237. Clay Smith
Pierre “Pete” Bertrand raced in Western Kansas in the 1920s. When he moved west, he found a hotbed of racing near Depression era Long Beach. A local kid with a thick mop of red hair hung around the shop, fascinated by the hundreds of precision pieces required to construct the racing engine puzzle. Bertrand took the kid under his wing, and, over a decade, taught Clay Smith everything he knew about performance engines. In 1942, when Bertrand died of pneumonia, Smith bought Bertrand’s company, one of the first performance racing parts companies in the country.
On 16 May 1937, Smith teamed up with Bill Stroppe, creator of the Stroppe & Sackett Special, trying to set speed records at Muroc Dry Lake, north of L.A. In 1947, the pair teamed to win a regatta with Art Hall’s hydroplane and a Ford straight-6 engine. Clay had to modify the oil pressure system and fix a vibration problem to adapt the Ford for marine application. That caught Ford’s attention.
without the cigar
Smith continued to construct his own engines, rebuilding Offys and Drakes, and selling performance parts. He was best known for hand crafting his own camshafts, sometimes finishing each cam lode individually to tune it to a particular engine. He also ported and polished heads and built fuel pumps and distributors. Smith relied on word of mouth instead of advertising, but did create a trademark for his “Mr Horsepower” products, a snarling, cigar chomping red headed woodpecker on steroids. The caricature of Smith is still used on Clay Smith Engineering products. To establish his products, Smith spent more time racing.
In 1950, Stroppe and Smith prepared Johnny Mantz’ Lincoln for the first Carrera Panamericana, the Mexican road race. The nearly qwo-thousand-mile marathon was intended to advertise the newly paved Mexican highway system, but, for many stretches, it was difficult to tell the difference between the dirt road and endless rural terrain. Winding stretches through the mountains had hairpin curves and no guardrails. Smith returned the next year, as co-driver with Troy Ruttman, who led for part of the race. The following year, Ruttman and Smith teamed to win the Indianapolis 500.
Lincoln Race Car
In 1952, Smith and Stroppe met with Benson Ford and created a Lincoln racing team for the Carrera Panamericana. The pair drove a Lincoln to Bonneville, where they stayed up all night rebuilding the engine, including a valve job. The next day, they cruised the ten-mile circle at 118 mph. The first team also included drivers Chuck Stevenson, Jack McGrath, Mickey Thompson and Manny Ayulo, and mechanic Chuck Daigh. John Holman drove the parts truck over each leg of the race the night before the racers did, to stay ahead of them. After the ’52 race, Holman went to work for Smith at his Long Beach shop.
The Mexican race team became the model for Ford racing, and was tremendously successful. Against competition that included Mercedes, Ferrari and Lancia, Lincolns finished 1st through 4th in ’52 and ’53. Both years, Stevenson was the winning driver, with Smith his co-pilot. The next year, Ray Crawford took the win, followed by Walt Faulkner.
1954 was the last year for la Carrera Panamericana. Like the Vanderbilt Cup, crowds became uncontrollable for the Mexican road race. In five races, there were twenty-six fatalities, mostly spectators. When Smith was killed by Rodger Ward at DuQuoin in September, he was doing what he loved. He’d built his own business over a dozen years and every racer in America knew about his cams and engines. He’d won in every American racing series.
In his autobiography “Best Damn Garage in Town,” Smokey Yunick described watching Smith work. “It was a treat to watch one of our peers show you how it should be done, so perfectly and with seemingly effortless execution. Clay Smith was a genius, probably the greatest… racing mechanic in the world at the time. But none of his ability impressed me as much as his helping his competitors with advice, and sometimes materials and tools. I’d watch him at one am, knowing he was as tired as I was… he still had time for anyone who asked him for help. He did this in boats, Indy cars, midgets and stock cars.”