“It was a hard sell,” Lee Smith recalls of her son's early interest in racing. Looking back, NASCAR driver Regan Smith and his mother, Lee, are glad that he was able to convince his parents that putting him behind the wheel was a good idea.
"We kept trying to put a golf club or baseball bat into his hand and it just didn’t seem to fit," Lee recently told The Huffington Post. "A steering wheel seemed to fit, so we just supported him as soon as we knew that's what he wanted to do."
Last year, Regan recorded the first Sprint Cup series win of his career at Darlington Raceway, taking the Southern 500 by fending off Carl Edwards. Although the win came on the eve of Mother's Day, Lee was unable to attend. Although mother and son both hoped that they'd have the chance to celebrate a successful title defense at Darlington on Saturday night, Regan finished 14th as Jimmie Johnson took the checkered flag.
Regan and his mother recently joined The Huffington Post for a few minutes to talk about his return to Darlington, the reasons that track and the race weekend are so different and the safety initiative that they've teamed up to promote.
HuffPost Sports: Your 2011 success aside, what is so special about Darlington?
Regan Smith: With it being on Mother’s Day weekend, we get to bring all the mothers down there and let them be part of the festivities, particularly the pre-race festivities. They walk across the stage. They actually get introduced and we just kind of tag along with them. So that’s a rarity from a driver’s standpoint, but it happens that way. All the moms are there and I think that it makes a fellow want to win that race even more so.
Lee Smith: That’s where we meet most of the moms, too. We’ve had friendships from that point on, [they’re] from the Darlington track.
HP: Speaking of NASCAR moms, Regan, when you were starting out what did your family -- your mother, especially -- think about the inherent risks of racing and even the unlikelihood of success?
RS: There are risks, but there are rewards to it, also. I’m in a fortunate situation where I got to make a career out of what was a hobby, and I have parents who supported me to do that and pushed me to go after that, and to persue what was my dream. And that ended up pretty well.
Lee Smith: It’s always hard to watch but through safety now the past couple of years, you know that they’re very safe in the car. When he was four years old it really bothered me, but now it doesn’t as much.
HP: Are drivers more concerned with safety at Darlington than other tracks?
RS: I think any place that we race you’ve got to be concerned with the dangers. At the end of the day, it is racing and racing is not supposed to be the safest thing in the world. But we’re fortunate that we race in a time where safety innovations and the different things we’ve done at the tracks and things have really stepped up. And it’s far safer than even 10 years ago, even five years ago. Each year that we’re in a race car, we’re learning new stuff -- which means you’re getting safer. And I know when I put the helmet on I don’t worry about the race car anymore. Maybe back in the day a little bit, but definitely not anymore.
HP: Did you learn any strategy to racing at Darlington in 2011?
RS: It’s pretty straight forward at Darlington. It’s a tough race track. And as we always say, "you race the race track there." And that’s unique from any other place we go. It’s a totally different mindset as a driver. When you go into the race, you’re most focussed on not making a mistake, or not hitting the fence, or not tearing your race car up. That was kind of the approach I took last year, was to race at 80-85% instead of racing at that 98-99%, which I'll normally do. Keep the fenders clean -- and as it turned out by the end of the race, my car kept getting faster, and faster, and faster, but part of that was because we didn’t have damage on it yet. Everybody else was tearing their stuff up and we had everything left at the end to make a final push to try to get the win, which we were able to do at the Furniture Row Chevy.”
HP: What were you racing back when you were still really scaring your mom?
RS: Well, I started off racing in upstate New York. That was sort of where we lived until I was about 12-years-old. [I raced in] Syracuse at some local tracks around there. We moved down South and started traveling a lot more, so different go-kart series and moving up the ranks as soon as I could to get the bigger series and the bigger cars -- to get the enclosed cars and things like that. I did a lot of road racing when I was younger in the middle of all that, and switched over to ovals and then that took me down to my NASCAR career.
HP: Do you remember your first ride?
RS: First ride that I had was when I was five. I don’t totally remember all of it, but obviously it wasn’t a lot of competition. Racing is huge in upstate New York. I think there’s a misconception, because it’s so cold and the winters are so long up there at times -- which this year it wasn’t, but at times they are. They think racing is not that big and it’s the exact opposite. It’s actually bigger because what do you do when it’s snowing outside and there’s not much going on? You go work on your race car all winter and try to make it better. And people that race up there are very passionate about it, as much as anywhere I’ve been in the country. And that’s how it bled through to me.
HP: The two of you are currently working on a safety campaign away from the track. How did that come about?
RS: The CSX "Play It Safe" campaign started this year for us, with Furniture Row, and we got together. At the end of the day, there were 1,965 incidents on our own train tracks last year. We basically wanted to bring awareness to that, and tell people to play it safe when you’re around the train tracks. Most of these incidents are avoidable just by using common sense and looking both ways or stopping at train tracks, whatever it might be. Not even being on train tracks in the first place. It’s illegal to be on train tracks as a pedestrian, so we wanted to bring awareness to that. The goal is to reduce that number of incidents. if we can reduce it by one, that’s great. I feel like through NASCAR we can reduce it by a lot more than that.
HP: How has the experience of teaming up been?
RS: It’s been good. Any time you get to work with your family and you’re doing your job, there’s nothing wrong with that, definitely; and it’s certainly something that’s been enjoyable for both of us.