The ink on Zane Smith's driver's license was barely dry when the Huntington Beach, Calif., native got his first speeding ticket as a 16-year-old in his adopted hometown of Mooresville, N.C., five summers ago.
"I think it was the second day after he passed his driver's test," Mike Smith, Zane's father, recalled this week. "He was going 95 mph in a 40-mph zone."
Young Zane was only doing what came naturally. From the time he began racing BMX bikes at age 3, go-karts from ages 6 to 12, entry-level stock cars as a teenager to the 180-mph NASCAR trucks he now drives, Smith, 21, has been built for speed.
In fact, the day he was slapped with that moving violation, he was returning from a race in which he hit top speeds of more than 100 mph in a super late-model stock car.
Five years later, Smith, now a rising star on the NASCAR circuit, will attempt to become the second rookie driver ever to win the Gander RV & Outdoors truck series points championship when he runs his No. 21 Chevrolet Silverado in Friday night's Lucas Oil 150 at Phoenix Raceway in Avondale, Ariz.
"This whole thing is incredible — it's been an unreal ride," said Mike Smith, 54, who runs a race shop and an off-road racing team in Huntington Beach. "He's worked super hard to get to where he is, and he's so determined.
"When he was a little kid and they lined up at the door for recess, all the teachers said he'd step on people to get there first. Everything was a competition for him."
Zane Smith takes that same killer instinct onto the track, where he has gone toe to toe with more experienced rivals in NASCAR's truck series — he's one of four finalists for the points title with Grant Enfinger, 35; Brett Moffitt, 28; and Sheldon Creed, 23 — and stared down some of the biggest names in the sport.
In the May 26 North Carolina Education Lottery 200 truck race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Smith came from last place to make memorable passes of NASCAR Cup stars Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch before finishing third behind the two.
"I'm the baby in the field, and they definitely race you harder because of it," Smith said by telephone from North Carolina. "But I tend not to take too much crap. I normally don't get mad or even. I typically get ahead."
Mike Smith isn't sure how or why Zane developed into such a good driver, but he has a shop filled with more than 200 trophies as proof of Zane's gift.
"Is it God-given ability? I don't know," Mike Smith said. "Why was Michael Jordan so good? Zane has great hand-eye coordination, good reaction times, the ability to process information quickly. And his determination to win has been big."
That was evident to Roy Dehban, who runs Pro Am Racing in Riverside, and Tim Casey, owner of Brea-based La Paz Products, Inc., who helped fund Smith's racing career with annual six-figure investments since Smith was 5 years old.
Smith attended Spring View Middle School in Huntington Beach through eighth grade, but by the time he was 14, he was spending so much time racing in the North Carolina area that he moved there, living first in a family motor home and then a small house his parents bought in Maiden, N.C.
"When you're 14 years old, it's pretty damn cool," Smith said of trailer park living. "There was a pond there, so you'd go fishing whenever you wanted. It could have been a tent and I would have been cool with it."
His mother, Debbie, usually stayed with Smith in the house, but not always. Smith, who was racing Legend and super late-model cars as a 15- and 16-year-old, learned to be self-sufficient, arranging transportation to and from tracks, preparing meals, sticking to his workout schedule and filling free time.
"He stayed there weeks at a time by himself," Mike Smith said. "It was crazy. There are stories we probably can't even tell."
Smith gained national acclaim in 2015 when he won the super late-model championship at the World Series of Asphalt Stock Car Racing at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida.
He spent 2016-18 racing in the Automobile Racing Club of America Series and K&N Pro Series, both NASCAR feeder circuits. He drove in eight NASCAR Xfinity Series races, mostly at short tracks, in 2019.
Last November, Smith was signed by GMS Racing to run the full 2020 NASCAR truck series, earning a salary and percentage of his winnings. NASCAR trucks run a little slower than cup cars, with maximum speeds of 180-200 mph, and can be a little unwieldy at times.
"They're a handful in dirty air — when you're in traffic," Smith said. "It's similar to how a plane or a boat handles. When you're in someone else's wake, it makes for a rough ride. When you're in your own wake, it handles a lot better.
"And there are a lot of wakes out there. It's better to be in front, except everyone has that same mindset, and it gets very aggressive at times."
Smith bought a 2,600-square-foot house in Mooresville, known as "Race City USA" because so many NASCAR drivers and team members live there, in 2019. He has a girlfriend and two dogs. He was only 20 when the 2020 season began but felt pressure to perform.
"I had a feeling that I had to do something special here," Smith said, "or I'm going to have to pack up ... and go home."
Smith won two of 23 races, had six top-five finishes and was named rookie of the year. After his passes of Busch and Elliott at Charlotte, "it was insane how much exposure I got on social media," Smith said. "I finished third but it was like I won."
He notched his first career win at Michigan International Speedway on Aug. 7. His second win came two weeks later at Dover International Speedway. Smith's voice cracked with emotion in a post-race interview after his Michigan win.
"It hit home, all the people who have invested in me and everything my family has sacrificed," Smith said. "I don't come from a wealthy family by any means. My mom is a middle-school lunch lady and my dad runs an off-road race team.
"It's really, really hard to make it in this sport legitimately off talent, and when you start getting an idea that you might actually make it, it's pretty unreal."
Smith's 2020 performance earned him another deal with GMS to race NASCAR trucks in 2021. His ultimate goal is to race NASCAR Cup cars on Sundays.
"Not only to be there, but to be with a good team and competing for wins and championships," Smith said. "The problem with our sport is there's 40 drivers, and normally when you're in there, you're there for a long time. So you have to get in at the right time and you have to be good."
Much bigger money, fame and prestige would come with a NASCAR Cup spot for Smith, who said he's had to "scratch and claw and work my a— off since I was 7 years old to be where I'm at."
But at least that speeding ticket didn't set him back. In a judicial action unique to North Carolina, traffic violators are allowed to plead guilty to a first offense and request a "prayer for judgment" from the judge. If granted, the fine is waived.
"I told Zane, if you walk into a California court and tell them you want to do a prayer for judgment and ask the Lord to forgive you, they're going to look at you funny," Mike Smith said. "But that is actually how he got out of it."
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