Benjamin Smith is only 18 years old, but the Pennsylvanian is already a MotoAmerica veteran. He joined the series in 2016, raced for a year in the KTM RC Cup spec class, then came back for a second year in the class, and he notched five victories, including the final race of the season to clinch the 2017 championship. For 2018, Smith moved up to the MotoAmerica Supersport Championship, and like in 2016 – his first year in MotoAmerica – it’s was a valuable experience and another important step in his road racing career. With a third year in MotoAmerica and a rookie year in Supersport now under his belt, we checked in with Smith to talk about his past, present, and future.
You said you’re a senior in high school this year?
Yup, still a senior in high school, public school. I know a lot of kids are homeschooled. Education has always been number one for me. I do the best that I can. I balance out school and racing. It really helps because my teachers are actually pretty lenient with it. I’m able to go to the races and then come back and make up the work that I missed, and it works out pretty well.
This past season was your third one in MotoAmerica, so you’re a veteran to the racing scene, but also a veteran to juggling school with being a racer. How has that gone? Has it worked out okay for you? Are you able to keep your grades up and everything?
Basically in my house, if my grades are not where they should be, I don’t race. So I’ve had no choice but to keep those up. Don’t get me wrong, at the beginning when I first started, I was in 10th grade during my first year in MotoAmerica, and it was tough. It was a lot of catching-up work. I really had to just get used to doing schoolwork while I was at the races and then coming home and just putting my head down and doing as best as I could just to get the grades. But I’ve gotten into the flow of things. I know how it’s going to work. So it’s going pretty well.
Tell me, now that you’re a senior, what’s your plan for after you graduate from high school? Are you going to go to college?
Yeah. I’m going to go to college, and I’m going to keep racing. Hopefully it’ll be the same thing as high school, with whatever college I choose because I put a lot into racing. I take it pretty seriously, so I would hope that they would understand that I’m going to put 100 percent forward into my schoolwork, but I also just need the time here and there to race motorcycles.
Do you have any colleges in mind yet?
Yeah, I’m from Pennsylvania so obviously a lot of kids look at Penn State. So, I’m probably going to apply to Penn State. And James Madison University, too. The reason I’m applying there is because I’ve passed that school so many times going to the races down south and it looks like a really nice school, so I’m going to apply there, at Coastal Carolina and also South Carolina. Another thing with that is, if I want to race in college, realistically, it would be easier for me to go somewhere close to home. So we’ll see how that works out.
Tell me what’s gotten you to this point in racing. Did you start out riding dirt bikes? How did you get into road racing?
I started riding when I was really young, just four-wheelers and dirt bikes with training wheels. Then I got into the racing scene a while back because my dad used to do WERA races here and there. So I got to go watch him a couple times. I was kind of immediately hooked. Then, back in 2011, I started road racing on minibikes, a Honda CRF100 with street tires. I started with NJ Mini GP. They run out of New Jersey Motorsports Park on the go-kart track. A lot of other kids in MotoAmerica started there, too. They have a really good program.
Do you consider New Jersey or Pittsburgh to be your home track now that we’ve got two tracks that are kind of close to you?
New Jersey, for sure. Pittsburgh is a good five hours from me. New Jersey is definitely my home track.
Did you start out at NJMP with Brandon Paasch and that group of riders?
Anthony Mazziotto, Brandon Paasch, and I actually raced together in the mini classes and then when we jumped onto 250s. They did start a little bit before me because, when I jumped into the scene, they were already into it for a couple years. But then, we all raced together coming up through the ranks.
Having raced for two years in KTM RC Cup, let’s talk about that a little bit. You had a learning year and then last year, you won five races and won the championship. Take me through that, and also talk about this year. I know it was a tough year for you, and it’s a big step up from KTM RC Cup to Supersport? Can you talk about the progression a little bit?
My first year in 2016, in the KTM RC Cup, it was a tough year, obviously. It was all-new. I hadn’t been to any of the tracks except for New Jersey and VIR. So I had to learn all the new tracks. A couple of times throughout the year, I was able to run up front, but I had problems finishing out the races. On multiple instances I would be up at the front and then coming down to the last lap something would go wrong. I would put it on the ground, or something would happen. But I was able to get my first podium that year in New Jersey, so that was pretty cool. Learned all the tracks, and then that just carried on over into 2017. Just the confidence gained from knowing that I’d go into all these places not having to learn the track was pretty neat. So that basically just carried on into 2017. I got the five race wins like you said, and just tried to stay as consistent as possible. That was a crazy last race for me last year, coming down to the last race. Being second in the championship coming into that last race, and then, I was able to clinch it. So that was definitely the highlight of my career so far, winning that championship.
This year in Supersport, I didn’t have much time on a 600 before the season started. I hadn’t really ridden one that much at all. Before Road Atlanta, I had never even raced a 600 before in club or anything like that. So it was a big learning year, like you said. The 600 was a completely different animal than the KTM. I had to go back to learning all the tracks again on the different bike, and it was tough. But I think that this year, I’ve learned more about myself and my riding than any other year before. It was a tough year, but we had some decent results, and I learned a ton.
So, MotoAmerica did away with the Superstock 600 class, which was a good steppingstone to Supersport. I’m sure you were probably planning to move up to Superstock 600 before Supersport. Would that be right?
Yes. We were planning to doing the Superstock 600 class, but like you said, the rule changed, so we had to jump straight into Supersport.
I definitely understand why MotoAmerica changed the rules, but there’s a fairly wide range between new 600-class riders and the JD Beachs, the Hayden Gillims, and the Valentin Debises. I’m not saying you’re on the other end of the spectrum in any way, shape or form, but I know it’s a big field, and there is a pretty large disparity of riders in that class. Would you agree?
Absolutely. Honestly, I think having it all as Supersport is kind of a good thing for me because, like you said, there’s a huge disparity of riders. Even if I only got to follow JD or Hayden Gillim for a couple of corners, it would just allow me to learn so much. I think it actually helped me being able to ride with that big disparity of riders. I see it as a positive.
I completely agree with you. I don’t play a lot of tennis, but sometimes when I play tennis with somebody who is better than me, I probably play the best I ever have. You’ve got more of a carrot there to follow and to emulate.
One of the things that was fairly unusual with you this year is that you were on a Suzuki GSX-R600, and there weren’t too many of them racing in Supersport. How did you make the decision to race a Suzuki? Obviously, the Yamaha R6 is so developed and has been pretty dominant in the class.
I met Kelly and Angie Norris at a track day in the beginning of 2017. They’re fantastic people, just honestly some of the best people I’ve ever met. They’ve always been huge Suzuki fanatics, and I don’t blame them. I love Suzukis, too. Like you said, the Yamaha is a proven bike, but coming into the season we figured, you know what? The Suzuki is a really good bike and it handles really well. The Yamahas obviously have a little bit more electronics in them, but we had a good motor built, and I really enjoy racing the Suzuki.
And, I’m sure you were able to earn some contingency money from Suzuki this season, correct?
Yes, we actually did. I think basically every race unless there was a DNF we earned Suzuki contingency support. So that was another big benefit in me racing the Suzuki. Their contingency support program is really good.
You race for Team Norris. Are they based in California?
Well, they were in California, but they’ve had a crazy year. They moved from Chicago to California, and then between the Pittsburgh and New Jersey rounds, they picked up out of California and moved back to Kentucky where they’re originally from.
Now that they’re back in Kentucky, that probably helps you logistically?
Oh, yeah. That’s going to make things a lot easier. Last season they were out on the West Coast, so them now being back in the East is definitely going to make things easier, logistically.
You’re still young. You’re in high school and in excellent shape. You obviously train. What’s your training program, during the season as well as in the off-season?
I try and mix it up. I do a lot of things. For the past couple years, I’ve played high school soccer, so that’s kept me in really good shape. This is actually the first year that I’m not playing school soccer. It was just simply too hectic with all the stuff that’s going on with racing and everything. I also do a lot of mountain biking. There’s some good mountain biking around me, so that’s pretty big for me. Then basically just working out downstairs. We’ve got a home gym downstairs. Just working on different stuff down there has helped me a lot. As you know, the 600 is obviously a lot more physical than the KTM RC390 was, so I’ve really had to step it up with my training program over the past off-season, and I’m doing the same heading into 2019, also.
I can completely understand why you’re not able to do soccer this year with the way your schedule is, but certainly having done it, that’s a good sport to play for training as a racer. I remember talking to Jeff Beaubier a few years ago. Cameron was a pretty active soccer player when he was younger. Jeff said that’s a big part of what made him so good on a motorcycle. There are some core balance skills to be gained from playing soccer. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Soccer is a blast. I love it. There’s a lot of stuff in soccer that you wouldn’t really think directly relates to motorcycle racing, but it does.
So, you’re with Team Norris Racing. It was a one-rider team this year. Can you talk about the team’s plans for 2019? Are you going to continue with the team? Are you going to have any other riders? In some ways, it’s beneficial to have a single rider, but it’s also a little tough to not have a teammate to bounce ideas off. Where do you sit with all that?
For 2019, I’m definitely going to be with Team Norris Racing again. They were just fantastic to me in 2018. They’ve already got the ball rolling for next year. We considered another rider for next year just because, like you said, it doesn’t hurt to have somebody else to bounce ideas off of. But, as of right now, I think it’s going to stay a single-rider team with just me racing in Supersport again. But you never know. Things could change. As of right now, I think it’s just going to be a single-rider team.
Your team has a really good presence in the paddock. The team actually looks bigger than it is, with the graphics and the size of your footprint and the way everything looks, so big kudos to you and your team. I’m sure you appreciate the fact that it is a very professionally run and professional-looking team.
Absolutely. That’s one of the things that they have completely excelled at this year. It’s funny – we started the year in our 6 by 12 trailer. Did the first couple rounds in that, and then we switched to their 22-foot trailer, which was good, obviously better than the 6 by 12. Then they just completely stepped it up at the end of the year and just went full-blown with the 50-foot trailer. So they’re going to have that thing decked out with a wrap on it next year. They did a really good job of looking professional in the paddock.
Tell me about your crew. I’ve met your dad a couple of times, and I know Kelly (Norris) a little bit. So, there’s Kelly, your dad…who else is part of your team?
It’s Kelly and Angie Norris; they’re the team owners. Then my dad, obviously. When we started out the year, we had Grant Matsushima as our bike builder and mechanic, and Dustin was our other mechanic until Utah. Then, logistically, it was going to be tough to have them work with us for the rest of the rounds. So, Utah was the last round that they were with us. Grant is such a knowledgeable guy, and he really helped my learning curve at the beginning of the year. So, from Utah on out, it was my dad, and we had mechanics that helped us during the last couple of rounds. As far as next year goes, they’re already looking into getting another full-time mechanic who’s on the East Coast. That’s going to be a little bit easier, logistically, and he’ll also be with us at every MotoAmerica round next year.
That will help a lot for consistency. So, we’ve talked about the pathway you’ve followed. The first year with MotoAmerica, you learned in the KTM RC Cup class, and then you won the RC Cup championship in your second year. What are you looking to do next year in Supersport? It sounds like a couple of the frontrunners – whether it’s JD or Valentin or both – they may possibly be moving up to Superbike. That will open up the field a little bit. It’s still the deep end, for sure, but I assume you’ll be looking at better results next year, based on having a year under your belt and now knowing the bike and the class, just like you did during your two years in the KTM RC Cup?
Yeah, absolutely. For me, whatever bike I’ve been on, whether it’s the KTM or the Suzuki, every time I’ve gotten on the bike, I’ve gotten better. Winning those five races and the championship in 2017 was a dream, but I want to continue my progression through Supersport and beyond. So, I’ll be racing hard for podiums, race wins, and hopefully even more this year on the 600. And then, after that, I have the same goals as a lot of the younger riders in MotoAmerica do, which is to race MotoAmerica Superbike, and then the World Championship, whether it’s World Superbike or MotoGP.
Tell me about the sponsors that support Team Norris Racing.
We’ve had a bunch of people step up huge for us this year. Companies like Motion Pro have been just a massive help with giving us tools and everything. Hustle Hard Racing stepped up huge, too. They’ve been fantastic to us. FLEX Racing hooked us up with our really nice crew shirts and everything. Dainese was a huge help to me this year. At the end of last year, I was looking for a leather sponsor, and Dainese is top of the line. I hit the deck a couple times this year, and they protected me well. So, a huge shout-out to them. Arai Helmets has always been behind my back. I’ll never leave their side. Best helmets out on the market, I believe. Galfer was a huge help this year too, setting us up with a good brake system.
It’s kind of nice to have Jeff Weil and Arai right there in your home state of Pennsylvania, too.
It’s awesome. He lives real close to me. My dad and Jeff have been friends for a long time, and it happened that he was the Arai guy. Then, I got into racing, so it kind of worked out.