story by Tim Hailey with help from NHRA; photos by Marc Gewertz except where noted
Even with his three previous NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle championships, Matt Smith’s achievement in the Vance & Hines/Harley-Davidson era stood out to me as the biggest story in all of drag racing. Adding on his fourth championship this year—just the fourth rider in PSM history to win that many championships—really solidifies that idea as far as I’m concerned.
“You know, especially if you look back,” noted Smith. I talked to him as he was crossing the border into Arkansas on his way back from the Dodge NHRA Finals at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway—the final race on this year’s COVID19-shortened NHRA Camping World calendar. “I mean, if the crank wouldn’t have broke last year against Jianna (at Pomona), we could be at number five right now.”
Not only did Matt get another championship for himself in Vegas, but his wife/teammate Angie won the race. And since her second career victory didn’t happen with Matt having “a problem” in the other lane, there’s no question about this win’s legitimacy. Not a bad weekend on the job.
Angie advanced to the championship round with wins against Katie Sullivan—out for the first time with her Monster 4V Suzuki, MSR teammate Scotty Pollacheck—who also went into the weekend as a championship contender, and Hector Arana Jr.
Angie’s 6.917 at 194.83 on her Denso EBR was enough MSR power to overcome Steve Johnson’s .066 starting line advantage and 6.99 at 189. “You never know when you’re going to get back here (to the winners circle), and I’m so emotional,” said Angie. “I want to thank my team. They have built me up and have told me to never give up. This one’s for them. Matt, I love you. I know I give you a hard time sometimes.”
Matthew’s championship was secured when V&H/H-D’s Eddie Krawiec fell to Arana Jr. in the second round. But he also did his job on his Denso/Stockseth/MSR EBR, beating V&H/H-D’s Angelle Sampey in the opening round and her teammate Andrew Hines a round later. “That group played their cards right and I had to race them in the first and second rounds. If you want to be the champ you have to beat the champ and I just beat the champ [Hines] to win this, so we are the champions.”
No one got drunk and sick after winning the championship this year, but there were a lot of eyes soaked and bleary with champagne.
Matt was the class of the field for most of the season, qualifying in the number one spot five times, winning twice, advancing to three final rounds, and winning the Mickey Thompson Pro Bike Battle against his teammate Pollacheck—who won the U.S. Nationals. All-in-all a helluva year for the red and black trailer.
“I really think that we’ve stepped up to the plate against these guys,” Matt said about his team’s performance against the resource-rich, politically advantaged V&H/H-D juggernaut. “They have all the money in the world behind them. We’re doing it with less than a fourth of what they get, and we’re competing with them. So I think we do a good job with what we get.”
I mentioned to Matt that, by the standard the V&H/H-D team has performed in years past, this season has been lackluster for them—even with two wins—and it makes me consider that they may not have a renewal from Harley-Davidson next year, and they’ve not developed that platform through the season the way they usually do.
“That’s for them to say, but Indian Motorcycles is always asking me, ‘Hey, keep us informed of what Harley’s doin’ at NHRA,’ because Indian’s always wanted to come in. But as long as Harley’s been there, NHRA wouldn’t let them come in. That was their contract with Harley-Davidson. I know this was the last year on Harley-Davidson’s contract with NHRA, so, you know, I think there’s a lot of things up for negotiation.”
Partnering to Win
MSR doesn’t have the titanic budget that V&H has, but in addition to a strong crew of Michael Ray, Nate Kendrick and Rick Maney, they’ve really put together a strong group of partners between Mark Stockseth, Elite Motorsports, Denso, and everybody else. That’s a big part of the team’s success—courting and keeping these partners that keep them developing, traveling, racing, and winning.
Matt talked about his coalition, and the man who really made it all happen when Matt left G2 to start his own team. “Well, first and foremost, the first person was Mark Stockseth. When I decided to go out on my own in 2007, me and Mark were friends, and we were talking, and he was helping my dad at the time back then.
“I just called him up. He was on vacation in Colorado, and I said, ‘Hey, I think I’m ready to try this on my own, but I need some help.’ And he said, ‘What do you need?’ And I told him and he said, ‘Alright, let’s do it!’ And it’s been great ever since. I mean, we’ve got 26 wins myself, now, and you’ve got two with Angie. So 28 total wins on this team for Mark, and four championships.
“Then Mark got involved with Elite Performance three or four years ago, and that’s what kind of brought me together with Elite honing our cylinders.
“And the whole thing with Denso, I mean, we were just looking for some spark plugs at SEMA one year. I think it was four years ago, and I was having so many problems at the time running Autolight plugs. It was just one of those things, we’d have plugs go out. And I’m like, ‘Man, we’re just having so many problems,’ and I went to talk to Clay Milliken. I said ‘Hey, I see that you got Denso sparkplugs, can you introduce me to the lady, you know, at the show? He said, ‘Absolutely.’
“So he introduced us to Lisa Michler. and she said, ‘Absolutely, I’d love to get you some plugs and try to make your program better.’
“And this is no lie, this is when I had the Victory deal. The very first race that she brought us plugs, to Pomona, we won the last race of the year with those plugs and had zero failures. And that’s why we won the race. We’ve actually had zero failures, and I’m not saying that just ‘cause they’re our sponsor.
“I think you can talk to any of the Pro Stock Car guys. I think every Pro Stock Car team out there runs the Denso plug, and they’re just an amazing product. Probably when the rest of the class turns over and runs these plugs and gets off that other brand, they’ll probably pick up some power too.
“So ever since then, we built the relationship. They started sponsoring Angie the following year for some races, and then went full time on her, and now they’re full time on both of us. It’s just been a great relationship and a great partnership.”
Matt and Angie do a great job of delivering for their sponsors both on the track and in their social media presentation. Personality wise, Matt is great on camera but mostly a “speak when spoken to” kind of guy otherwise—quiet, focused, and busy. Not that Angie isn’t focused and busy, but she’s anything but quiet and really works social media well.
“She does a really good job of social media, I don’t do so much of that. I need to do more, but I’m more focused on keeping parts ordered, keeping the team going, evaluate what little parts we need to fix, make better, design on and do all that stuff.
“I’ve taught Angie how to assemble the motors and now she assembles the motors at the shop. But she has more time to do social media, plus she’s really pretty. More people respond back to pretty girls on social media, then, you know, a 47-year old guy. And I have Sadie (Glenn) take care of my social media as much as I can.
“But I’m quiet around the trailer and I don’t sign a lot of autographs. We have three bikes, and sometimes four bikes. When it’s all said and done, I make the clutch calls on every bike. I make the tune-up calls on everybody’s bike. To do all that stuff, and to have these bikes run the best that they can, I just don’t have enough time to spend with the average fan. I let Angie do most of that. I’ll let Scotty do that. I’m more focused on trying to make our bikes perform so we all look good on TV for our sponsors.
“At the end of the day? Yeah, I’ll talk and try to do whatever I can with people, you know, but just during the race, that’s kind of why I’m so busy.”
I have always had a hard time getting a candid shot of Matt in the staging lanes, because he’s never sitting still—moving from bike to bike with the laptop and checking out the condition of the track. His ability to concentrate and make winning decisions in the moment is really impressive.
Horsepower and Electricity
For all the horsepower that MSR motors are obviously making, they’ve had several rounds get away from them this year due to an issue of one sort or another. It used to be transmissions and now it seems to be several different things. They’ve had enough reliability to win the championship, but is their new level of performance causing issues for your team right now?
“Scotty hurt a motor his last pass, but as far as Scotty’s bike and Angie’s bike all year long, there was zero failures or anything electrical, transmission wise, anything like that. Their bikes were flawless all year long.
“My bike seemed to have the gremlins. It was a toggle switch, it was a battery, this weekend it was a fuel pump wire that broke going to the toggle switch that we just replaced last week after Houston. It’s just little stuff, you know. We’re not having motor problems, we’re having stupid small little parts that fail.”
Matt went on to describe the Houston and Vegas electrical failures on his bike. “In Houston, when the switch it broke internally, it just shorted out and just shut everything off.
“And when we got here (Vegas), we replaced that, we checked everything, and ran it.
Matt pointed out that his bike then struggled to start for his E2 race with Hines. “Finally, I toggled all the switches and it fired up.
“The only thing that that told me—and I got back and looked at the data, but I didn’t see it because the bike wasn’t running at the time—the only thing that can not make the bike fire up would be a cam sensor. So I replaced the cam sensor at the last minute in the pit.
“Angie had already left with the starter cart. So when we got up there, we got fuel in the staging lanes, we turned the toggle switch on, primed the fuel pump in the staging lanes, and everything worked fine.
“We started the bike up back there when Pro Stock Car started. The bike fired up. Everything was good. I said ‘Alright, we’re good. I know it will start up.’’
“And it started up and everything was fine. But as I was pulling up to pre-stage, it acted like it was running out of fuel. And I was thinking to myself, ‘Something must have fell from filling up the bike in the staging lanes. Something must have fell in the gas tank.’ And that’s the only thing I was thinking of. And I was trying to keep it running long enough to try to take the tree, and maybe it would go, maybe it wouldn’t. But it finally just died again. And when we got back to the pits, that’s when we saw that it was the wire had broke on the toggle switch.
“And I think the reason is that we’ve been running this stuff since I put that bike together three years ago. I haven’t touched it. When we come out and ran it, it won the championship, and it won races, and it was dominant. And it’s just, you don’t mess with nothing that’s that dominant. And it doesn’t matter what motor goes in it, it goes fast.
“I’m focused on trying to make Angie’s and Scotty’s bikes like mine. And it showed this year that I got both their bikes to run pretty close to what mine is.
“The thing that we’re going to do over the winter, and the other reason we didn’t touch a lot of stuff is—one, budget wise. We don’t have the big, big money behind us to be able to just throw all new stuff at it and build new chassis and bikes and all that stuff every year, like, you know, the orange and black team does.
“So basically, what we’re doing this year is, I’m building a brand new chassis for me, we’re building a brand new chassis for Angie, and we’re putting all new stuff on both our bikes for next year.
“And I’m setting my bike to the side. If something happens to one of our bikes, we can go jump on that bike if we need to.
“I think with doing that, that’s going to take a lot of our reliability issues that I had this year, and was probably going to pop up on Angie’s bike next year—because that would have been the same amount of years, three years old, her bike the way it is. And it’s just time to do it. And you know, we’re going to have a little bit more downtown this season. So we figured now’s the time to do it, to work on the chassis and put new stuff together.”
It should be noted that it’s not just MSR’s alliances that account for their horsepower gains, but also time on the engine dyno they acquired from Mike Berry and installed in their home shop in King, North Carolina during the COVID downtime.
“That’s all coming from the dyno room in King. We really learned a lot of stuff once we got that done, and had a lot of new parts and pieces to put on, and just found a lot of little problems wrong that the chassis dyno wasn’t showing us.
“And I knew when we when we left there, I’m like, ‘We’re gonna be really fast.’ And, you know, it showed—we were fast.
“We were the fastest thing in Indy, the first race, and I was in the final against Ryan (Oehler) and, we had a problem in the final. The problem was the bike bogged real bad because we had a transmission malfunction in the semifinals. We swapped transmissions and, to be honest, it was one we already had built, because it was such a such a quick turnaround, and it just had the wrong low gear in it that wasn’t what I was expecting.”
“So if the season would have been started like it was (supposed to), I don’t think we would have been that dominant in the first of the year. And we might not have been dominant the whole year if we didn’t get the room done, And that’s what made us successful this year.
“The biggest thing is I got thank all the little sponsors that we don’t ever get to thank. We know Denso, we know Lucas Oil, we know Mark Stockseth, Greg Butcher Trucking, Strutmaster—but it’s the little people behind the scenes that we don’t ever get to talk about that helps us so much. NHRA, they don’t give you enough time when you’re doing interviews to go through through and ramble that much. But Dave Conforti at Worldwide Bearings, you know, Green Bay Anodizing, Clevite with the bearings, BMRS with the hoses and all the stuff that they do for us, Firecore spark plug wires, CP-Carrillo pistons and rods—they’re just amazing what they’ve done for our performance the last three years, Total Seal piston rings, ARP bolts, S&S last one is Bill Melvin at EBR—really proud to call him a friend and all that, and definitely probably in two years you will see some new stuff coming out.”
For the record, the other four-times-or more NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champions are the late Dave Schultz, Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec. Schultz’s championships came before the V&H/H-D era, while Hines and Krawiec ARE the V&H/H-D era. That puts Schultz and Smith in a class of their own.
story by Tim Hailey with help from NHRA; photos by Marc Gewertz except where noted
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