Many people remember Matthew Smith for the moment he burst onto the Thunder Road scene: Time trials for the 2019 Milk Bowl. He had been in a late model enough times to count on one hand at that point, a few spot starts here and there where he mostly rode around the back of the pack, gaining experience. For whatever reason, for those two laps, the Essex, VT native figured it all out. He came under the checkered flag in his #04vt car for Arnie Hill.
Boom. P3 on the charts.
I stared at the timing and scoring screen on my computer. I refreshed it just to be sure. Yup, P3. “Who the hell is Matt Smith?’ I remember saying to myself.
After the pole sitter was disqualified, Smith found himself on the outside pole for his first ever attempt at Vermont’s most prestigious race. His name was out there. While it’s the biggest moment of his career so far, and the one many know him for, he, and everyone around him, know that it’s just the beginning. If you ask him about it, he’ll tell you, “Even a blind squirrel finds a nut sometimes.”
Matt Smith doesn’t come from a family of racers, he comes from a family of race fans. “It was a family thing to watch NASCAR on the weekends growing up.” He explained. “That turned into a little kid dream of wanting to race.” That dream never left, and he decided to give it a try at his home track, Thunder Road, in 2014, running in the annual enduro. He finished 18th out of 106 cars, and decided that, with the help of friend Andrew Cimonetti, he would go street stock racing the next year.
After the 2018 season, Matt made the jump from the street stock division to a partial late model schedule. He’s one of the few people to have made the transition from a front-wheel-drive street stock to a high-powered American Canadian Tour late model. Smith was a top driver on the street stock circuit, winning three races between 2015 and 2018, and nearly taking home the 2018 championship in the division. After that, the A.H. Fence team moved up to late models.
“I think the biggest challenge was learning the car, what I was comfortable with wasn’t really fast, so pushing my limits and being able to learn from others was a huge deal.” Smith said of the move.
Before the 2020 campaign, the team announced that they would be going full time at Thunder Road that season, running for rookie of the year. They ran unopposed, but Smith drove hard all season long. The #04vt team could have easily won three features in 2020. In two instances, incidental contact between Smith and the race leader resulted in both cars getting sent to the rear of the field. Another time, a late race caution dissolved a massive lead for Smith, allowing Scott Dragon to scoot by on the restart and win the feature. In the 2020 Milk Bowl, expectations for Smith were high, and he delivered, time trialing in the top 10 again, and passing more cars than anyone else in the first segment. But a segment two crash destroyed their car and once again showed that luck was not on their side in 2020.
Smith knows that even with the negative results that came from his first full season, there are plenty of places to see positives that they can work towards in 2021. “It’s a dark place when you sit on the negatives and it’s easy to get in the mindset of “maybe I’m not good enough” but those small positives are just glimpses of what you are capable of, so you gotta dig deep and keep pushing.”
2020 was a year of learning and gaining experience for Smith, both inside the car and out. While the tumultuous experiences at Thunder Road hardened him as a driver, he was also able to learn a great deal about the car while serving as a pit crew member on the ACT Tour. Multiple time PASS North Super Late Model champion D.J. Shaw was tabbed to run the A.H. Fence car in the ACT races this year, ultimately finishing second in the standings to Jimmy Hebert. Shaw drove in those events in the same car that Smith used at Thunder Road, and being able to collaborate with a driver of Shaw’s caliber was invaluable experience for the rookie.
“Being able to bounce ideas off him or Dale (Shaw) was a big positive on why we had some of the solid nights at Thunder Road.” Smith told us. “It also added a bit of confidence for me. There would be times I was saying something about what the car was doing, but then DJ would also confirm it was in fact doing what I was saying. It gave me just a little more confidence in the fact that ‘hey maybe I do know what I’m doing’”
In 2021, Matt is hopeful to return to the #04vt team and continue what they started in 2020. Team owner Arnie Hill is a lifelong friend, and with the aforementioned Cimonetti serving as his crew chief, it’s a perfect situation. “I think the team is capable of hunting championships.” He said. “However, that just isn’t the goal for next year. My crew chief Andrew knows the car like the back of his hand, my team is dedicated and gives me the best car every week. It’s in my hands to give them the finishes they deserve. I think this coming season we will be looking for that first victory, and hopefully finishing close to, if not in the top 5 in points.”
Smith is looking to take all the new knowledge and confidence from 2020 and put it towards a good run in 2021. Don’t be shocked if he scores his first, second, or maybe even third career wins next year, and becomes a star at Thunder Road for years to come.
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