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Mini Stock champ off to good start in higher class

Jim Smith decided to move up to Limited Sportsman for the experience.

By CAREY FREEMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 2, 2000


INVERNESS -- It would have been easy -- even logical -- for Jim Smith to stay in the Mini Stock division and defend the title he worked so hard to earn last season.

Then again, in Smith's mind, that would have been too easy.

"I won the championship last season and (two-time champion and current Mini Stock leader) George Neumann said he was going to go after me this year, so I had to get out while ahead," Smith said with a chuckle.

"Really, I just moved up because I'm not that type of person. I moved up for the experience, and I think it's going to be good experience for me driving these cars."

So Smith, with the help from sponsors like Precision Machined Engines, PWC Machining and Welding and Automatic Heating and Air, decided to take the next logical step and move up to the heavier and more powerful cars in the Limited Sportsman class.

So far, it looks like a pretty good move for the 26-year-old, who finds himself in yet another heated championship battle.

With just over a third of the season completed, Smith is right on the heels of defending champion Mike Veltman, who leads the Limited Sportsman class by 37 points. Smith has three wins and five top-fivefinishes, second only to Veltman in wins (four) and to Johnny Gann and Bill Ostreicher in top fives (six apiece).

If last week was any indicator, the race between Smith and Veltman should last well into November. If not for a last-lap loss of power, Smith would have pocketed win No. 4. However, veteran Rex Struble won while Smith, followed by Veltman, crossed the line in second place.

"The car (a Camaro) is running pretty good," Smith said. "It's not 100 percent, but it's getting there. Each week we get a little closer.

"I think (Limited Sportsman) is really competitive and there are a couple different cars that can win on any given night."

This year is quite a change from last year, when the Limited Sportsman class often struggled for cars, sometimes fielding as few as five. The class now averages between 12 and 15 cars for each race.

This adds up to more competition for all, including Veltman, who ran away with the title last year, and Smith.

Most classes, in fact, have seen increases in numbers of cars, whether because of new promoters Bill Hooker and Steve Ziebarth, increased purses or minor changes in rules.

It remains to be seen whether this is the last move for Smith, who keeps his plans mostly to himself. He has driven Legends Cars for local owner George Felton, and there is a possibility his sponsors may want to move up to Late Model next year.

"I'm not expecting too much," Smith said. "I'm just going out there to run my race and I'll just let the points fall where they fall. I want to race every week and I want to do good, but I'm not thinking too much about points."

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