Oregon’s Dane Smith is at the top of an elite class of Pacific Northwest drivers who began racing in the golden era of the 70s. Regularly traveling to races from Washington to California and Nevada, he made a name for himself as the man to beat when he came to your track during those Saturday night shootouts. When Dane was in town, the local boys would have a battle.
Dane began racing 42 years ago, a year after opening Mr. Smith’s Bar & Grill in his hometown of Medford in 1971, and he’s not done yet. Lately he’s been inspired to get back out there, as he says, “to see if I can still do it.”
EARLY ATHLETIC CAREER
A stand out basketball player and All-State in football at Medford High where a coach referred to him as “a great leader” and teammates elected him ‘Team Savage’, Dane went on to play starting linebacker at the University of Oregon before injury ended his career. (The back up LB at Oregon at that time was Gunther Cunningham, who would go on to be defensive coordinator for the Raiders and head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. Another teammate was eventual Vikings WR Ahmad Rashad.)
“My career ended with a head injury. I busted a helmet, had a couple of bad seizures, so it ended before I wanted it to. I had letters from the Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals, and the Green Bay Packers, that were looking at me. So I went from thinking I’d play football some day, maybe professional – don’t know if I’d had been good enough – to not being able to play, and not by my choice.”
Mirroring his racing rival, Ferndale’s Jimmy Walker, Dane also went into stock car racing after college football, searching for a fix for the that competitive desire. Dane was not a car guy per se, but he liked the driving and liked to compete. “So I stumbled into racing and like Jimmy Walker, that competition thing is hard to get out of your blood.”
“The ’57 Chevy, that was my first race car”, Dane says. “That’s the one I paid $600 for, ‘race ready’. I’ll never forget- I got ready to race and the battery was dead, and I think I had to pay $33 for a battery and I didn’t know where I was going to get the money. Now a helmet costs more than that car cost.” The car number – #86 – was a sly reference to his bar & grill; “as in ‘getting eighty-sixed’ from the bar”, he says.
A 300 bowler, a 3 handicap golfer at Rogue Valley Country Club, who in 1985 while the Medford High golf coach hit a double eagle during a tournament at Oak Knoll – a trait handed down to his son, Tom, who at age 13 hit a double eagle at Rogue Valley four years earlier. In the town’s centennial year of 1985, Dane was inducted into the Medford Sports Hall of Fame.
So Dane Smith seemed the perfect person to ask:
Are race car drivers athletes?
“Yeah, I really think so”, he says. “I play golf also, and it’s the same question; ‘Are golfers athletes?’ It’s different athletically, obviously it doesn’t take great strength. Women are becoming race car drivers. Hand-eye coordination is really important in racing, and that’s part of being an athlete. And it’s physically taxing- probably mentally more than physically.”
In 1977 Dane won the Heidelberg 100 at Medford. The previous winners were Jimmy Walker (1973 / 1974), Jack Keck (1975), and Markey James (1976), and all were in the ’77 field of 24 cars. Dane started on pole and lead all 100 laps, with his Medford rivals Tom Wyatt 2nd, Dave Machado 3rd, and Jim Walker of Ferndale driving Charlie Charlton’s #88 car 4th. Jack Keck was involved in a crash along the front wall that ended in turn one. Dane says it was one of his more memorable race victories, because the winner received $1,000 in silver dollars.
The Redwood Acres program Stock Report reported the April 23 1978 races as a sort of “Medford Invasion”; with the grid for the A Trophy Dash: Pete Cartwright on on pole, Tom Wyatt on the outside, and Harold Hardesty lining up in the back (top), with the race won by #86 Dane Smith (above). Pete Cartwright would win the A-Main.
“Redwood Acres was my favorite track”, Dane says today. “I liked coming down because of the competition. I liked racing against Jimmy Walker. He was my favorite guy to race against, because he was clean, he was a gentleman, and he was the best. We were the two guys to beat; me in Medford, and him in Eureka. Jimmy is a class act. I raced with a lot of good racers but he was number one in my book.”
“One time after a race at Roseville, a guy came up to him and was saying he was trying to take him out, and Jimmy just smiled at him, and that said it all. The guy backed off. I remember at Ukiah in the pits once he had to put a guy down, he had no choice. You didn’t mess with him; Jimmy was strong.”
At Redwood Acres, the dry slick track could be dusty.
“That was the scariest race. One day we raced a day race because it had rained out. Going down the back stretch, going 90, close to 100 mph, I couldn’t see shit and the guy had wrecked and I just missed him. Ended up I won the race but it was scary. I thought we shouldn’t be doing this, you couldn’t see.”
“My favorite one at Eureka: for some reason everyone went on the bottom of the track, and I was on top. I came from the back. And it was like I was in a different race. I was like ‘What are you guys doin’? You’re all down there’, and I just took off around the top. I don’t know why anyone didn’t jump up and go follow me. I don’t know if it was a comfort thing. I just found a groove up there, a cushion. It was pretty slick, you had to tip toe, around the dry slick.”
The track was paved in 1988. With a nostalgic tone, Dane says, “I wish they would add dirt to it now so I could bring my modified down there and race it.”
105 MPH CLUB
The “105 mph Club” consisted of six drivers who broke the track record July 1979 during Speedweek at Evergreen Speedway in Monroe, Washington. The drivers included Ron Easau, Jimmy Insolo, Mike Miller, and Dane Smith.
“We pinched a transmission line, we were running an automatic back then” Dane says. “We had the transmission out of the car before the race when we were heading up there. Somehow the line got under the frame or some cross member, and when we rolled it off the trailer it pinched the line and ended up losing it some time during the race. Mike Miller won, he was big in ASA back east. He ran an Oldsmobile or something, it almost looked like a station wagon, it was really different. Those guys were a little more advanced than we were.”
SILVER CUP RACE OF CHAMPIONS
In the 80s Dane had great success winning the Silver Cup Race of Champions at the Silver Dollar Speedway in Chico, California. He won the Silver Dollar Cup four out of five years, with future dirt legend Scott Bloomquist winning it the year Dane’s car broke. “I didn’t know who Scott was, he was only 18 years old back then, and he told me that there weren’t enough races out here and he was going to move back east, and I thought ‘yeah right’, just some kid spouting off. Next thing you know he’s Scott Bloomquist, winningest driver in history of racing back there.”
Did Dane ever think of going back east and racing dirt? “No, I never. I mean, I’d love to, I had a chance to go to Australia and race in the winter. But between owning my sports bar, being married, I couldn’t just pick up and go, so I had to pass.”
Due to traveling to a variety of tracks from Oregon to California, Dane had one track championship, that was in Medford in 1984. “That was the only track championship I ever had, I never ran for points. I always tried to race where the good races were.”
THE BULLITT CAR aka “THE I-5 BANDIT”
The 1984 “Bullitt” chassis car by Vern Gilmore with Dane behind the wheel was track record holder at Medford, Yreka, Eureka, and Chico, with Open Show wins at Chico, Yreka, Eureka, Medford and Skagit.
It was known as the”I-5 Bandit”, in part due to the sponsor, KOBI-TV Channel 5 in Medford, and also because it raced up and down Interstate 5 highway to tracks in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada, setting fast times and winning races.
At the Fall Classic at Redwood Acres later that year, Dane held the track record going into the race, set fast time, and led the 30 lap feature wire to wire.
“Vern Gilmore was my crew chief and I think that one year we won 32 out of 36 races or something like that”, Dane says.
When asked what made him so fast on dirt – he quickly answers “I had good cars”, crediting his mechanics. But in 1986 Central Point driver Tom Glover was quoted as saying “Dane Smith could drive a wheel barrow and still win.”
When pushed further, Dane said the seat of your pants feel, the quick reflexes; that skill known as ‘car control’, is just hard to explain. You either have it or you don’t.
“It’s funny- when I’d watch other cars out on the track, I’d think ‘God, I can’t do that, they’re going so fast!’. But then I get out there and I’m in the car I can do it somehow”, he says, with some amazement. So do things slow down when you are in the car? “Well, it still feels like you are going fast.”
When asked about fellow Medford driver Tom Wyatt’s description of racing as an addiction, Dane totally agrees. “Probably once you get away you realize how much time, money and work it took for a little bit of fun, and you think…. shit. And that’s where I’ve been fortunate, most of those guys did all their own work on their cars. I’ve always had a guy that did the work. I’m not a mechanic. I can do anything with a ball; played all the sports, but as far as turning a wrench, I’m worthless. That’s always been a good thing, that I’ve had good mechanics.”
“Tom Wyatt and I were heated rivals. We lived two houses apart at the time. He was a helluva talent. He built his own cars, and they were great cars.”
LOST IN THE DUST
Dust could be a problem at other tracks, not just at Redwood Acres. “One time in Nevada – Fallon I think – up in the mountains. I’m leading and it was so dusty you can’t see the flag man so he moved over to the backstretch. I was the only guy who knew it because everyone behind me were in the dust and they thought I was jumping the restarts, not knowing they had moved the flag man over on the back stretch.”
VOLUSIA, FLORIDA – SPEEDWEEKS
Dane recalls, “I went back there to Florida and drove a car for Rick Singler, who was from here in Medford. He asked me to come back there and drive it. Rick died just this past year.”
“We qualified about middle of the pack, this was Bloomquist, Moyer, and everybody. We were going around taking the tires they’d take off their cars to use in our race” he says, laughing. “We were like 37th out of 60 cars. We qualified pretty good; car was older. The motor blew up in the heat race, so I didn’t get to run the main.”
“I flew out there, went to Speedweeks, had a great time. But we were definitely out-classed. I knew what the guys around here in Medford felt like when they raced against me- I had better equipment.”
PAVED TRACK LATE MODELS
Dane drove a number of paved track late model cars for different car owners in the late 80s and 90s, as well as fielding cars of his own.
“I drove for Butch Jump on asphalt, the red #5 Oldsmobile. Finished 3rd to Jimmy Walker at the 150 at Anderson. Not sure the year. Jimmy won it, went wire to wire. I started 5th or 6th, ended up 3rd. ”
In 1999 Dane drove the Cross Creek sponsored #9 car. “I drove that car for Ed Fleury. We won a Carson City race.” On the back of the car was painted the useful advice to trailing drivers: Eat Your Veggies. “That was from Cross Creek Trucking – they hauled produce. That sure as hell wasn’t my diet”, he says now, laughing.
In 2004 Dane Smith arrived at Redwood Acres as part of the North State Challenge Series tour for the traditional Fair Nights races sporting the ‘Mr. Smith’s’ logo on the hood and his old car number, #86. [Shown at top in practice and below in the pits after the main event, a little worn out, sitting in his hauler.]
North State Challenge Series reporter Peter Moss recalled pointing out to Dane one time in the Redwood Acres pits that back on the wet clay Dane actually drove faster than they all did now that it had been paved- “Dane was very modest, and he said ‘Aw, well, they must’ve made the track longer when they paved it.’ ”
“I never won much on asphalt”, Dane states today. “I loved Redwood Acres when it was dirt – it was just awesome. And its a good asphalt track too. I liked it better dirt. It’s harder passing on asphalt than it is on dirt. You can’t pull a slide job on asphalt too well.”
Still, there were some dramatic moments at The Acres during his later years of paved racing. “At Redwood Acres when it was paved one night I was following Eureka’s Tim McCracken and Rusty Olson, and Rusty just drove right through Tim and took him out into turn three. I was pissed, so going down into turn one I just drove right into Rusty and took him out. The crowd cheered like I had won the race!”
RECENT YEARS BACK ON DIRT
Dane explains: “That #1 modified was a Bruce Rayburn locally-built car. I’ve had three or four since then. It went pretty good, first or second year out of Medford. I hadn’t won a lot in modifieds. I think my age is catching up.”
In 2006 during a test & tune night, Dane got a chance to take a powerful Sprint Car for a few practice laps around the track, bringing both smiles and rumors. He says it wasn’t in fact an official tryout but rather just for fun. “I just hot lapped it. I was going to take it easy, then thought ‘what the hell’ and stepped on it”, he says, grinning. “It was pretty awesome. The adrenaline kicks in, the competitiveness, I guess; once you’ve stood on the gas it’s hard not to.”
On a Friday night in October 2013, Dane Smith was eager to get out of the kitchen where he was the cook at his bar & grill and get to his shop in an industrial section of Medford. His new modified was being delivered from car owner Don Roemmer. The last car he had suffered from “too much motor”, and after an absence from the track, this was the first step of getting back into racing. “I want to see if I still have it”, he says.
As the new car is backed into the shop, Dane comes back to his office and reports “It doesn’t have any bumpers on it, no lettering, the thing is pretty ugly.” His mechanic, Joe Davison, then begins the process of tearing it down piece by piece, adding new parts that will be legal for the series they will be running in. “We are planning on taking it to Las Vegas”, Dane later says.
When the car was finally race ready, the first time out they took the car to the track in Fernley, Nevada, and in the qualifying race Dane says “We crashed big time. Got caught up in a wreck of two other cars and had nowhere to go.” They decided to take the car to the Brooks-Shaw Driving School in Bakersfield and got it sorted and going faster. “We found a lot of front end stuff that was messed up”, he says. “They put their guy in it, Wayne Brooks, a fast driver, and he went fast. Then I got in it and I went as fast as he did. They were surprised that a 65 year old guy was that fast. I felt like for an old guy I could still do it.”
Now in 2014 Dane says “We don’t really know yet where we are gonna run. We’ll try and go to Vegas at the end of the year, and Reno Fernley. And probably run local here in Medford a little bit. I’m not going to run a big schedule. I don’t know how we did it years ago, between work and everything else. When you’re young you can have that energy. When you get older, I don’t know, between work and family and everything else.”
One thing is for sure, on a given night on a dirt track, Dane Smith has still got it.
I want to thank Dane Smith for his kind support and for opening up his home and his shop and office for access to a great collection of photographs and racing history. And he personally cooked me a fine burger.
If you are in Medford drop by Mr. Smith’s Bar & Grill at 401 E. Jackson street. There is a nice collection of portraits of historic Medford athletes on the wall, including cars driven by a racer I don’t hesitate to call an athlete, Dane Smith. And Dane might even be in the the kitchen cooking for you.