During the week, "Mad" Mike Smith fixes cars. On weekends, he wrecks them. It's quite a contrast. Smith, of Kings Park, owns LI Truck and Equipment Repair in St. James and is a savvy Demolition Derby veteran at Riverhead Raceway.
"It's a good stress release," Smith, 47, said. "It's a lot of fun. It's a passion and a love . . . I love wrecking cars."
Driving a 1975 Oldsmobile Delta 88, Smith is undefeated in all three derby events, or 'demos,' for short, this season. The winning ingredient? Experience.
Smith began driving in demos at Islip Speedway when he was 13. "I had my father, Charlie, lie for me and sign the papers saying I was 16," Smith said.
With that head start, albeit a conniving one, the teen began to learn the fine art of wrecking for sport.
"When I first started, I used the front of the car a lot," Smith said. "I'd take out my radiator and take myself out a lot. You have to learn where to hit other cars. You have to hit them in the rear end to break the back axle and knock the tire off. Or, you can hit the front end to blow the tires off the rim so they can't steer. It slows them down. If you slow them down, it's easier for you to get them where you want and take out the radiator."
And that's the point, Smith said. In simplistic terms, take out your opponent's radiator before they get to yours and drive to the winner's circle. "Once the radiator gets knocked out, you don't have much time left," he said. "The car will overheat."
While Smith was given the nickname "Mad" Mike innocuously by a fan at Islip Speedway, he is hardly a cranky individual. He gives all his trophies to kids in the stands, seeing no point in them piling up at home. After all, there have been a ton.
Smith is quick to point out another reason for his three victories this season, and a humble one at that. There just haven't been many cars competing. But Smith believes that will change because Riverhead is sticking to the rules of a traditional bone stock derby. That is, only cars with the windows taken out and the doors chained shut are allowed on the track. Gone are the days of competitors being able to use welding to make cars virtually indestructible, giving a distinct advantage to those with access to such equipment.
"It became a modified demo and started getting out of hand," Smith said. "They were welding them and making them stronger so they would last longer. The average person couldn't do a demo because you'd have to have a shop with a welder. Now, people are starting to realize that they're sticking to the rules."
Over the course of his career, Smith suffered two heart attacks. But, he keeps fighting back. The first came after an enduro race 10 years ago. He was rushed to a hospital and stopped racing for a year.
Two years ago, while welding in his shop, he suffered another one. This time, doctors put five stents in his chest and, after recuperating, he was cleared to race again. Since his return, Smith estimates he has won five demos.
"I feel great," he said.