It is with a heavy heart, wet face, and lump in my throat that I write these words… My friend, and the man who made me love nitrous, Monte Smith is dead. I am in shock. I can remember so many wonderful exchanges with Monte at races all over the country, and even my house. I’ll tell you about some of those below.
The details of his death are not going to be very clear, and I’m not going to get into the ones that I know, but he had a heart attack on his way home from North Carolina where he had been working on an intake manifold for a racer. He was by himself and had apparently stopped to eat and rest on the way home. Longtime friend, driver, and all around bad ass, Chad Henderson was the first one informed since authorities had to find next of kin. Chad and his wife Marie were immediately tasked with letting Monte’s family know. He is survived by his teenage daughter, ex-wife, girlfriend, Chad and Marie Henderson, and all of his racing family.
I spoke with Bill Tichenor of Holley, the parent company of NOS Nitrous where Monte worked, after hearing the news. I sent a text to Bill saying ” What happened to Monte Smith? Please tell me that the rumor I just heard that he died is not true.” Bill’s response was that it unfortunately was true. Like most people that knew Monte, Bill commented on how great he was to work with, how much of a straight shooter he always was, and just what a nice guy he was.
Nobody knew that more than Chad Henderson, and so upon getting confirmation from Bill I called Chad. He picked up on the second ring. He answered solemnly and I’m not too proud to tell you that I cried when I told him how sorry I was. I guarantee you there were no dry eyes on his end of the phone line either. We talked for a while, him telling me about getting the call and then immediately making calls to all of Monte’s family so that they wouldn’t hear it anywhere else. I met Chad Henderson within 30 minutes of meeting Monte, but I can’t remember which track we were at. I want to say it was National Trail, but I can’t be sure. I do know it was on the NHRA Unleashed Series, arguably one of the coolest things NHRA has done in the last 20 years.
From the get go, Monte was one of my favorites. There was just something about him. He didn’t like the spotlight, didn’t want to be on camera, and didn’t really want to be interview on the mic, but I cornered him on the starting line and he couldn’t get away from me. We became fast friends. And when I met Chad Henderson, there was no doubt these two were more like brothers than racing partners. Their thick accents, infectious laughing, and constant razzing made them a riot to be around. Their passion for racing, their amazingly tight bond, it was obvious to anyone around that they were in this together all the way.
I’m sure there were times when Chad’s wife Marie felt like she had two husbands, or children maybe, but she always had a smile on her face when at the races with the two of them.
I’ve got a million Monte stories, but one of my favorites came early on, during NHRA Unleashed at Indy. In the semi-finals, which were happening sometime around 11pm, Monte and Chad were a few pairs back and the entire field was running big numbers. While I was excitedly announcing everyone’s great runs, I was also telling the fans in the stands and on the starting line that they needed to watch out because Chad Henderson was coming to the line with a Monte Smith tuneup that was sure to please. The pair before Chad ran their best numbers of the weekend, and everyone knew that Chad was going to try to lay one down as well, because he wanted a Wally and he wanted to win it right there in Indy.
There are a couple things you need to envision here. Because Monte is a scientist as much as a racer, he has Chad to a burnout different than most any radial car around. At the time it was so abnormal that people would stop and stare and point and comment on it! While most cars would pull into the water, and start their burnout and have to be careful not to smoke the radials too hard, Chad’s burnouts looked like John Force was behind the wheel. But here is why. Shorter burnouts were required to keep the radial from overheating, but that meant you couldn’t do one across the starting line because they would be way too hot. But what if you never stopped in the water? What if you went through the water at 10-15 mph and then stood on it? That was Monte’s way, and Chad would fly through the water, stand on it, and smoke the hell out of the tires all the way across the starting line. But…the duration of the burnout wasn’t actually any longer and therefore the tires didn’t overheat. Monte was one smart bastard.
So Chad rolls through the water, lights them up, and Monte and I start walking through the smoke. He looks at the stripes, assesses the location of the car, and starts guiding Chad back to where he needs to be. Like any other run, Chad gingerly lights the top bulb, tickles the second beam, and puts it on the chip.
At this point, 632 cubic inches are as pissed off as they can be, just begging for someone to stop limiting them, and Chad’s competitor fully stages. During this dance, which lasts only a few seconds, a relay for the nitrous system fails. When it does, the Holley Dominator EFI thinks “Hell yeah baby, kit number one here we come!” But the car is still on the chip staged!
Yeah, it’s popping and banging like a turbo car, and is shooting a blue flame out of each header that is not only traveling the 8 inches to the ground, but is then shooting across the ground AT LEAST 3 feet on each side of the car. It’s the coolest thing I’ve ever seen from a nitrous car, and the look on everyone else’s faces means they too are impressed. And scared. Monte has a look that can only be described as curiosity on his face, with no apparent major alarm. I am so taken aback that I’m caught for a couple seconds unable to speak. You all know how unlikely that is!
The moment seems to go on forever. Later Chad would tell me that all he was thinking was “God please let the lights start coming down!” And then they did.
The second stage of the three they were running was setup to come on based on time. Meaning it was set to come on after a certain amount of time based on when the first stage came on. Since the first stage came on early, the second stage was ALSO coming on early. The famed black Grand National hooked and went, with the front tires never touching the track’s surface all the way through the finish line at the 1/8th mile. By the time it went through the lights, I was screaming into the mic, and everyone was stunned at the fact that A. It didn’t blow up, and B. He actually won the round.
30 minutes later, during a small break in the action, I went over to their pit to see if it hurt anything. Monte giggled and said that it was fine…and then he cranked it over for me to listen. The familiar sound of one really really week cylinder during cranking was not a good thing. Chad and Marie were walking around somewhere, and so I asked Monte what he was going to do. He said as straight faced as could be, “We’ll throw some more fuel and nitrous in that hole and hope it can carry it’s weight!” I laughed out loud, he grinned, and later Chad agreed completely. These two guys are just not right.
During the burnout, it didn’t sound quite right during that final round, but the extra nitrous and fuel at least made that hole show up for the party, and Chad got his first Wally. A few weeks later at the next event Marie would admit that Chad slept with that Wally for a couple nights. I don’t blame him. I have a feeling that Wally probably means a bit more today than it did yesterday.
Over the years, I have relied on Monte’s advice while setting up and tuning nitrous systems. And in fact, we have a video coming up that is nitrous based that Monte was going to be involved in. And Bill Tichenor and I had just been talking about doing some other nitrous testing and videos with Monte. I would never have become as comfortable and confident with nitrous as I am without Monte Smith’s encouragement, knowledge and support. He knew just when to tell you to pull up your panties and get it on.
During a nitrous test at Westech, using one of their Dart SHP 372 small blocks, with AFR 195 heads and a small hydraulic roller, we took the 525 horsepower small block and made like 750 on what should have only been 100hp worth of nitrous by going leaner and leaner per Monte’s instruction. We could have gone further, but honestly we just didn’t want to hurt the motor since it was a dyno mule. It showed no signs of caring, and has been running for years since.
When I told Monte that I was going to put a Holley Terminator EFI throttle body setup on Daphne’s wagon with a Cheater Plate underneath it and run nitrous into both sides of the plate and let the EFI add the fuel, he was the only person that didn’t look at my like I was weird or crazy. He loved it, said it would work perfect, and helped me pick out all the parts. Daphne’s daily driver, Ethyl, has two little kits. It never would have without Monte Smith.
We’ve travelled cross country on Drag Week with him on multiple occasions, road tripped from LS Fest to Drag Week on multiple occasions, he’s stayed at my house, he’s been a friend, a mentor, a teacher, and family. He’s built some of the baddest nitrous systems I’ve ever seen. He’s a nitrous legend, although he’d hate me for saying it. But it’s true. I know Mike Thermos. He’s a great man, a friend, and he’s forgotten more about nitrous that most. He’s the godfather of nitrous systems. Monte Smith isn’t far behind. Sure there are names like Musi, Smith, Switzer, Mike Wood, Steve Johnson’s Induction Solutions, and more. All of them have done amazing things and have made cars fast. But Monte Smith was the guy behind NOS Nitrous when thousands of people bought and installed their first kits. He changed the jetting multiple times over the years to make the tuneups cleaner that come with the kits. He impacted so many, even if they didn’t know it.
I’ll never hook up another bottle, Daphne will never hit the purge, we’ll never make another pass on the spray, without thinking of Monte Smith.
While talking to Chad Henderson on the phone, the reality that Monte would not be there to guide him into the lights seemed to cross his mind for the first time. Chad said to me that he followed Monte no matter what. “If Monte lined me up sideways, then we were lining up sideways. If he told me to line up next to the wall, I would have scraped to door on the damn thing to get where he wanted me to be. I trusted anything he told me and would do whatever he wanted.”
But his best comment? The one made half laughing and half crying… “Do you know how many combinations Monte and I have blowed up over the years trying to go faster?!”
While this week, and coming weeks, will be hard, it’s going to be the first visit to the race track that really will suck for all of us. And especially Chad and Marie.
I will miss him dearly. We have lost a really really really good guy. God Speed my friend. Keep guiding us, and may Heaven have a never ending supply of nitrous. Knowing you made us all better people, not just better racers.
The last time I saw and spent some time with Monte Smith was just a handful of weeks ago at Lights Out 8. Monte was there working with Chad and any number of other cars. Chad’s car was not cooperating and we watched as time after time they would come up to make a run and the thing would just not leave the way they wanted. It went right, it went left, it smoked the tires, it was clear that Monte was getting frustrated. He’d come up and hang out in the tower to relax for a few minutes and likely think about what he was going to do next in a relatively isolated environment.
The next time we saw the car it didn’t go all that fast but it did go down the track and I waved for him to come upstairs. When he got up there I clicked off the microphone and said, “Well?!” He laughed and told me that he had the thing so jacked up and backwards to what was correct that he had no idea how the car was working.
The boys qualified for the 32-car Radial vs The World field and while they were in, Monte’s confidence was not all that high that they would escape round one. They did. He was laughing as he walked off the starting line. Then round two came and while it wasn’t pretty they won again and he was basically shaking his head, trying to figure out what was happening. Ultimately their weekend came to an end and he had ideas on how he was going to get the car squared away again.
For years he had answered many dumb questions I asked him with a level of respect I probably did not deserve and was always welcome in any tower that I was ever in. A truly good guy.
He was the last person I talked to on the way out of the race track at Lights Out 8.