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Tri-State circuit paves way for Smith comeback

You can call

him the Great

Dane once more

It has been nearly two decades since Dane Smith last ruled stock car racing in the Rogue Valley.

Some of the current drivers at the Southern Oregon Speedway had yet to be born when Smith, whose racing career began in 1971, dominated the dirt at the old Medford Raceway. Chants of R car! R car! R car! -- the letter painted on his old racecar -- by his legion of fans who sat along the main straightaway at the old west Medford track are a distant memory.

Smith made a comeback when the new speedway opened in White City in 1996, but has only a couple of wins to show for it.

I turned 50 last year and began to question whether I'd ever win again, says Smith, a football and basketball star at Medford High in the 1960s. You start to have some doubts.

But just when Smith seemed destined for permanent mediocrity, he underwent a renaissance -- on pavement.

Smith finished third in the points race last season in the Tri-State Challenge, a short-track pavement circuit that runs on ovals in Oregon, California and Washington. The circuit ushers in its second season Saturday at Ukiah, Calif.

Smith, now 51, registered only one victory on the pavement, but had one second and two thirds during the 10-race season.

I really enjoyed it, Smith says of the Tri-State Challenge that features cars resembling those on the Winston Cup circuit. The races probably aren't as exciting to watch because the cars aren't going sideways and banging into each other all the time, but as a driver I like it because of the precision involved.

And it's fast. You're flying around quarter-mile and third-mile tracks at 100 to 120 mph.

Smith's car, which is owned by Ed Fleury of Coos Bay, is a 1998 Monte Carlo with a Port City chassis. It's equipped with a 358 cubic inch small block Chevy engine.

Back in the old days, Smith's rivals claimed that his unparalleled success -- he won 21 of 24 races during one stretch in the early 1980s and was the track record-holder at seven different ovals -- had everything to do with his expensive equipment and little to do with his ability as a driver.

Smith also had -- almost without argument -- Southern Oregon's finest pit crew chief and mechanic at that time in Vern Gilmore.

I'm the first to admit you've got to have good equipment to win and back then we probably had the best, Smith says. And Vern Gilmore was incredible. He was more thorough than any mechanic I've ever met. That old car was always set up right.

But to say I had nothing to do with my success is unfair. It was a combination of all three, I think.

Indeed, Smith is one of the better athletes to come out of Medford. He was an all-state football player at Medford High in 1965 and went on to play at the University of Oregon.

He has also thrown two 300 games in bowling and once made a double eagle in golf.

And while he hasn't fared well in the modified division at the Southern Oregon Speedway, that could soon change. Smith will climb into a new dirt car built by Bruce Rayburn, who was his main racing rival in the old days, when the 2000 season kicks off in two weeks.

I think one of my problems in racing the modified cars has been that I've tried to race too clean, says Smith, who posted his biggest dirt track victory in recent years when he won the Fourth of July race at Yreka last summer. You've got to drive a little rough to be successful and the modified cars aren't easy to control because of their small (8-inch) tires.

The modifieds and I haven't been compatible, but I'm not ready to give up on them.

AUTO EXTRAS--Medford's Tom Glover will also compete in the Tri-State Challenge this season. Glover, 43, finished fourth in points last year and has a new car for the 2000 campaign ... The Southern Oregon Speedway, meanwhile, officially opens its season on April 22. A car show will take place this Saturday at the adjacent Southern Oregon Dragway from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., followed by a practice session at the speedway. The venues are located off Kershaw Road along Highway 140.