Smiley Sitton’s Outlaw Driving School
By Bruce Koen
This is my second feature story on Mr. Smiley Sitton. This time, the focus is on his Outlaw Driving School in Dallas, TX. This school was briefly mentioned in my last article, and I decided that it was far too important not to make further information known concerning this highly talented man. I want to share some more information about this racer’s racer and the effect he has had on the racing community. His life not only impacts others through the famous parts and racing tire business, but he continues to touch individuals through his Outlaw Driving School. Our modern society doesn’t particularly care for words like mentor or teacher. However, I have discovered that most of us are in need of a teacher or we need some type of instruction. No one has all the answers, but this teacher has quite a few. If you want to be a better-than-average Sprint car racer, or go on the ride of a lifetime, then perhaps you need to spend some time with Smiley at his school.
On the evening of August 3, 2009, I had the privilege of sitting in the classroom portion of Smiley's Outlaw Driving School with his student, David Enright. Class was called to order at 7:30 p.m. sharp. The business of sign-in, or registration, if you will, was quickly handled and class was called to order. Granted, most of us would agree that there is more to driving a Sprint car than just making laps. This famous teacher was quick to put the driving portion at the school to rest, and dig into the materials that would not only help educate, but also produce a new or smarter Sprint car driver. Basically, if you do not understand the car and how it works, you are about to drive in circles, and learn absolutely nothing for your tuition.
Almost immediately, the student is immersed into understanding the car he will be driving. For those of us who have been around for a few years, we know that thousands of Sprinters were, in many cases, home-built racecars. If a person had a little bit of tubing, some flat plate metal, a welder and a place to work, they could produce a Sprint car. Most of those brave builders went through a series of events with a strict learning curve that led to either success or failure on the race track. The successful pioneers of the sport were ever learning as they went. Eventually it was not a matter of whether a person could successfully build a Sprinter in his shop or not. The information and technology that was developed over the years of racing now came package-built in the newer, identically mass-produced, ready-built chassis. This isn’t meant to say that presently there aren’t folks out there who cannot build a chassis. But in most cases, the newer technology and materials used usually exceed the older, garage-built chassis, and at a reasonable price.
It’s been said that time is money. In today’s racing world, there are currently three major chassis builders that supply nearly 80% of the modern Sprint cars on the market. There are yet some smaller shops that produce a good quality chassis. But we were quick to learn that those three were providing a majority of racers with their specialty products. As a point of clarification, all three of the manufacturers produce a fine product. Therefore, the decision is left to the individual to choose the product he will use to drive, resulting in less time needed for building the Sprinter.
Of course, every racecar needs its power plant. Smiley taught us that the engine placement, to some degree, is basically equivalent among all brands. The industry standard for power is the small block Chevy or its copied aluminum counterpart. It is more widely used and available than others, and the chassis manufacturers allow for its use. Although there are a few minor adjustments that each individual car builder can use in engine height, the engine placement is in the physical center of the car. The only major difference between each racecar now will be a one-inch difference in the overall wheel base and/or cockpit room. In a word, now everybody has the same stuff concerning chassis.
You may be saying, “Bruce, that’s all fine and good, but what else will I learn at this school?” Frankly, there are too many subjects to be covered in one article, but I will attempt to whet your appetite a little.
Sprint cars are designed with a specific suspension package. All of the newer cars use a four torsion bar suspension (pretty generic). What you will learn is the difference between stiff and soft, the different sizes of bars, spring rate, and the difference each makes at the wheel. Torsion bars alone could be a several hour class. But there is so much more to learn.
The wheel and tire portion of the training was very valuable information. There are some basic standards, such as “Do I need 17 or 18 inch wheels, and what is the difference?” But that does not cover the physics of stagger, or tire pressure in relation to the intended desired handling results. One minor change in tire pressure can easily affect three other areas of concern in handling. What about those tires? The front tires are basically the same size, but what happens when you run lower pressure from one to the other? Now, the rear tires are an entirely different subject. There are different compounds for different applications. What if your sanctioning body uses a spec tire? Have you ever wondered about grooving or “siping” the tires? You’ll find out that there are advantages and disadvantages to that. Unless you are willing to burn up several dozen sets of tires, and lose races to do your own testing, I suggest that you may want to find out a few of these things at the Outlaw Driving School.
So you still want to be a Sprint car driver? Well, where and how do you set the wings? The stationary front wing may seem elementary, or is it? The back wing is made to be adjustable. But where do you adjust it for the maximum performance? As many of us know, not all Sprint car races allow winged cars. The whole issue of non-wing racing produces another set of circumstances that may perk your interest. The details are available with your enrollment.
A Sprint car driver’s greatest friend or worst enemy may come in the form of the shock package. How many times have we seen great racers miss a set-up, only to have it blamed on shocks? Numerous times, no doubt. However, with the constant upgrades in the shock line-up, missing your shock set-up becomes less apt to cause you a problem, if you understand them and how they operate. There are, no doubt, some standard shock applications. But with the newer adjustable shocks, do you want a fast collapse, or do you need a slower rebound? What is the race track dictating to you? These questions are just food for thought, because we were taught some of these things, and you may very well need to have this information for yourself.
Are there any hard and fast set-up rules? Smiley will be the first to tell you that, “There are no rules.” But after your sessions in the Outlaw Driving School, you will definitely have a far better understanding of the Sprint car, its function, and the basic physics of what makes it work. Getting your set-up right is sometimes just luck. Missing the set-up completely will not haunt you nearly as much after a little time in the classroom. I haven’t mentioned anything about the rear end gearing because there just isn’t enough room to discuss it properly. You’ll just have to attend the school to find out.
The second phase of the Outlaw Driving School happens at a race-prepared track. The dirt is worked, watered, and packed, or ironed-in - exactly as a competitor would find it on any race night at any given track. Smiley has really covered every detail in this area for one reason. The track does not change that much because you are the only one on it during the school.
Step 1: Smiley’s long-time friend and instructor, Phil Harris, is behind the wheel of a passenger type vehicle with the student right there in the front seat to observe. Several laps are made around the track to familiarize the student with the driving pattern he will be using during the remainder of school. With this pattern being used consistently, the student will become accustomed to the feel of the car as well as the track, both of which can be managed. School is about to begin.
Step 2: Every student is fully dressed in all of the safety gear. Nomex fire suit, helmets, shoes, gloves and arm restraints are all part of the package. Nothing is overlooked as far as your safety is concerned. Full instruction is given about the cockpit from the on/off switch, and fuel shut-off, to the operation of the in-and-out lever. Being fitted in the seat from the previous session by instructor Phil, the student is ready to climb in, buckle up, and get ready for an awesome ride in an Outlaw Sprinter. Phil covers all of the details with each student before the car is ever pushed off.
The cars are fully prepared, race ready, with 410" all aluminum, fuel injected 700+ horse power engines. The cars all have the latest, state-of-the-art equipment and could easily win at any Outlaw event. They are the real deal. There are also timing devices on the track, manned by the crew, to monitor the student’s progress. And Smiley? He’s in the flag stand with a radio in one hand, and a watchful eye on the student monitoring every detail.
Step 3: With great anticipation, the student appears on the race track with a push vehicle behind him. The car is locked into gear and ready for a push. Both vehicles are rolling. Inside the cockpit the fuel is turned on, the oil pressure is up, the ignition switch is flipped on. The beast comes to life as the push vehicle exits the track. Now it’s just man and machine. Smiley’s 50 years of experience have been put on the line. We’ll soon see what the student has learned. Now it’s just the student and the race track, under the watchful eye of Smiley Sitton. Yes, progress is made!
We all know that there are no guarantees in life. So it is with the Outlaw Driving School School.
Smiley says: “If you will listen and do what I teach you, you cannot fail.”
Who is eligible for the school? Anyone with a valid driver’s license. There are classes and programs for all levels. No previous experience is necessary. There are single session classes available, with weekend dates at certain times of the year. Not interested for yourself? Gift certificates are also available for the favorite racer in your life. This might easily be their experience of a lifetime. For more information, call (214) 331-4664, or visit the web site at www.outlawdrivingschool.com. You’ll be glad you did.