On the inside lane

By Michelle Prego / The Citizen

Regan Smith got to borrow a car recently, and when he did, it wasn't just a spin around the block.

Smith, a Cato native and Busch Series stock car driver, took Kasey Kahne's Dodge for a couple of practice laps when a driver with the same body type as Kahne's was needed.

His stint in NASCAR's premier rookie's car did a little more than help a fellow racer out of a bind.

"It was great," Smith in his acquired southern drawl. "It was awesome equipment, and it really showed what I'm capable of in a top-notch ride."

The 20-year-old Smith, who drives a Chevrolet on the track, is no stranger to fast cars. Smith moved from Cato to North Carolina eight years ago, but has been making waves as a driver since long before that.

Smith started racing as a toddler, winning his first regional championship in a microd when he was six. He steadily rose through the ranks driving microds and go-karts well before he took his road test.

In 2002, he made his Busch Series debut in South Boston, Va. It wasn't his best moment, even though he qualified 15th.

"I ended up crashing," he said. "Yup. I remember that one."

Despite the wreck, he has been steadily making a name for himself in NASCAR ever since. Smith's highest finish was 15th at Texas Motor Speedway in 2003. This year, he placed 17th in the Pepsi 300 at Nashville in April.

Though he isn't a household name like Kahne, Smith is doing well in the Busch Series. Right now, he is ranked 36th out of 110 drivers. He believes that the series is the best stepping stone to the Nextel Cup.

"The only way that you're going to get to Cup is by going through the Busch Series, basically," he said. "With me being 20, I'm pretty fortunate that I've got the opportunities to be in some really good rides."

Before he started in the Busch Series, Smith raced in the World Karting Association, where he was picked up by Enzo Chiovittii for the factory team of Birel USA and Birel Italy.

In 1998, the 14-year old traded in his go-kart for a stock car in the Allison Legacy Series, where Smith was both the Rookie of the Year and national champion. After that he moved up to the Hooter's ProCup series before finally ending up in the Busch Series in 2002.

Smith wasn't able to complete the 2003 season for Bost Motorsports, a team in dire straights financially by season's end. Due to budget constrictions, in some races, he wasn't even allotted practice time. Smith turned it into a positive.

"That was the thing that a lot of car owners took notice of last year," he said. "Whatever we unloaded at the track, that's what we had to work with. For what we had to work with, we did really well and kind of impressed a lot of people.

"We were one of the most underfunded teams and we were still beating teams that were a lot better off, money-wise, than we were. It definitely didn't hurt my career at all."

With his Bost Motorsports stint behind him, Smith is constantly trying to improve himself on the Holigan Racing team.

"I'm a typical person, I always want more," he said. "The only way I'd be happy right now is if I was in the (Nextel) Cup series. I'd feel like I'd be as far as I could possibly go (if) I was racing and winning in Cup. Realistically, that's tough at 20."

He still likes the heightened competition in the Busch Series, especially when he's racing side by side with the Nextel Cup drivers.

"From a competitive standpoint, if you can run wheel-to-wheel with them and get their respect, then that's how you're going to get to the next level," he said. "If you start beating them, car owners are going to want to move you up and give you more opportunities."

Smith also believes that a lot of DIRT drivers in Central New York just might have what it takes to make it in NASCAR.

"There are quite a few DIRT drivers up there that I think are more than capable of coming down here and doing good," he said. "Tim McCreadie, if he was to come down south and get in a stock car, I think he'd make it. I've heard really good things about Matt Sheppard.

"The biggest thing is you just have to win everything you possibly can and really just be out in front as much as possible. At the same time, you've got to be able to show them you can speak well in front of media. Don't make a fool of yourself."

Smith believes that persistence is important, too.

"You have to keep sending your resume down, and keep calling car owners constantly," he said. "It's embarrassing when the secretary keeps telling you, 'He's in a meeting.' I got that about 500 times in the first couple of years. Eventually, you'll get an opportunity and you have to make the best of it when you do."

Smith is a perfect example. His numerous phone calls have paid off, and he is content on the track.

"As long as I'm in something that's got four tires and a motor, I really don't care what it is," he said. "As long as I'm racing. Cars, trucks, Pintos, whatever. I'll drive it all."