By MANDEE PAUCH
Mike Heffner has been overwhelmed by the support for his team and Sherry Hodnett since the passing of Greg Hodnett.
It’s because of that support, both financially, and more important, emotionally, that Heffner wants to continue to be a part of the racing community. It’s a way to heal and honor the Hodnett family.
The next step in that process is to continue with Heffner Racing next season. To do so, Heffner has hired Ryan Smith to carry on the tradition of his team and remain a fixture on the central Pennsylvania Sprint Car scene.
“I’ve been thinking about it heavily for the last month,” Heffner said. “I’ve been going back and forth on it, and I asked a lot of people’s opinion. They were all the same, which was to do what makes you happy and what you think is right.
“I asked people with my race team, including Sherry, and I still wavered a little bit,” he said. “The point I realized I was going to race was during the time putting together the benefit that was a couple of weeks ago. Seeing the overwhelming response of people and how they responded to adversity, responded to tragedy, and responded to helping others, it sealed the deal for me.
“Although losing Greg created so much hurt, there is a community there. It’s a community that gives so much, and I want to be a part of it.”
Heffner has a relationship with Smith, who he has known for 10 years, and chose him over a number of top-flight drivers.
Smith has proven he can win on the big stage. The Kunkletown Pa., driver has competed well against the World of Outlaws and All Star Circuit of Champions and shines in high-profile events.
More importantly, Smith has a good reputation in the pit area and rapport with fans. He represents his team well, which was a priority for Heffner Racing moving forward.
“I asked other people and drivers I know about his abilities,” Heffner said. “He is well respected, because other drivers gave him high marks, so that helped in my decision.
“The representation of my team is also more important now than ever because of how I want it to be viewed. We have a tradition to follow, and this team will be under a little scrutiny. Whenever people are watching closely, the errors tend to be magnified.
“I love winning races, but it was very important to me that Ryan is well respected and handles himself well so we can continue this thing.”
Smith jumped behind the wheel of a Sprint Car for the first time in 2008. Since then, he has competed on a regular basis in central Pennsylvania and two years with the All Star Circuit of Champions.
Over that time period, Smith has mostly owned his team. He’s had to piece things together, which forced him to race careful. Now that he has joined Heffner Racing, he can focus on winning and honoring a driver he has respected throughout his career.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Smith said. “It’s pretty exciting. I have huge shoes to fill, that’s for sure. Greg was one of my idols growing up watching him race.
“It’s still, obviously, sad times, but to get the opportunity to run this car is pretty exciting. Mike is a good person. He’s got a great team assembled, good equipment, and has the means to win races. To be a part of it is pretty awesome.”