There were days Mike Heffner didn’t want to look at a Sprint Car. The pain, the anguish, it was too much. Then, there were others he wanted to be normal and mingle with the racing community.
Sprint Car racing was dealt a harsh blow on Sept. 20, when Heffner’s driver, Greg Hodnett, was fatally injured in a crash at BAPS Motor Speedway. No one felt the loss more than Heffner, his team, and the Hodnett family.
Family, that’s Sprint Car racing. And that’s what led Heffner to the decision to continue Heffner Racing in 2019.
Heffner has hired Ryan Smith to pilot his car next season. The number will switch to 72, and the team, which will also feature crew chief Jeremy Bitner, plans to compete in central Pennsylvania with a smattering of road shows on the schedule.
“I was close to done,” Heffner said. “I don’t think I’m alone. I think a lot of people close to Greg made the decision that they were done. Not naming anyone specifically, but some people have made that decision.
“I hate to say this is what Greg would have wanted, to go forward, because I don’t want to imply anything. But, he was such a supporter of local racing and did nothing but good in the sport.
“Sherry said she doesn’t want all he did to be for naught. He will always be remembered. There will always be things done to pay tribute to him. She doesn’t want to abandon it, and I don’t want to abandon it, either.”
Continued Heffner, “This was much more difficult than any other time I’ve had to make a decision, because it wasn’t only about a driver. It was about whether I should race or not.
“It’s not a matter of right or wrong, because everyone’s personality is different. Walking away or staying in, there is no right or wrong. I, finally, realized that, and it’s OK to do one or do the other.”
Heffner will enter his 11th year as a car owner, and ironically, this won’t be Smith’s first stint in the car.
The Kunkletown, Pa., driver jumped in the seat of Heffner’s car during the 2008 Tuscarora 50 weekend. Heffner’s team was green, and so was Smith, which made for an interesting night.
“I never sat in a Sprint Car until we went to Port Royal,” Smith, 30, chuckled. “I sat in that thing, first time driver, and Mike said, ‘just go out and hold it to the floor.’ I was scared for my life heading into Turn 1.
“We ran seven or eight times that year, and we stayed friends. Ten years later, I’m ready for the challenge and getting plugged into a ride like that.”
Heffner spent time with Smith and built a friendship over the years. So, when it came down to making a decision, Smith was near the top of the list.
But Heffner didn’t pick Smith on a whim or simply because they were friends. He did his due diligence to make sure he was making the right choice.
The talent is evident. Smith has made the most out of little, winning races against the World of Outlaws and All Star Circuit of Champions. But his biggest attribute is how he carries himself off the track.
“Everybody has a bad day or says the wrong thing, but over the last 10 years, I can’t think of one time Ryan did something embarrassing,” Heffner said. “That’s one of the elements that appealed to me.
“It’s very important how a person represents my team. It’s almost the most important thing, although, I love winning races. The way the team is perceived and the way it’s represented, the driver is at the front and represents it the most.
“Ryan is a good driver, and I know he is getting better. I don’t see him making many mistakes on the racetrack. I’m not sure he’s had the best equipment, and I’m not sure he’s had a routine to fall into. He’s jumped around a bit, cars and where he’s raced. I think for someone to be successful, they need to have a pattern or routine, and I hope he can do that with this team.”
With a few exceptions, Smith has spent most of his career building his own team. That’s good in some respects, but it’s also been a detriment.
Sure, Smith made all the decisions and didn’t have to answer to an owner. But, it also meant scraping by in a sport littered with high-dollar teams and racing conservatively just to make it to the next event.
That won’t be the case with Heffner Racing. Smith will have everything that is needed to focus on winning races and also honoring Hodnett, who Smith held in the highest regard.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Smith said. “I have huge shoes to fill, that’s for sure. Greg was one of my idols growing up. It’s still, obviously, sad, but to get the opportunity to run that car is pretty bad ass.
“Greg is somebody I only got to talk to a few times, because he was very involved and all-in at the racetrack. He wasn’t one to walk through the pits and talk to everybody, and I’m the same way. When I did get to talk to him, I listened to what he had to say.
“He would open up to me on driving tips, following the racetrack, lap times, and that kind of stuff. Hopefully, I can one day be as good as Greg was. He is definitely one of the best.”
Expectations will be high for Smith in his new ride. Heffner has one of the best cars in central Pennsylvania, and Hodnett ran up front on a weekly basis.
That’s a lot of pressure for a new team. But, Smith has shown in the past that the higher the stakes, the better he is as a driver.
Smith beat the World of Outlaws at Port Royal Speedway in 2014 and owns eight All Star Circuit of Champions wins, finishing second in the series point standings in 2017. He also placed fifth in the 2017 Kings Royal and captured the Selinsgrove Jim Nace Memorial last season.
It also helps that the learning curve will also be minimal in Smith’s new digs. He is bringing his crew chief, Jeremy Bitner, into the fold, which could lead to speed and wins early on for the team.
“You, definitely, got to perform,” said Smith, who works 20 minutes from Heffner’s shop. “You can’t go out and run around in eighth all year, that’s just not getting it done. You need to perform and win races.
“The first two and a half years, I didn’t win at all. Then, I won a couple here and there the last few years, but I just didn’t have the opportunity to be in a fully-funded operation like this. I think that is going to take me to the top and get me to where I need to be to win double-digit races.”
Continued Smith, “Mike is good people. He’s got a great team assembled, good equipment, and has the means to win races. To be a part of it is pretty awesome.”
Smith isn’t replacing Hodnett. That is too much to ask of any driver … it can’t be done. Instead, he is an addition to the family and tradition Heffner wants to continue for years to come.
“Out of respect for Greg and making sure things are done for Sherry in Greg’s honor, I think me being around and having a good team can get the word out and continue that cause easier in racing than outside racing,” Heffner said.
“I would also like to spend time with the team and Sherry. She has expressed an interest in coming to the races, and I’ve told her she is part of the team. She can come and hang out, sell T-Shirts, or whatever she wants to do.
“That’s part of it, too. If she told me she didn’t want to, I don’t know if I would’ve, either. The strength she has shown and wanting to be around, it made me want to be around it and move forward.”