Female driver proves she belongs
Most of the crowd had already left Amsoil Speedway on July 12 as Ashley Smith motored around the track during the last race of the night. One of the people who stuck around to cheer her on was LeRae Ralidak, a speedway intern who made local dirt-...
Most of the crowd had already left Amsoil Speedway on July 12 as Ashley Smith motored around the track during the last race of the night.
One of the people who stuck around to cheer her on was LeRae Ralidak, a speedway intern who made local dirt-track history in 2006 and 2007 by becoming the first woman to win feature races at Hibbing and Proctor speedways, respectively.
Now it was Smith's turn.
Smith became the first woman to win a feature in Superior when she drove to the checkered flag in the Pure Stock finale. The 21-year-old from South Range had finished second about a half-dozen times before finally breaking through with a win.
"I had the two-lap curse," Smith said. "With two laps to go, I'd spin out, I'd get spun out, I'd get taken out or pushed into the wall. It was always something, and I'd be like, 'With two laps to go? Really?'"
Smith is a self-described "daddy's girl" who spends about 10 hours each week working on her race car with her father, Jeff Smith. She grew up racing go-karts and has been racing Pure Stocks since 2005.
This is her third year racing her 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass, with its signature No. 23 and pink camouflage paint. After finishing seventh in the points standings at Superior last year, she is having a breakout season this year as her win vaulted her into the points lead.
It didn't come easy.
Dustin Follett of Cloquet started the 15-lap feature on the pole and was having a strong run when he ran over a bumper midway through the race and got a flat. Smith, who won her heat and started on the outside of the second row, seized the lead and cruised to victory.
"I was nervous at the end when those cautions kept coming out, but I'm not surprised she finally did it," Jeff Smith said. "She's a good racer, and sooner or later, it was going to happen."
Pure Stocks are an entry-level division, with Smith netting only about $150 for the victory. Smith works as a dietary aide for Essentia Health in Duluth and gets sponsors to help pay for her racing.
Smith had her share of bad luck before. She led an entire race at Superior in 2007 when she was the victim of lap traffic, colliding with a car that was pulling off the track.
"Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good," said her pit man, Jim Cooper, who used to race against her.
Cooper has been helping more this season after Jeff Smith had elbow surgery. It also helps that Ashley Smith is more hands-on than she used to be.
"Ashley is a tomboy at the track but is definitely a girlie-girl away from it," Jeff Smith said. "She used to just watch when we worked on the car."
"Now she gets just as greasy as anyone else," said Sue Wright, Jeff Smith's girlfriend. "She's a race car driver -- with pretty pink nails."
It took Ashley Smith awhile to earn respect. When she first started racing at Proctor, she was told she didn't belong.
"Nobody likes to get beat by a girl," Jeff Smith said.
Now she has a following, as evidenced by the people who stuck around to watch Smith take the checkered last week at Superior, most of whom she didn't even know.
Smith was asked if she was an inspiration for the young girls who sit in the bleachers each week.
"I hope so," Smith said. "When I first started, it was rough. I had guys come up to me and say that if I didn't learn how to drive, they were going to roll me over.
"We're just as good as them. Maybe we have to learn it a lot faster, but you see more women racing than when I started, so that's a good thing."