ARGABRIGHT: Don Smith, A Real Treasure
TERRE HAUTE, Ind.
Tall and stately, he works the room like a refined gentleman. A handshake here, a pleasant conversation there, and all the while serving as the perfect host to an astounding collection of racing talent.
That’s always been Don Smith’s strength, hasn’t it? He is the perfect gentleman, whether it’s in his day-to-day role as the leader of First Financial Bank in Terre Haute, or as a racing promoter of legendary accomplishment.
Today, well after retirement from his days of running a racing venue, Smith is an amazing 84 years old, amazing in the sense that it’s more like 74, or even 64. One of his great enjoyments is hosting people at his impressive collection of racing memorabilia, which takes three — or is it four? Or five? —buildings to hold everything. As you walk through the exhibits, your brain is on overload from the eye candy and memories.
On this steamy Thursday afternoon, an impromptu gathering of racing luminaries have made their way to Terre Haute to visit, laugh and remember, and to honor their friend Don Smith. Not for any particular reason or occasion, but simply because they like him.
If you care anything about USAC racing, this gathering is the place for you. This list of attendees is impressive: Gary Bettenhausen, Tom Bigelow, Pancho Carter, Steve Chassey, Duke Cook, Larry Dickson, Bill Engelhart, Jack Hewitt, Gary Irvin, Mel Kenyon, Rich Leavell, Ralph Liguori, Steve Lotshaw, Brad Marvel, Charlie Masters, Jim Mills, Johnny Parsons, Johnny Rutherford, Joe Saldana, Ken Schrader, Steve Stapp, Bill Vukovich and Bruce Walkup; great mechanics and car owners, including Bob Higman and “Speedy” Bill Smith, as well as former USAC vice president Bill Marvel. (My sincere apologies if I’ve overlooked anyone.)
Boy, the history…if every race is a story, think about the number of sprint-car and midget wins in this room. At a rough estimate, you’ll find about 200 USAC midget wins in this room (Kenyon, of course, has 111 on his own). Sprint cars? If you line up Bigelow, Hewitt, Dickson, Carter and Bettenhausen for a photo, you’re looking at the top five in USAC history and 225 wins.
All it took was some quick pass-the-word phone calls and here they are. After a nice lunch at an area restaurant — graciously provided by Jim Mills — the procession moved to Smith’s collection a few miles south of town.
But in his own low-key way, Smith is the central figure in all of this. Racers are always in the limelight, with a lot of important people behind the scenes. That was Smith, as he promoted races at the Terre Haute Action Track from 1954 to 1980. He also promoted the Hoosier Hundred at the Indiana State Fairgrounds from 1972 to 1980.
For USAC fans, those two venues are gold. And that period of time was unforgettable, as it encompassed what can only be labeled as the glory days of USAC.
Maybe that’s why everybody here has such respect for Don Smith. He is a man who has given far more to racing than he ever took away, including sponsorship of countless race cars. A number of racers yet today proudly carry the “First” logo on their car. Plus, Smith and First Financial have been tireless supporters of the Wabash Valley region since the beginning.
His collection is an enduring gift to the sport as he welcomes visitors and beams as they take in the vintage race cars, photos and various displays. It is clear that he enjoys giving to others and their pleasure is his pleasure.
Every now and then, we’re reminded that without people like Don, our hobby is infinitely smaller, infinitely weaker and much less interesting. I’m glad he’s here today, shaking hands and offering that familiar warm smile. All the great racers in this room seem to feel the same way I do: Behind the scenes or not, Don Smith is our friend.