-time. Two years ago, he was injured in a horrific antique Sprint Car accident at the Tioga County Fairgrounds. Worthing is still drastically effected by the traumatic event, but was lucky to survive. He was at the track last weekend and in good spirits. Smith has great memories of Doug growing up.
“I don’t want to say I grew up at dirt tracks, but I did go to a lot of dirt shows when the pavement stuff wasn’t going on,” Smith recalled. “I remember watching Doug run a ton of laps at Thunder Mountain. It wasn’t so much here because we didn’t come here all that much in the early stage, but at Thunder we watched him quite a bit. When I first started racing dirt cars, he would come over and chit chat with me a little bit, so I definitely had a lot of respect. I rooted for him in the latter part of his career when he was in a Silver race car. He always gave me good words of encouragement and I enjoyed hearing that. I was devastated when he got in the accident at the Fairgrounds, not knowing if he was going to make it through and then to see him here today, I actually got to talk to him for a few minutes in the parking lot. I didn’t realize what hurdles he still had left to get over, but I was very impressed with his spirits and how happy he was that he’s still here and able to come out today. It really puts things in perspective.”
And so, that win was for the Junkyard Jet – and Smith says it wouldn’t have been even remotely possible without his crew guys – Mike, Matt and Joe. While Rusty was busy going racing with his son over winter, they spent their time in the shop getting both the big block and small block cars ready to go. He couldn’t say enough about his dedicated team.
“I can’t thank my guys enough,” noted Smith. “We go quarter midget racing with my kid all winter long and Mike, Matt, and Joe my three crew guys eat and sleep this stuff. They put this car together and the other car together when I was screwing around with little nine year old kid’s cars and I really do owe it to those three guys. They put their heart and soul in it. It is odd for me to not be in the shop working on race cars all the time and to rely on other guys, but right now I’m relying on them hard and really appreciate it. They did an amazing job getting things ready to go around the track and I do my thing to get it done on raceday. I couldn’t do it without them.”
Next, Smith will open his season at the Afton Motorsports Park this Friday night.