NHRA: Matt Smith ready to put championship defense in high gear this weekend

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There’s something about Sonoma Raceway that seems to bring out the best in NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle rider Matt Smith.

It was at Sonoma last year that set the North Carolina resident on the path to what would eventually become his third career PSM championship.

Smith took a major step towards his title last season by winning the eight-bike Mickey Thompson Tire Pro Bike Battle, a race-within-a-race during the annual NHRA Sonoma Nationals that earned Smith $25,000.

Smith is once again back in Sonoma this week looking for a repeat win performance in the Pro Bike Battle, as well as give him a big shot forward towards winning a fourth season championship, as well.

(Winning the Pro Bike Battle) assured us we could really go after that championship last year,” Smith said in a media release. “To me, when we beat (runner-up Eddie Krawiec), it really showed us we could race for a championship and have a chance to win it.

Last year was the first time anyone on my team won the bike battle, and it was just great to finally win it. We really appreciate Mickey Thompson doing this for the class. It’s been a good journey and a good fit for the class. So to get that win, it was pretty awesome. If you do well at Sonoma, you know you’re in a good spot come Indy.”

Defending Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Matt Smith. Photo: NHRA.

Indy is the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, the biggest race of the season not only for its iconic status, but also because it’s the final regular season race before the start of the six-race Countdown to the Championship playoffs.

Smith now finds himself in the same position that he was in at this time last year. He not only comes into this weekend’s race in Sonoma ranked fourth in the Pro Stock Motorcycle standings (17 points out of third and is 239 behind series leader Andrew Hines), Smith is also gearing up for the next four races: Sonoma, Seattle, Brainerd (Minnesota) and Indianapolis.

How he does in those races – much like how he approached last year’s upcoming events at this time – could go a long way towards his goal of repeating as PSM champ.

This Saturday, he’ll once again compete and also seek to repeat as winner in the Pro Bike Battle. And Smith is definitely in it to win it, bringing the same motorcycle and motor that he rode to a national record of 201.76 mph in Gainesville, Florida this past March.

All of our new motors are pretty good, but we have one that just stands out,” said Smith, who has 23 career wins. “That’s the one we ran at the end of last year, and we ran it again at Gainesville and broke the (speed) record again.

I put it back in at Chicago and won that race. It’s going back in the bike in Sonoma, and I think it’s going to be fast, so we feel good about it.”

Can lightning strike again for Smith at Sonoma? Can he not only win the PBB, but also use it as a launch pad toward earning title No. 4?

Sonoma has always been a big bike race and I think we’re in a great spot,” Smith said. “Angie (his wife, a fellow PSM competitor) ran really well at Norwalk, and we finally got Scotty’s (teammate Scotty Pollacheck) bike to perform like it should.

We qualified all the bikes in the top seven and everyone won in the first round, and I think we’re right where we need to be. With the way the Countdown is, you’ve got to be good at the end of the year.”

NOTES: Defending Top Fuel champ Steve Torrence goes for his 10th win in the first 15 races of the season this weekend. Torrence also won at Sonoma last year. … 16-time Funny Car champ John Force once again renews his quest to earn a milestone 150th career win. … The first two rounds of qualifying take place Friday at 3:15 and 6:15 p.m. PT, the final two rounds on Saturday at 1:20 and 4:20 p.m. ET, with final eliminations scheduled Sunday at 11 a.m. PT. Also, the Mickey Thompson Tire Pro Bike Battle takes place Saturday with the first round at 1:15 p.m. PT, the semifinals follow at 4:15 p.m. PT, and the finals slated for 5:30 p.m. PT.

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Mario Andretti says Colton Herta could be next American star in F1

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Mario Andretti’s last Formula One victory is also the last by an American driver in more than 42 years on the international open-wheel road racing series.

If you had told Andretti that while he was celebrating on the Grand Prix of the Netherlands podium on Aug. 27, 1978 at the Vandzoort circuit, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Absolutely not,” Andretti told Kyle Petty during the most recent “Coffee With Kyle” episode (video above). “It’s a shame. Somehow we have so much talent here, and either there’s no invitation or something there. But I think it’s time to give some of this young talent that, in my opinion, is absolutely capable.”

The Dutch GP was the last of Andretti’s 12 victories in F1 and came during his championship season. No one since has come close to matching his success in F1.

Mario Andretti drives his Lotus-Ford to victory in the 1978 Grand Prix of the Netherlands (Bernard Cahier/Getty Images).

Andretti’s son, Michael, took a full-time ride with McLaren in 1993 but left with three races remaining in a season marred by crashes and mechanical problems.

Scott Speed was the last American to run a full F1 season in 2006, and Alexander Rossi made the most recent F1 start by a U.S. driver in 2015. Rossi has said he has no desire to return to racing in Europe after winning the 2016 Indianapolis 500 and becoming an IndyCar championship contender.

But Mario Andretti believes Andretti Autosport has another rising star with F1-caliber ability.

“Colton Herta is one that comes to mind,” Mario Andretti said. “As a young lad, his dad sent him to Europe, he was doing Formula 3, and he knows most of the circuits there. He’s trained. He’s showed in his rookie season and won some premium races at COTA (and Laguna Seca), beat two of the very best Indy has to offer (in) Will Power and Scott Dixon.

“This is one kid I’d love to see him get a break over there to fly the U.S. colors again.”

Herta, 20, seems interested in exploring an F1 leap over the next few years. After winning Sept. 13 at Mid-Ohio from the pole position (his third career victory in the NTT IndyCar Series), the No. 88 Dallara-Honda driver is ranked fourth in the standings in his sophomore year and regarded as one of the series’ top prospects.

Herta recently told RACER.com “I’d love to give Formula 1 a crack” but said he also would be happy driving in IndyCar and IMSA.

A naturalized U.S. citizen who told Petty about spending several years with his family in an Italian refugee camp before coming to America, Mario Andretti said F1 brought an enormous sense of patriotic pride.

“Formula One is like the Olympics in a sense,” he said. “You’re in a different country, a different continent. When you earn that highest step of the podium, they play your national anthem. That’s when you take nothing for granted. You feel like I’m representing my country, and the proudest moments are those.

“I’d just like to see some other American drivers experience that. It’s time.”

Mario Andretti with four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and six-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton before the Nov. 22, 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway (Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images).

During the “Coffee With Kyle” conversation, Andretti also discussed:

–His versatility as a winner in IndyCar, sports cars, NASCAR and Formula One;

–His 1967 Daytona 500 victory and how he enjoyed racing with crew chief Jake Elder at the famed Holman-Moody team;

Mario Andretti Colton Herta
Mario Andretti and Kyle Petty saluted “The King” by wearing their Richard Petty-style hats during the latest “Coffee With Kyle” (NBCSN).

–Why he delayed his entry to F1 for a few years because of his earnings power in IndyCar. “I always say I’d race for free, but at the same time, you’re thinking of family and the future,” he said. “It was in the back of your mind that you can’t give up the earning power of IndyCar. That kept me from going full time in Formula One, but I always said that sometime in my career, I’d have to devote a period to Formula One.”

–On what it was like racing in an era when driver deaths were more prevalent. “If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to dwell on those negatives,” Andretti said. “There’s no way. You knew it was present. Especially in the ‘60s at the beginning of the season at the drivers meetings, you couldn’t help but look around and say, ‘I wonder who is not going to be here at the end of the season.’ We’d lose four to five guys. In ’64, we lost six guys.

“It’s something if you dwell on that, you’re going to take on a different profession. It’s a desire and love to want to drive that overcame all that and then the confidence it’s not going to happen to me. And then you pray.”

Watch the full “Coffee With Kyle” episode in the video above or by clicking here.

Mario Andretti looks on before the 103rd Indianapolis 500 on May 26, 2019 (Chris Graythen/Getty Images).