Jerry Smith tackled both asphalt and dirt during his racing career
By Joe Verdegan
The 1970s were an era of wet heavy half mile dirt tracks and big block, screaming powerplants in northeast Wisconsin.
Jerry “Medina” Smith was one of those colorful characters who would battle in front of large weekly crowds, which were often 2,000 to 3,000 a night. Smith, who’s now 75, will be inducted into the Shawano Speedway Hall of Fame on July 26 along with Cubby Lamberies.
Jerry still owns and operates Jerry Smith’s Auto Sales in Medina. “I’m sort of semi-retired but I still run the body shop and sell a few cars here and there,” said Smith, who says he’s still in good health.
“Medina Smith” competed from 1960 and raced up until 1978 when he hung up the helmet. He attempted a comeback of sorts in 1982 on the dirt in Shawano.
“It just wasn’t good from the start,” explained Smith on his attempted comeback.
“The cars had changed a lot in those four years I got out of it. We were behind the eight ball and it just didn’t pan out well so we scrapped it.”
“Jerry Smith, I would describe as the perfect gentleman,” said former Shawano Speedway track announcer Jerry Rhode. “Jerry was the very first driver to come to Shawano with one of the full sized Late Model cars. One of the locals put him into the fence hard. Jerry kept his cool, he really did. He never got too rattled about anything. He always had a sharply painted red car number 70.”
Smith’s career began in 1960 during the era of the coupes. Smith would hit all of the local tracks including the now defunct oval in Shiocton. “That was a challenging little quarter mile it really was,” said Smith. Over the years Smith kept much of racing locally at dirt half miles at Shawano, Seymour and De Pere and on the pavement at Wisconsin International Raceway in Kaukauna.
“I did run the USAC stock car series in a ‘66 Plymouth owned by Mike Randerson for a year in the 1960s,” recalled Smith. “We’d race at the Milwaukee Mile, and we’d hit all the dirt tracks in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. It was fun to do for a year, but I preferred to race close to home in the end.”
Smith even raced at another defunct track Apple Creek.
“I struggled there at first because there were guys who were dialed in real fast there,” Smith said. “It was a very tough learning curve at Apple Creek.”
Smith went on to wins several features and track championships along the way. He had his most success driving for car owner Lynn Blanchard, who owned Blanchard’s Speed Shop. Blanchard built powerplants for many dirt and asphalt drivers and a few drag racers as well.
“I had some good years with him,” Smith said. “I had a ’72 Chevelle, a Nova and then at the end we ran a BEMCO chassis out of Wausau which I think we had the most success with.”
The Chevelle Smith raced was eventually sold to “Mr. B” Bobby Bennett and then became the first ever car Lowell Bennett ever ran in 1976. Smith’s last BEMCO car, which he won a Fox River Racing Club title with was sold to Don Britton of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“Back then we really didn’t think too much of converting the car from dirt to asphalt to run WIR,” Smith said. “They’d changed the coil over springs and tires. We’d even run without the windshield at WIR and were still fast. It was neat to run the blacktop at WIR because it was so close to home for us at the time. It was pretty neat.”
Smith had equal success at all the tracks he raced at.
“I remember winning a couple of those big 50 lap races at De Pere when those Iowa guys came up and Paul Kaczrowski promoted it. Those were pretty big wins. Our car always ran well at De Pere, it really did.”
Drivers nowadays gripe about the rising cost of racing.
“We didn’t really make any money at it back then – it was just a hobby straight through,” Smith said. “I mean when Blanchard and I decided to get out of it the engines were getting real expensive, even then.” And the cars themselves? “We built all of ours for awhile – that BEMCO car was the first custom built chassis, and the only one I had and it was fast.”
Smith is excited to be nominated into the Shawano Speedway Hall of Fame.
“I really don’t follow racing that much anymore so this seems like a pretty neat deal,” Smith said.
(This article first appeared in the June 2014 issue of Full Throttle magazine.)