Racing Champ Smith Succumbs To Illness

By JIM HANLEY
06/15/2011
Norwalk Hour


Jimmy Smith, a Norwalk native who became one of the top drivers of all-time at the old Danbury Fair Racearena, died Sunday in North Carolina after a prolonged illness. He was 71.

The 1961 rookie of the year at Danbury, Smith went on to capture five track championships with his smooth, consistent driving style. He won 20 feature events -- which left him tied for fifth on the track's all-time career win list.

"We raced against each other fair and clean, it was always that way," said Don Lajoie, who, like Smith won five Danbury championships. "He was good."

A mechanic by trade, Smith became interested in racing as a teenager and went to work at 16 at Hyatt & Wood, the Norwalk repair shop that earned a reputation as Norwalk's center of auto racing.

For several years, he spent most weekends at race tracks with his bosses, learning all he could about building and driving a race car.

Smith was just 18 when he and a friend decided to build a dirt-track car and he made his debut behind the wheel in 1958 at Arlington Speedway near Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

During his formative years, Smith raced the car on both dirt and asphalt tracks.

In 1960 he finished second in points at the track, and the following year he ran at both Arlington and Danbury. Despite missing some races due to National Guard commitments, Smith finished 15th in points and was the top rookie at Danbury.

He became a Danbury regular and . . .

won the first of his features in 1963, adding three more and finishing second in points to the legendary Chick Stockwell.

With his smooth, calculating driving style, he was a contender for the Danbury point title in almost every season that he ran full-time at the track.

Smith won his first point championship in 1965, and added to his trophy collection by taking the next two season titles as well.

So consistent was he that Smith won the 1966 championship without ever winning his a race.

In the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of the Racearena, Smith not only got the most out of his cars, he had an uncanny knack for missing a lot of the accidents that cost others valuable points.

"Jimmy could drive through accidents," said LaJoie, who not only logged many laps on the track with Smith, but also shared his first career win with him when the two finished in the only dead-heat in a main event in Danbury history. "I'd be lockin' up the brakes, but he could find a way through."

Smith -- who built and maintained many of the famed No. 3s he drove at the track -- added track championships in 1969 and 1973, and was never out of the top five in the intervening years.

"Jimmy was an innovator, too," said LaJoie, who said Smith was the first to emphasize cutting weight out of the car and was also in pioneer in tweaking the chassis.

While taking some time away from the track, Smith ran through most of the 1970s . . .

at Danbury, winning his final feature on June 16, 1979.

He was there in 1981 when the last event at the Racearena was run.

While much of his success came at Danbury, Smith also competed elsewhere through the years. In 1963 and '64, he drove an asphalt late model owned by fellow Norwalker Gorden Gerrish on the United Stock Car Racing circuit, finishing third in points in '64.

In 1968, he tried his hand at a modified at Stafford Springs, and over the years took on the hard clay at Orange County Fair Speedway in Middletown, N.Y., on several occasions.

For most of his time behind the wheel, Smith drove his own cars -- usually distinctly painted in red, black and white with a gold-leaf No. 3 adorning the doors. But he also took turns behind the wheel of cars owned by Rit Rizzi of Norwalk; Carm Benincaso, whose car he drove to the '73 title; Stamford car owner Mickey Spiers and Fran Hislop of Danbury.

For many years, the father of three operated Jimmy's Chevron, a fixture on Westport Avenue.

After selling the business, he moved to North Carolina, where he had resided for more than a dozen years.

A memorial service will be held in Norwalk at a time yet to be determined by his family.

Published in The Norwalk Hour 6/15/11

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