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Racetrack accident claims a good man

Racetrack accident claims a good man

April 1st, 2016 by Bill Owney in Opinion Columns

If angels exist in heaven, then surely Steven Smith is today being fitted for his wings—a loud, noisy, very fast pair with a checkerboard pattern.

Those of us left behind will gather at Atlanta's First United Methodist Church at 11 this morning to bid farewell to a kind, wise, soft-spoken man who had an unmatched passion for his Lord, his family, his church, his community, his friends, his university and for breathtakingly fast cars and boats.

Steven, 60, died Monday afternoon in a freak accident at Thunder Road Raceway in Gilliam, La. He was helping his brother, Stuart, earn his National Hot Rod Association license in an alcohol/fuel dragster the brothers have raced in the Lucas Oil series with Forrest Fair at the wheel since 2011.

We're not talking backyard, souped-up go-karts here. We're talking about 270 mph, quarter-mile in 5.3 seconds monsters. I've done some wild things behind the wheel, but nothing like the Smith brothers, both of whom over the last three decades or so have brought home plenty of trophies in dragsters and drag boats they built and drove themselves. I brag that I actually know guys with their own dynamometer.

Operating out of the same warehouse in which he ran the family business, a fuel distributorship, Steven, the engineering brains of the outfit, used to regale me with details of his latest engine rebuild. I would try not to let a glaze settle over my eyes as he rattled off strings of terms that sounded vaguely like English.

Racing was one of Steven's many and varied passions. He loved his hometown of Atlanta, Texas, and was an ardent supporter of anyone new to town or of anything that might help it. Economic development, education, a growing church—Steven would generously lend his time, talents and resources. Chamber-of-Commerce, Man-of-the-Year stuff.

I know. It was 33 years ago when I meandered into Atlanta as an itinerant newspaper editor. Didn't know a soul, but fortunately I'd had the good sense to be reared Methodist. I was sitting in church one Sunday morning, when a smiling, bearded fellow gently put his hand on my shoulder.

"My family would love to have you over for dinner today."

I can't begin to tell you how great a home-cooked meal sounded.

That was the day I first began to know Steven and Stuart, their lovely wives, Linda and Lori, their doting mother Shirley, and the head of the clan and star of the show, the exceptional and unforgettable Larry Smith, who passed on to his sons a twinkle in the eye that was born of a deep and abiding love for life itself. I did not have the pleasure of knowing two other children.

To this day, I have never seen a family that was so respectful of each member, that listened so closely to one another, that so enjoyed each other's company. The conversation was bright, funny, kind.

I wish I could say that we went on to become the closest of friends, but life has a funny way of intruding. In a few years I was off to run a newspaper in another town. I returned some years later, and though I so enjoyed being a part of a church family with them, then, as now, my plate tended to stay full.

Still, it was just Monday morning, the day Steven died, that my son Jonathan and I were talking about the Smith brothers. There was a time when Steven taught Jonathan how to run the church's sound system, giving him insight into computers, electronics and networking, helping to ignite a passion that continues to grow.

More importantly, Steven's gentle teaching and soft-spoken self-confidence served as models that helped shape Jonathan into the man he is still in the process of becoming.

I also recall trusting my son, along with a hot-shot sports car that had been put into my care, to Stuart. The grins on their faces when they returned told me all I needed to know. I would trust him again tomorrow.

Testimonials to Steven fill the social media his week, and all tell things similar to what I've said. He was a better man than me: kind, gentle, faithful, loyal, reliable. I can't remember us having a cross word or being at cross-purposes, and if you know irascible me, you know that's a credit to Steven.

In a church known to have an occasional, high-drama kerfuffle, he was a rock, the very epitome of Christian love and servant leadership. Like his father, when called on Steven could deliver a sermon that both informed and inspired. His prayers were deep, thoughtful, eloquent, the prayers of a man who daily walked and had profound talks with God.

He loved his family. He lived a blessed life, but for evidence of God's blessings he looked no further than his seven grandchildren: Ashlyn, Luke and Mason Novak and Carson, Caroline Rose, Colleen and Cullen Duke. Look at his Facebook. If it's not about race cars, it's about them.

And he loved his younger brother, with whom he spent almost every day of his adult life. If Steven is one of the most loving men on the planet, Stuart is one of the most lovable, the family's free spirit, full of sparkle and elan, but no less imbued with moral strength and the desire to serve.

From what I gathered, health problems have forced Fair to step back from driving the dragster, so the guys were getting Stuart licensed to drive it, a dream Stuart has quietly held for several years, in the health club before dawn to stay in shape.

What's it like behind the wheel of a roaring fireball?

"Nothing to it," he once told me. "Just keep it between the lines."

Uhh yeah.

They were getting ready to make a run, I'm told, and Stuart had done a burnout. He was backing the dragster up when something went haywire with the fuel system and the engine started revving on its own. As Steven approached from the rear, the car exploded backward.

On-track medical staff immediately summoned a helicopter, and Stuart rode in it to the hospital, where Steven was pronounced dead.

How? Why? Does it matter? As an old trooper once said, that's why they call them accidents.

Those of us who know Stuart know that he will bear the yoke of his brother's death until his own, so there's the second tragedy in this. I would do anything to lift that burden, and I pray mightily that the Lord will find a way.

So, Steven, if you're looking down on us—and I'm sure you are—would you please remind the Big Guy that we understand the lesson of the Resurrection, but for those of us bound to this mortal earth, on this day, death, indeed, has a sting.

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