For 15 years, David Smith was one of thousands of faceless fans walking the pits and packing the stands at drag strips all across the eastern U.S. Then Top Alcohol Dragster racer Shelly Howard befriended him, and before he knew it, Smith went from being a superfan to being "family" to everyone in the alcohol ranks and half the people in the Sportsman pits.
Smith, a 40-year-old machinist from Vernon, N.J., is the kind of guy who works 80 hours a week so he can get time off and spend his own money to photograph races in Gainesville, Charlotte, Chicago, and even all the way out in Topeka, Dallas, and Houston. "The alcohol classes were always my favorites, I guess because the racers always seemed like regular working-class people like me," says Smith, who counts drivers Troy Buff, Alan Bradshaw, and Lee Callaway among his closest racing friends. "I've stood there talking to pro racers for 45 minutes, and the next day, they don't even recognize you. You meet an alcohol racer from halfway across the country, and when you're back at the same race a year later, they remember you."
Smith, the official photographer for the Pro Sportsman Association, an organization dedicated to promoting Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car racing, has since branched out to other sportsman categories. "I was friends with [Super Gas racer] Mike Sawyer, and I'd always shoot his car and his dad's car and anybody else who made a run until they went down the track. Now, I know a bunch of those guys and shoot them, too. When you go to a Lucas Oil Series race, you're seeing the drivers who are going to be the stars of the future, and my favorite pros are all former sportsman racers - Spencer Massey, Hillary Will, and Steve Torrence."
"You can't say enough good things about David," says many-time national event champion Mike Kosky, who's been racing Top Alcohol Dragster since the 1970s, when they were part of Pro Comp. "He's done more good for more people in the alcohol ranks than any driver or tuner or crew guy out there."
Smith's first race was the Summernationals in 1986, the year "Big Daddy" Don Garlits had his infamous blowover in Saturday qualifying. Smith was 15 and went with his dad. Now, it's nothing for him to work all day, pile into his car, and take off for a track hundreds or even thousands of miles away. He shoots from the wall and sometimes from the stands for downtrack action but is best known for his work in the pits, where hard-working mechanics who otherwise would toil in anonymity get what little glory they'll ever receive through is photography.
"David's an asset to the sport," says Jackie Fricke, who drives Joe Cantrell's JC Auto Glass Top Alcohol Dragster. "He does what he does just because he loves drag racing, and he's brought so much enjoyment to so many people. He captures the human element of racing, the behind-the-scenes drama of the sport that you don't see anywhere else."
"Most people think I take pictures for a living because whenever they see me I've got a camera hanging around my neck," Smith says, who doesn't claim to be an expert on par with the veteran photojournalists who line the walls at tracks on the NHRA Full Throttle tour. He's completely self-taught. "Nobody ever showed me how to take pictures. Whatever I've learned is from trial and error, and I've never taken any courses - I don't have the time."
Smith drives from 15,000 to 20,000 miles a year to shoot eight or nine nationals events, all the Eastern regional events, and the Midwest regionals in Norwalk, Chicago, and Indy. "I probably like Reading the best - at least when the weather is nice - and who wouldn't like going to a race in Charlotte?" he says.
About the only alcohol racers not on a first-name basis with the soft-spoken guy from New Jersey are those from the West Coast. He's only been to Pomona once, and he's never been to Sonoma, Seattle, Phoenix, or Las Vegas for one simple reason: He doesn't fly. Ever. "I saw a couple of planes crash at airshows when I was a kid, and there's no way I'm ever getting on one," he says. "I've already worn out one car driving to races, and I'm half way to wearing out another one. I don't mind, though. Some of my best friends in the world are at the race track - not just drivers but the crew guys and family members, too. The people out here have become my second family."
Spencer Massey and David Smith