Interview With “Speedy” Bill Smith

This article was written by Gary Wolfe from an interview he had with Bill Smith in May, 2003 …

Motorsports have held a strong attraction for, and influenced, many over the last century. Not only the drama and suspense of the contest, but the technical evolution of the internal combustion engines and the components designed to get to the finish line quicker than anyone else.

It is doubtful if anyone was ever more intrigued than a young Bill Smith at the sight of 40’s midgets in full flight at the old Landis Field Race Track in Lincoln, Nebraska. While in High School Bill began dealing in Ford Model T’s. He would buy them for around ten dollars for resale, and owned over one hundred during this time. The motorcycles of the day provided more speed and excitement than the cars Bill had access to so he rode an Indian but, and much to the dismay of mother Smith, began racing a “BSA 21” at age seventeen. Smith became quite capable on the two-wheel dynamo and was able to bring home the cash it took to keep his enterprise solvent. He raced for the money not the sport, “It was a lot better than mowin grass”.

He later decided to try a safer form of racing as the roadsters became popular in the Midwest. In 1948 he built a ‘30 Ford, equipped it with a Flathead V-8, numbered it “4x” and went racing.

It was during this time Bill gained an important insight into auto racing in the Midwest. While looking for an engine to go into his roadster, Bill bought a single overhead cam Model A conversion HAL motor that did not run. He tore the engine down and found the camshaft was damaged. The HAL cam had lobes constructed of segments of steel plates that had been welded together to form a lobe of the necessary dimensions. As it had worn, the weld let go and the segments were deranged from excessive wear and the force applied during operation. His attempt to find a machinist who could repair the cam was fruitless at best, and in one instance he was told, “get the hell out of here with that thing”. It became apparent to young Smith that technical support for the Nebraska speed merchants was slim to none, as skilled tradesman involved in racing were all in someplace like Indiana or California, making the acquisition and repair of high performance parts expensive and in some cases impossible.

Bill maintained and drove his Ford roadster for a short time and was attending Nebraska Wesleyan University at the time. He towed his roadster to the races in Eastern and Central Nebraska behind his ‘34 Packard with a rope and enlisted the aid of a 14-year-old neighbor to steer the racer down the highway. Smith says he has since wondered if this practice was lawful but he never got stopped in all the trips he took. Bill suffered a couple of nasty wrecks in the Roadster during this season and then obliged his family and quit driving. He then began hiring drivers, becoming a full time car owner/builder.

Upon graduating from Wesleyan in ‘52 with a Bachelor in Arts Degree, he married Joyce Uphoff, a North Platte native, and opened Speedway Motors, which was housed in a 400 sq. ft. building on “O” street in Lincoln. Joyce was working for the State Fair Park at the time and supporting the new venture. She says they would pay the bills first, and what was left over went back into Speedway. Bill tells of going a month or longer without selling a single part out of his speed shop. ” In those days you had to race to keep the business going. Now you better have a solid business before you go racing”. By ‘54 Speedway Motors had grown to include a 20,000 sq.ft. warehouse located on “N” street in Lincoln. Bill also experimented with dragsters during this time and his cars became proficient on the ¼ mile strips. One successful “Experiment” was equipped with a Chrysler Hemi and two 671 blowers.

Smith then built a stock car and had the now legendary Duane “Tiny” Lund as his driver. During this time Smith bought a ‘55 Chevy and he and Joyce traveled to Playland Park for the races. A traveling band of Eastern outlaw late model drivers, from the Chicago area, known as the “Circuit of Stars” were competing against the local boys. When the Smith’s arrived Lund told Bill they were paying $100.00 to qualify for the race. With a hundred dollars being what it was in those days, a plan was formed as they moved Bills new Chevy down to the pits. Tiny assured Bill that Joyce would never recognize him, as the giant sized Lund removed his pants and belt and threaded it thru the passenger car seat and around Bill. Lund tossed a helmet to Smith, who donned the oversized headgear as he made his way on to the track to qualify.

Joyce, sitting in the stands with the girls (This was during the time when entry to the pits was limited to men only), saw the car enter the track and told her friends, “Hey, we have a car like that”, and thought nothing more about it. Bill succeeded in qualifying the car, but when he pulled into the pits was notified he had to run the first event to get paid. At that point he had to let go of the idea unless they started him at the back of the pack, which they did not and he passed on the money. The rest of the story to the cars is that Bill and Joyce had already sold the car to Joyce’s mother in North Platte two weeks before, but she had not picked it up yet. She never knew it.

Speedway Motors was one of the first to use a Pontiac in NASCAR competition in ‘56. In its first race it performed magnificently for about 3 laps before the valve train let go. Smith also ran on the track at Capitol Beach in Lincoln in the 1950’s, establishing himself as a top car owner, who had a knack for finding the right drivers. Lloyd Beckman began driving for Bill during these days and the team recorded more wins than can be recalled setting records not only at Lincoln but also in Iowa and Kansas. In 1960 Smith built the #4x, 32′ Ford modified sedan that totally dominated the local racing scene. Starting in July of ‘60 and with Beckman at the wheel, the car won sixteen consecutive Features, a string, which ended the next season in June. Smith also built the #4 Ford coupe that was driven by Bob Burdick of Omaha.

Always experimenting, Bill mixed up a can of paint one day, which turned out a brilliant purple color. This would be the standard color, used in different combinations, on all of the Speedway dirt track cars of the future. The success of Smith’s operation warranted another expansion of Speedway Motors in ‘62 with the addition of a 20,000 sq.ft. manufacturing facility, housing an engine and exhaust shop, and Marty Bassett and John Larson joined the Speedway crew as engine specialists

The Supermodifieds made the scene in ‘64 and Bill put together a roadster style Super for Beckman and won the Nebraska Modified Racing Association Championship. Drivers on the circuit were some of the tops chauffeurs including Rocky Rockvan, Roy McCain, George Odvody and John Wilkinson. Speedway Motors with Beckman at the helm narrowly missed a repeat performance in ‘65 finishing second behind Wilkinson. (Interesting to note that the Speedway Motors catalog consisted of ten pages during this time)

Joe Saldana drove the roadster in ‘66 winning numerous events while running with the NMRA. In 1967 Smith started running the Sprint circuit with a Don Edmunds built 4x. He installed a 427 cu.in big block Chevy, reportedly the first to do so in the Midwest. Once again Bill enjoyed good success after hiring top drivers in Grady Wade and Kieth Hightshoe. In ‘69 Bill met a young driver who had recently moved to Nebraska from California and purchased a Bob Slater Sprinter for Jan Opperman to drive. Opperman caused a little excitement for Bill with his wild and aggressive style, but the topnotch competition brought rapid maturity and the team went on to win several national contests including the Hawkeye Futurity in Des Moines, and the Sprint Championship in Iowa with the IMCA. The combination also yielded wins at Rapid City, Odessa, MO, and Topeka, KS, on their way to a seventh place in the IMCA and winning the BCRA (Big Car Racing Association) championship.

Bill has had 84 drivers running for him over the years. He says some were pretty wild and fearless, ” they would get carried away and run over someone’s wheel and go flipping down the track, I don’t remember how many I fired in midair”. Many went on in the sport, gaining valuable experience and returned to compete again in the Speedway Motors 4x cars.

Bills next venture included a new Roger Beck Sprinter, which was driven by a host of drivers including Opperman, Ron Perkins, Roy Bryant, Tom Corbin and Jay East. In ‘71 Beckman once again teamed with Bill in the brand new Speedway Motors 4x and the team went on the warpath gathering wins at Beatrice, Erie, and Eagle winning the NMRA over Lonnie Jensen and finishing fourth in the BCRA behind top drivers Jon Backlund, Buddy Taylor and Jensen. They kept the pressure on for ‘72 winning four features in a row and a BCRA Main at Belleville. This same car with Eddie Leavit driving set a track record at Eagle, NE with a time of 15.07.

1974 brought the Speedway Motors team another list of accolades hard to equal when Jan Opperman took the new Maxwell built 4x to Tampa and won three features in a row at the Winternationals, won several races at the Midwest Speedway in Fairmont, MN and lost a real heart breaker at the Knoxville Nationals to Dick Gaines by a reported “six inches”.

Ray Lee Goodwin drove the Speedway 4x in ‘75 enjoying several top finishes before a career ending wreck at Knoxville sidelined him. Opperman once again took the helm and ran to impressive victories at Kansas City, Sedalia and won two in a row at Belleville to win the team’s second BCRA crown and finished second in the IMCA points. In ‘76 Opperman started where he had left off racking up a long list of victories across the Midwest, but the real highlight to the season was the ABC Wide World of Sports nationally televised Tony Hulman Classic on the Terre Haute track where 57 sprinters started the event. Opperman qualified last, set fifth fast time, started on the front row outside and led the race from start to finish. National Speed Sport news headlined the event with” The Outlaws from Nebraska came to Indiana and blew their doors off”. The story is told that this is how the “World of Outlaws” got their name. Bill adds to the tale with Benttenhausen and Opperman wanting to change the right rear tire on the 4x before the Main. Smith objected to the idea based on the past performance of that tire combination and to insure the tire remained in place, he sat astride of it, armed with a lead hammer until it was pushed off. He also admits to having a grand total of $350.00 in his motor and had been given a set of heads by Joe Mondello to use against the $5000.00 Traco engines.

With the continued success enjoyed by Speedway Motors, Smith added another 78,000 sq.ft. complex at 300 Speedway circle in Lincoln in 1978. He also engaged in a project with Doug Wolfgang as the pair designed and built the ” Winner Inc” Sprint car and enjoyed a phenomenal year winning races at Kansas City, Knoxville, Blaine, MN, Oskaloosa, IA, Eldora Speedway, Midwest in Lincoln, Hartford, SD, and Erie, CO. But this is half the story as Wolfgang out ran top drivers in the prototype Sprinter at the Southern Sprint Nationals in Florida, Spring Nationals at the Devils Bowl in Mesquite and the Dirt Cup at Skagit Speedway in Washington State. The most exciting victory of the ’78 year was at the Knoxville Nationals where the Speedway 4x outran Steve Kinser, Ed Leavit, Shane Carson and Danny Smith for the win. This was also the first year of the World of Outlaws with Doug finishing fourth behind Kinser, Rick Ferkel, and Bobby Allen. All in all, 26 Feature wins were recorded for the team during 1978.

The following season Bill had Shane Carson running the 4x early in the season and enjoyed another host of victories on the dirt track circuit with wins at Sedalia twice, Burlington Iowa twice, Davenport Iowa and Doniphan Nebraska. Midseason ‘79 Wolfgang took over driving and won events back at Sedalia, Eagle, Knoxville, Des Moines and Spencer Iowa. The win at Spencer gained Bill another Championship, this time with the National Speedways Contest Assoc. Wolfgang also garnered World of Outlaws victories at Eldora, first ever WoO race in Nebraska at Doniphan and San Jose California. In 1980 Wolfgang won the Spring Nationals at the Devils Bowl and the Southern Nationals at East Bay and Tampa Florida in what would be Bill’s last year of front line participation in the sport.

He did find himself back in the pits in ‘82 along with son Carson Smith and with the driving of Lloyd Beckman won the Midwest Speedway Championship. Speedway Motors contribution to the sport continued as Carson and brother Jason ran the Stock Block class of Indy cars in ‘88 with Robby Unser driving. They won at Mountain View, CO and finished fourth in points. The next year Robby totally dominated the class winning twelve of sixteen events and winning the Championship for Speedway Motors.

Speedway Motors also contributed to the Ardun overhead powered salt flats car driven by Don Garlits to a top speed of 220 miles per hour. This was not Bills only Salt flats participation as the “Speedway Streamliner”, equipped with a small block Chevy, ran the flats with a speed of 326.217 mph in the early nineties. The small block powered Streamliner, which was maintained by John Mackichan (builder) and driven by Tim Schulz made its last trip to the Salt Flats in 2000 setting a new record of 328 miles per hour.

During the decade of the nineties Carson (mechanical Engineer) and Speedway Motors along with Chevrolet built and raced a Supermodified truck which took home Pikes Peak Hill Climb wins in ‘95 and ‘96. Carson’s ingenuity brought a new flavor to the Hill Climb event with his “Winged Wonders”. The revolutionary design enjoyed phenomenal success with wins in 92′ and 94′ driven by Robby Unser. And in 98 the crew enjoyed a successful return trip to the Hill Climb, with a C-5 Corvette of Carson’s design which was sponsored by Chevrolet.

In 2000 Bill once again expanded the business to include a 520,000 sq.ft facility on the 42 acre site near downtown Lincoln. By this time the Speedway inventory had grown to a point it now took a catalog of 507 pages to illustrate over 20,000 top quality, state of the art, racing products available.

After over fifty years of competition Bill Smith and the Speedway Motors crews have distinguished themselves during competition in nearly every facet of the local and National Auto racing scene. Bill was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2000 ‘, the Belleville Highbanks Hall of Fame in ‘99 the Nebraska Auto Racing Hall of Fame in ‘97 and The Classic Car Hall of Fame in ‘96.At age 73 “Speedy Bill” is still the first one to work each day and the last one to leave. From a meager beginning in a 400 sq. ft. shop, Speedway Motors “America’s Oldest Speed Shop” is now the Worlds Largest supplier of Specialty Automotive Equipment.

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The Author

Gary Wolfe

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