HMS Profile: Lisa Smokstad of Team Lowe's Racing
- May 20, 2004
- Team Hendrick
To participate on a top NASCAR race team is a dream of many and the reality of only a fortunate few. Crew members in the sport often come from a spectrum of unique backgrounds—athletes, engineers, small-town racers and the like.
The story of the No. 5 NASCAR Busch Series team’s tire specialist, Lisa Smokstad, is no exception. As one of the few female crew members in NASCAR, however, her path to the Busch Series started with an unexpected turn.
Growing up in Shakopee, Minn., a small Minneapolis suburb far removed from the world of big-league motor sports, Lisa had ambitions to work with young people and went on to earn a psychology degree from the University of Minnesota. She began her career working with a children’s advocacy group.
Then it struck.
Meeting her future husband, Craig Smokstad, a mechanic that crewed for his brother’s local late-model team, changed everything. His fledgling operation was in need of a tire specialist.
“There’s no reason that she can’t do this,” Craig remembers thinking.
In a departure from her longtime ambitions, Lisa volunteered for the job.
“I asked a million questions about tires to everyone that would talk to me in the garage,” Lisa says.
In the process, the passion for competition and the yearning to be a crucial part of a team took hold. This was a life she could get used to.
Steadily, she gained the know-how to keep the family’s race cars going fast on dependable tires. And in those early days, as most short-track teams worked with the first-generation “bias-ply” tires, knowledge was the difference between winning and losing. Bias-ply tires offered an entirely different, and often much more complicated, set of variables than the more durable radial tires currently run by NASCAR’s top series.
Her knowledge of the bias-ply equation would serve her well as she worked up through the ranks.
As she puts it, “Anyone who truly knows bias-ply tires really knows what they’re doing.”
With a stroke of luck, her big break was suddenly on the horizon. The husband-and-wife team crossed paths with former Hendrick Motorsports driver Ken Schrader, who was looking for help with an ASA short-track team. Both eventually moved to Charlotte and began full-time careers racing in the series.
Still today, the Smokstads find ways to repay their debt of gratitude for Schrader’s help, occasionally serving on the crew for his various racing efforts around the country when time permits.
Within a year, as she gained repute as a top tire expert, Craftsman Truck Series driver Jack Sprague, along with crew chief Dennis Conner, asked Lisa to join them at Hendrick Motorsports as the team’s tire specialist.
That first year was met with overwhelming success. Sprague’s 1999 Craftsman Truck Series championship—the second of his career—capped off an incredible season that saw victories at I-70 Speedway, Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway and California Speedway. That experience with the Hendrick organization strengthened Lisa’s loyalty and admiration for the man that built it—Rick Hendrick.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” she says.
As fortune would have it, Craig’s path would lead to a unique reunion at Hendrick Motorsports. After his days with Ken Schrader, an opportunity opened up with Jeff Gordon’s Busch Series team, headquartered in Denver, N.C., which eventually led to a position with Hendrick.
Finally, the stars had aligned with the family once again united in racing. Both worked on the 2001 Craftsman Truck Series championship team which eventually evolved into today’s No. 5 Lowe’s-sponsored Busch Series team.
To date, the pinnacle of her career has been the 2003 Busch Series championship effort with the No. 5 team and driver Brian Vickers, Hendrick Motorsports’ first title in that series.
“It was like the ‘Fantasy Island’ of racing—everything went so well,” Lisa says.
Working with crew chief Lance McGrew, Smokstad has never felt more depended on. That unquestioned trust is the most rewarding part of her job.
“My biggest satisfaction is knowing that the team has enough confidence in me,” she says.
While some may consider her role as a woman in the garage as a statement, she doesn’t see it this way.
“I never gave much attention to the gender issue,” she says. “More than anything, I’ve wanted to prove something to myself.”
Indeed, her camaraderie with teammates and the entire Busch Series family, along with her hunger for getting it right, has solidified her role in the garage. The common thread between Smokstad and her fellow competitors: shear will and determination. Such key qualities are a must as she stays in the company of the team on an almost seven-days-a-week, coast-to-coast basis—all requirements of the demanding NASCAR schedule.
After worrying about such issues as tire stagger and pressure at the track, Lisa’s shop duties back in Charlotte are no less demanding. Her role on the business-end of the team includes logistical coordination and crew chief assistance.
Not forgetting her first passion—working with children—Lisa somehow finds the time between races to coach 5-to-16-year-old kids in gymnastics with a Charlotte-area club. Even there, her passion for winning shows through as her pupils have earned victories in multiple competitions and even state championships.
“Be the best at what you do,” she advises others chasing their dreams. “Leave no stone unturned. If you do that, no one can stop you.”
Lisa Smokstad is living proof.
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- May 18, 2005