Kenny fighting through the pain

NERVES OF STEEL: Kenny Smith on the grid before the NZ Gand Prix at Mansfiel last Sunday.
NERVES OF STEEL: Kenny Smith on the grid before the NZ Gand Prix at Mansfiel last Sunday.

Kenny Smith's arthritis-ridden hands force him to drive the straights at Manfeild with just one hand on the wheel these days.

But the 71-year-old motor racing legend, who finished 16th in the New Zealand Grand Prix on Sunday, has the drive to get him through the pain for a few more years yet.

The grand prix was Smith's 47th start in what is only the 48th edition of the race.

He has won three - taking the title in 1976, 1990 and then astonishingly as a 62-year-old in 2004.

If he carries on for three more years, he will reach the unfathomable heights of 50 grand prix race starts. But the granddad of New Zealand open-wheel racing has his sights set on even greater horizons.

"I'm far from finished, mate; I want 55 starts," he said.

"I'd be surprised if I didn't get to 55."

In a race where most of his competitors are baby-faced, Smith is somewhat of an enigma.

At times it appears as if he potters around at the back of the field, content with a last or second-last finish, but Smith says that is far from the case.

"I'm driving as hard as I can out there.

"If I was in the whole series I reckon I would do better, but coming in here cold, it's a bit difficult.

"Sure, I don't care where I finish, and they are tough those guys out there.

"But if you can get out there and give them a bit of a ruffle up, that's always nice.

"I love the rush of the starts - I can foot it with them there."

Smith still relishes racing at Manfeild, despite crashing heavily on the home straight in one of his favourite F5000 cars in 2011.

But these days it is the joy he gets from mentoring young drivers through the system that warms his old bones.

He talks about the efforts he put into New Zealand's most successful modern-day racer Scott Dixon and he raves about the potential of 18-year-old Formula Ford driver Tom Alexander, who is Smith's current "project".

"A lot of people take from this sport - don't give back - but I can never be accused of that.

"Back then my own wins meant a lot but these days I get a thrill every time I see Tom winning - the feelings are on a par with each other."

Smith's advice is simple and reflects his attitude.

"You have got to be dedicated. I know if any guy puts a lot of effort in in this industry, they are going to get the rewards."

Smith still works on his "lung fitness" before a race, but refuses to go to a gym to prepare.

"When you get to my age with all the joint troubles and what-not, it would be pointless anyway.

"It means you are hurting when you are finished.

"I've got arthritis in my neck, but I barely feel that with the adrenalin and things until after the race," Smith said.

"It's my hands that are shocking. It can really get to you, but it's about managing it.

"Often I take one hand off the wheel on the straights just to give it a chance to recover."

Manawatu Standard