RICKIE SMITH BECOMES 14TH RECIPIENT OF MIKE AIELLO AWARD
Veteran team owner-driver Rickie Smith received the 2019 Mike Aiello "Spirit of Drag Racing" Award Sunday morning before eliminations at the NHRA Carolina Nationals at zMAX Dragway.
CompetitionPlus.com owner and publisher Bobby Bennett made the surprise presentation to Smith, of King, N.C. The Mike Aiello Award recipient is someone who has persevered and remained positive in spite of hardship.
It honors the Houston native and standout college athlete at Texas Tech University who was a longtime drag-racing fan and former National Hot Rod Association Pro Stock crew member. The honor commonly is referred to as "The Spirit of Drag Racing Award.”
Aiello spent his final years confined to a wheelchair after a workplace injury. Despite physical hardship and severe mobility limitations, he not only attended drag races but made dozens of friends among racers, crew members, and media with his positive outlook and unselfish behavior. Aiello passed away December 29, 2006, at age 39, at Santa Monica, California.
Smith, 66, is a seven-time International Hot Rod Association Pro Stock and Super Modified champion. His first championship since 1989 came in 2013, when he earned his first of three NHRA Pro Modified titles. He also won the ADRL Battle of the Belts in 2013 and the 2015 PDRA Pro Mod crown.
He has shared his success with Pro Stock Motorcycle-racing son Matt Smith. In 2013, they won titles in their respective classes, becoming the NHRA’s only father/son duo to win a series championship in the same season. Earlier that year, in a race at Norwalk, Ohio, they shared the winners circle.
He has overcome financial obstacles in an era when big budgets seem to rule.
“I know what hard work is. I know how it is to be broke. I was that way for a long time, and I’m scared to go back that way. I just worked hard. It was juts hard work that won them championships. I’ve done it the best I can with the money I had,” Smith said.
He has overcome what he contends were unfavorable rules changes through the years and proved himself competitive in spite of sometimes costly changes he had to make on his car.
“Rickie Smith has been out here a long time,” he said, referring to himself in third person, “and been through a ton of rule changes . . . NHRA, IHRA, whatever. And I’ve won 11 championships.”
He has overcome back surgery that forced him to miss four NHRA Pro Mod races in 2017. Upon his return to the dragstrip, at Englishtown, N.J., that year, Smith won the race. And that season, as he tuned the race cars of Khalid Al-Balooshi and Jonathan Gray, all three finished in the top 10 in the final standings.
Years ago, as an ultra-competitive high-school athlete, he even overcame the vicious punch of a nasty sideshow monkey that broke his jaw. He went back and defeated the monkey in a rematch.
And this man who won the first NHRA Pro Modified race in 2001 at Gainesville, Fla., has overcome the physical wear and tear of time.
“Since the 10th grade, I’ve been competitive. It’s a stress to be No. 1. When you’ve done it since the 10th grade of school, it’s tough to keep that going.
“It takes every nickel and dime to do this stuff. It’s a lot of hard work,” he said. “[It’s] lot of thinking, a lot of nights laying and just rolling in the bed, you know what I mean? I live and breathe and eat this stuff, and I have for 40-some years.”
However, Smith said, “I’m one in a million who has made a living for 30 years and won  championships.” It has come with a price, too, he said: “I’m gone from my family. I’m gone from my wife [Nancy]. I didn’t get to raise my kids; my wife had to do that. I missed a lot of time back then. But I’m blessed to still be able to do what I do and get myself fired up to do this stuff. It’s tough.”
Smith has been recognized for his on-track achievements. He was one of the original four – along with NHRA founder Wally Parks, IHRA giant Larry Carrier, and Top Fuel icon “Big Daddy” Don Garlits as one of the original four Legends of Thunder Valley at Bristol Dragway. He was inducted into the NHRA Southeast Division and North Carolina halls of fame. In 2007, Smith was chosen the No. 1 Mountain Motor Pro Stock Racer of All-Time.
He said he wants fans to remember him as “a hard-ass racer” and “somebody who helped the other racer when he needed help.”
Smith, who said every statement and action “comes from the heart,” joins a prestigious list of Mike Aiello Award recipients.
Crew chief John Medlen received the inaugural Mike Aiello Award in 2007, followed by Funny Car driver Tim Wilkerson (2008), Pro Stock's Mike Edwards (2009), International Hot Rod Association racer and journalist Michael Beard (2010), NHRA Funny Car racer Jack Beckman (2011), and former IHRA President Aaron Polburn (2012). Top Fuel racer Antron Brown and Top Alcohol Dragster’s Shawn Cowie shared the 2013 honor. Steve Johnson was honored in 2014, Don Schumacher in 2015, Leah Pritchett in 2016, brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana in 2017, and Top Fuel’s Terry McMillen in 2018.