Ryan Blaney and the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane team head into Sunday’s Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif., without the services of the team’s longest-serving road crew member other than those related to the Wood Brothers.
Michael “Andretti” Smith tore his bicep muscle loose from his shoulder and fifty percent apart from his elbow while trying to hold a full can of gasoline out over the wall during a pit stop at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Smith was able to continue his role on the Motorcraft/Quick Lane crew for the remainder of that race, since the remaining stops that day required only one can of fuel, which he was able to hand over to the gas man despite the injury and the pain.
Another factor in his sticking it out that day was the performance of the Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion, which wound up finishing a season-best sixth.
“If we’d been running 36th I might have left the track early, but I wasn’t about to the way we were running,” Smith said.
After consulting doctors, he decided to forego surgery and basically let his muscle reattach itself, although that will leave him with a slight bulge known as a “Popeye Muscle.”
Doctors told Smith that with surgery he risked another tear that could cause him to lose some use of his wrist and fingers.
“I decided to live with a little deformity,” he said. “My muscle will still be attached, just not where God put it to start with.”
He plans to return to the team after the Easter Break, at Martinsville Speedway, his home track. In the meantime, Jeffery Thousand and Wade Moore both from Team Penske are on loan to the team to fill in for Smith.
Smith is a native of Mt. Airy, N.C., a town just 30 miles or so south of the Wood Brothers’ home in Stuart, Va.
He first met the Woods through the friendship of his late father Melvin Smith and Eddie Wood, one of the current co-owners of the team.
Smith literally grew up around the Woods’ shop in Stuart and also came to be friends with Terry Hall, who married Kim Wood Hall, Eddie and Len Wood’s sister.
Hall’s brother Phil is a local Late Model driver. Smith helped him with his cars back in the day – and earned his nickname in the process.
It seems he was late arriving at the Hall shop after picking up a race engine. He turned off the roadway onto the gravel drive at about 60 miles per hour and slid to a stop just inches from the shop door, slinging pieces of gravel inside.
“Phil said I came in there like Mario Andretti,” Smith said. “It just kind of got out of hand from there.”
Across the NASCAR circuit, Smith is known to most only by his nickname, and by his longevity with the Wood Brothers.
He’s worked there since just after he graduated from high school in 1990, handling nearly every over-the-wall chore other than driver and plenty more back at the shop.
He started carrying tires for Eddie Wood when Wood was still a changer. He later carried for Len Wood. He jacked the car from 1992 to 1994, then changed tires before moving over to gasman from 2006 to 2014. Since then he’s handled the second gas can, handing it to the fueler during the stops.
Smith served as crew chief for 12 races in 2008, stepping in to take over the position when the team needed him. Smith’s best finish as a crew chief was a third place at Watkins Glen with Marcos Ambrose as his driver.
Andretti” also has handled a myriad of chores in the race shop, from painting cars to fabrication to setting up the chassis. Now he is the front end mechanic and focuses on set-ups.
As he approaches his 44th birthday and with younger more agile crew members coming along, Smith knows his days of servicing the No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Fusion on pit road likely are numbered.
“To say I didn’t miss being there would be a lie,” he said.
“There’s never been anything I asked from Eddie and Len that I haven’t gotten,” he said. “In 26 years there’s never been a cross word about anything.”
The Motorcraft/Quick Lane team, minus Andretti Smith, are set to qualify on Friday at 7:45 p.m. eastern, and the Auto Club 400 is scheduled to get the green flag on Sunday just after 3:30 p.m. with TV coverage on FOX.