Dave Argabright is one of the most respected auto racing journalists and authors in America. He has been seen on motor sports broadcasts on Speed Channel, TNN, ESPN and the Indianapolis 500 Radio Network, and his writing has appeared in publications including NATIONAL SPEED SPORT NEWS, Sprint Car and Midget Magazine, Road & Track and Car & Driver. His award-winning books such as “Lone Wolf,” “Still Wide Open” and “American Scene” have told stories about some of the most important and influential people and events in sprint car and midget racing history.
His new book is “Fast Company,” which tells the story of Speedway Motors founder “Speedy” Bill Smith. Argabright recently spoke with aerochug.com about Smith’s story and the process of collaborating on a book. This is part two of the interview – part one can be read here.
Why do you think Bill Smith’s story is not just relevant but important to tell right now?
I think Bill’s story is a fundamental story of success in America. That is, the opportunity is out there for us to do, as free Americans, what we choose to do. And we can choose the definition of success for ourselves and the past. I think among younger people particularly, we’ve lost sight of that just a little bit. And I think you need to study Bill in contemporary terms and realize that everything he talks about in the 40s and 50s is still valid today in terms of: don’t borrow money if you can avoid it; if you have to borrow money, pay it back; if you are going to be successful you have to look within yourself, not your neighbor, not your Mom and Dad, not the government, not anybody else. You look at yourself to be successful. And those are timeless values in my opinion. And it’s ironic with the current economic crisis and so forth with the collapse of lending institutions and the unprecedented levels of bankruptcies, we sometimes have forgotten some of those fundamental lessons.
Bill Smith is someone who comes off as financially conservative but also took huge risks in his career, from opening a speed shop in Nebraska to his days as a car owner. Is this a dichotomy?
He did not take huge risks, frankly. He took a lot of small risks over a long period of time. He never borrowed a bunch of money that would have been catastrophic if the economy had gone sour. His risk was not that he couldn’t pay back his loans; his risk was that he couldn’t provide for his family. That, to me, is a different kind of risk taking. Probably more than being fiscally conservative, the great lesson from Bill would be to live within your means. For 30 years – 40 years maybe – and still to this day he lives very modestly. He doesn’t have an airplane, he doesn’t buy a new car. He goes to the auction and buys a used car. This is a man that could probably write a check for any auto dealer, new or used, in the city of Lincoln and own it. But he doesn’t buy a new car. He goes to an auction and buys the nicest used car he can because that’s still the best deal. So his lesson is, maybe we ought to live within our means a little bit more.
One of the things that stood out was his wife Joyce, who made a lot of sacrifices and was kind of an unsung hero. Was it hard for him to talk about that?
I thought he was very honest about that kind of thing where he talked about how he really relied on Joyce to raise those boys because he was truly devoted to trying to pay the bills, trying to survive, trying to make sure they could make it, you know? I felt that many times throughout the book he was very honest about, “you know, that probably wasn’t the best way to do it but it was the only way I knew how” in terms of trying to make it. You know, it wouldn’t do your kids any good if you’re starving. Yea, dad’s home with them but now we don’t have enough to eat. That’s not going to work either. I thought he was very honest about that kind of thing.
Having been around in the 1970s and 1980s and written with Doug Wolfgang (one of Smith’s former drivers), did you learn things about that era hearing tales from an owner’s perspective?
I think one thing that comes to mind is that he was correct in his assessment when he decided to quit racing with the Outlaws and began to cut back, he sensed that the business had changed where instead of being an active car owner and active with your car, I think the phrase he used was “you toss your wallet on the table and then the boys went through it” and that didn’t seem very appealing. And I guess I hadn’t realized even though I was around during that time that indeed that’s what did happen, that it became a money game, and that really changed the equation for a lot of people and not just Bill.
The book opens with the story of Bill Smith and Jan Opperman beating USAC’s best at the 1976 Tony Hulman Classic. Why did you choose to start there?
I don’t know, I guess because in some ways as a car owner, in his era, it just didn’t get any better than that right there. To do what he did, and for him personally was a watershed moment. It was sort of the validation of all those years of racing, and that he could come into the premier organization at the time and beat them. But also it was because of the historic implications. That really was a race that changed the world. That culturally changed the racing environment, where suddenly where it wasn’t before kosher to be outlaw, now all of the sudden, it’s “maybe these outlaw guys have it going on.” And the next thing you know, Ted Johnson has officially organized it and off it went.