Most 16-year-olds have the desire to get their driver’s license and take to their neighborhood roads, getting back and forth to school, maybe to a job, and of course, cruising through town with their friends. Driving at that age gives unprecedented freedom, and it’s seen as a coming of age moment.
With a couple of years of high school yet to go, even those 16-year-olds who can drive haven’t quite figured out their path as adults just yet. Hopes and dreams exist, but the reality of adulthood is still a couple of years away.
Jasper, Georgia’s Chandler Smith turned 16 last June. Without having his driver’s license, he had driven a car plenty of times. He had even exceeded 100 miles per hour, and he’d done it frequently. And, he was on a path for a full-time career.
In fact, he was already a professional racecar driver. And he had just earned his first career win in the ARCA Menards Series, that coming in just his fifth series appearance at Madison International Speedway in Wisconsin, a feat he accomplished while he was still just 15 years old.
Smith would score another win later in the season at Salem Speedway, where he led 199 of the race’s 200 laps. He led more laps than any other driver on the ARCA tour last season despite running only nine of the series’ twenty races. He’s picked up where he left off in 2019, too. He won last month at Toledo Speedway and backed it up with another dominant win at Madison last Friday night, his second consecutive win at that venue.
Any time someone sees success at that age, others take notice. One of those to take notice of Smith’s success as a teenager is Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion and NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series team owner Kyle Busch. Busch has signed Smith to run a limited schedule in his Trucks and super late models this season. Smith made his debut last Sunday at Iowa Speedway where he started from the pole and led 55 laps before a pit road penalty sent him to the tail of the field and resulted in an eighth-place finish.
Even with the world seemingly in the palm of his hands, Smith is humbly appreciative of the opportunities he’s been presented.
“It’s very humbling to have all of these opportunities on the table and I can pick and choose what pathway I am going to take,” he said. “I am grateful for all of the people around me. I have finally gotten to the age and the maturity when I realize this is a big deal. There is no one I know that is my age that has the opportunities I have. I have some bigger opportunities than some Cup drivers right now. I am really trying to stay humble about it.”
Busch has been very outspoken about the performance of the young drivers he has piloting his trucks this season. Smith knows he may not be immune to those comments if he doesn’t match his potential.
“I don’t think it adds pressure at all,” Smith said. “Kyle Busch Motorsports was unstoppable three years ago. When you have drivers that aren’t winning in the very best stuff, he has a valid point. If I don’t do good, I would go up and ask him what I did wrong. I will deserve it. I want to make sure I am aware of what I am doing wrong so I can fix it.”
Despite both having very busy schedules that rarely cross paths, the two have had a chance to talk a little. Busch, who has mentored several young drivers as they are on their way up the developmental ladder of stock car racing, may seem to be intense based on what’s shown in the media but that’s not how Smith found him to be.
“We just had a general conversation and got to know each other a little bit,” Smith said. “We didn’t even really talk racing that much, but when we did it was team owner to driver and driver to driver. I wouldn’t say he’s really intense. Maybe he was a couple of years ago but he’s loosened up a little bit. I’d say he’s a pretty cool dude overall.”
Smith will be making his first appearance at World Wide Technology Raceway at Gateway on Saturday. ARCA rules prohibit drivers under 18 years of age from racing on most tracks over one mile in length, but Gateway in an exception to that rule. Smith will be doing double duty, too, competing in Saturday’s ARCA Menards Series Day to Day Coffee 150, and then following it with the CarShield 200 for the NASCAR Gander Trucks. It will be a long day for everyone, but especially long for Smith because he’ll be in a racecar for nearly 14 hours on Saturday.
“I think it’s going to be all mental. You are going to have to want to have the drive to do it. If you are like ‘Oh my gosh, I have to do that?’ because if you have that attitude you are going to suck at it,” he said. “I’ve never been to the track before. I know you need to be patient and hit your marks there. There is definitely going to be a big learning curve. I have never raced on a track like that before. I have practiced there a little on the simulator. I have a good bit of laps under me and I have a general idea so when we get there so I will know what to do.”
It will be the first time Smith will be in the St. Louis area. He may be interested in seeing some of the sights the city has to offer but he plans on staying focused on why he’s there.
“There are two sides of it” he said. “One, it’s my job and we aren’t there for play time. But the other side of it is I am a teenager and there are some things I would like to go and see. Not many teenagers get the opportunity to do this. But I want to focus on the reason I am there. We always have the off season to go and check out the things we want to go see and be a tourist.”