Garrett Smithley is hardly a household name.
The 27-year-old driver has dabbled in NASCAR’s top three tours for the last five years, but it wasn't until Sunday’s eNASCAR iRacing Pro Invitational Series at virtual Homestead-Miami Speedway that Smithley received some long-awaited air-time for running at the front of the pack.
“It’s been quite a whirlwind over the last 24 hours,” said Smithley, who finished fifth in the No. 51 Chevrolet. “It’s really, really cool. For the sport it was cool. I think that’s the biggest takeaway from it.”
With NASCAR on hiatus during the Covid-19 pandemic, the event—televised on FOX Sports 1—provided competitors and fans alike a two-hour diversion from reality.
Although Denny Hamlin won the race, Smithley won over new fans.
The last time the Ligonier, Pennsylvania, native garnered this level of media attention was following his only top-five finish behind the wheel of a full-bodied stock car in last year’s Xfinity Series season opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Yet during the broadcast, FOX announcers Mike Joy and Jeff Gordon sang Smithley’s praises as if he were an established Cup contender— and with good reason. He started from the pole and his 24 laps led were second only to William Byron’s 28 circuits at the point.
“Of course, for me personally, to be able to capitalize like that, to be as fast as we were, to start from the pole, lead laps and finished top-five, those are all things I want to do in the real car at some point when we have the equipment.
“As of right now, we’re just there doing the best we can and compete with the guys we compete with. For us, a top-35—or top-32—is a good day. So it’s good to see the change. And even though it's iRacing, there’s some really good guys out there.”
Sunday’s Dixie Vodka 150 featured a star-studded cast that included second-place finisher Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Cup champions Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Bobby Labonte. Joining Hamlin and Earnhardt on the podium was Timmy Hill, who like Smithley, is battling for a permanent home on NASCAR’s top tour.
“Timmy used to be in the pro iRacing series,” Smithley said. “I don’t want to say he (raced there) professionally—but it was with the best of the best guys on the service in general.
“It was cool to rub fenders with those guys and to gain some respect. I hope it opens some eyes. Yeah, it was a virtual race but it still takes talent. It’s still very, very difficult. Not the average person could just go on there and run laps like people think. It was a cool experience.”
Smithley has just 20 Cup starts over the last three seasons. His career-best result came last year with Rick Ware Racing at Indianapolis, where he finished 28th. But iRacing offers a platform to even the playing field. Sure, Hamlin won the inaugural event with a $40,000 setup. But a $250 investment in a steering wheel, pedals and software enabled Smithley to contend against drivers from Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing—an opportunity that seldom occurs in traditional stock car competition.
While iRacing might appear to be child’s play, many drivers quickly discovered it’s not as easy as it looks.
“You see guys like Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch—all who are very accomplished in everything they’ve ever done in NASCAR, and I would never take anything away from them—but this stuff is hard,” said Smithley, who has competed on iRacing since 2009. “You just don't hop in there and do it. It takes practice.
“But I’m actually really glad to see these guys take it as seriously as they did because we’re all really competitive. We all want to beat each other whether it’s a go-kart race, an iRacing race or on the real track.”
Smithley admits the last 10 days have been difficult since NASCAR suspended the 2020 season. He had a sponsor lined up for the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway, and his parents live in the area. But overall, Smithley was more concerned for his teammates and how the layoffs might affect their lives.
“It’s been tough—it’s been tough for everyone,” Smithley said. “My first thought when all this started happening was, ‘Damn, what about the crew guys and all the guys that are working for smaller teams like Rick (Ware) and Johnny (Davis), my old team?’ Those guys live paycheck to paycheck—absolutely. That was my first worry, for them.
“Second, was for the public, the whole country, in general, and the economy. Stuff like that. The first 48 hours was a shock. I was already in Georgia. My parents live down there. I was doing some local media, we had sponsors lined up. Then the schedule changed. Everything changed about 20 times in the course of a day-and-a-half. It was scary times.
“Once NASCAR announced this race, I knew I had to get to work on the sim. I had to get on the computer and run laps and laps and laps.”
Smithley participated in The Replacements 100 on March 15—the original date of the Atlanta race. The iRacing event was set up by spotters TJ Majors and Kevin Hamlin and live-streamed on PodiumeSports. Hamlin tweeted on Monday that The Replacements will continue as an eight-race series starting on Tuesday and alternating every other week with Cup and street stock divisions.
Smithley will continue to hone his skills racing with The Replacements and whatever iRacing event NASCAR schedules for the Pro Invitational Series moving forward. He wants to stay sharp when the sport gears back up—whenever that might be.
For now, he’ll focus on iRacing.
“It’s a huge opportunity to run up front.” Smithley said. “I don’t want to lose that opportunity not knowing what lies ahead. It’s important to put on a good show for the fan base—and my fans—personally, they deserve a lot. They’ve stuck by me. I’m glad we could deliver that as an industry.
"I think the biggest thing is we've been in such a fog for the last seven or eight days--whenever all this started. And it's not just the racing community, it's all sports. It's everyone. People are staying at home doing the quarantine thing. People aren't going outside. Bars are closed. Restaurants are closed. There are not a lot of social gatherings going on. People were grasping for something, and it was nice to get back to a little bit of normalcy.
"It was different. It was fun. I think people enjoyed how Mike Joy, Jeff Gordon and Larry McReynolds were so into it. We have all been so worried. We have all been so scared about what's been going on that we were excited to be able to jump at this opportunity. I thought the response was overwhelmingly positive."