New Zealand racing legend Kenny Smith was a surprise participant during last weekend’s Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in Monterey. The diminutive Kiwi was there as part of the Formula 5000 celebration at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, which also coincides with celebrating his 60th year of racing.
After wrangling a brutal 1975 Lola T332 to seventh overall in the F5000 race, Smith spoke to the wider impact he’s had on the sport and how a certain four-time Verizon IndyCar Series champion by the name of Scott Dixon was introduced to our world by the elder statesman.
“In the early days I helped Scott with advice when he was racing in Formula Vees and Formula Fords, and when he got older, I came here to Laguna Seca to talk to [Indy Lights] teams and see if I could get him a test,” Smith told RACER. “I spoke with Vern Schuppan, and his partner Stefan Johansson wasn’t here, but Vern said he could do a test if we came up with $10 grand. It was cheap, because others wanted $20 grand.
“He drove a car for PacWest the day before, and when he got in the Johansson car the next day, he broke the track record in seven laps. Then people started wondering who the hell he was. He was 16. Once he did that, everybody wanted to talk to him.”
Smith’s legendary status wasn’t reserved to Australian and New Zealand racing circles. A long-standing tradition among North American open-wheelers saw the best Formula Atlantic and Super Vee drivers head down under for the Winter Atlantic series, and on many occasions, future IndyCar stars returned home having been humbled by a Kiwi two or three times their age.
Although Smith did not reach the kind of international acclaim he deserved as a driver, his reputation within the industry — especially among fellow Aussie and Kiwi drivers and team owners like Schuppan and Steve Horne of Tasman Racing — helped open doors for Dixon.
“Vern said they needed $1 million to run Scott for the season, and I told him we couldn’t get that much money,” Smith continued. “He asked why we were testing him, and I said it was to get him some recognition and hoped people would do a deal we actually could afford. Steve Horne said he’d try to help, but had all his cars signed with drivers, and after the test, Steve spoke with Vern and they really wanted to get Scott in Indy Lights.
“Vern asked for seven days to find the money to run Scott, and they came back after and said they’d made it happen. And then John Anderson [from Australia], who was running the PacWest IndyCar team, said if Scott finished in the top five in the Lights championship, he’d give him a test in an Indy car. Well, Scott finished fifth, went to PacWest’s Lights team, won the championship, and off he went to IndyCar with them.”
Dixon has always spoken fondly of Smith, and is never shy when it comes to thanking his countryman for laying the foundation that led to IndyCar stardom. And from his end, as he watches Dixon vie for a fifth IndyCar title, Smith says the kid he looked after in the 1990s hasn’t changed after 18 years atop the sport.
“From the early days, when he was 12 or 13, he was a little lunatic,” he said with a laugh. “When he’s out of the car, he talked so much s**t with the crew and had fun, but when he got in the car, he was so heavily focused and I don’t think heard a word we said. He’s grown up since then, but he has the same ability to be a regular guy when he’s not driving and completely different when it’s time to do his job.
“He’s very talented, but he’s always been that way. He’s always stood out. But he’s never had his head up his a**. There’s a lot of guys you help, and once they start doing well, they walk past and won’t say ‘G’day’ to you. Scott’s never forgotten the people who’ve helped him. Very humble guy.”
Smith still holds out hope for a future IndyCar pairing of Dixon and another Kiwi he helped as a teen.
“I worked with [Toro Rosso Formula 1 driver] Brendon Hartley when he was a kid, and got him his first Red Bull contract when he was 16,” Smith added. “He’s like Scott. Never gets agitated. To win Le Mans with Porsche, he’s fast and tough, but very down to earth. And who knows what will happen with him with Toro Rosso.
“We almost had him and Scott together [at Ganassi for 2018], but Formula 1 called and he made the right choice to leave. But if it doesn’t work out there, he’s got to get back to the States. I know Ganassi was pissed about him leaving, but he knows he’d want to have him back.”