D. William Smith was his legal name, but hot rodders knew him simply as “Speedy” Bill, a moniker that had long since replaced the one printed on his Nebraska birth certificate. “Speedy” Bill Smith was indeed speedy – quick in a race car, quick to turn a profit. He drove midgets, sprint cars, stock cars and roadsters, and pioneered a hugely successful mail-order business, aptly named Speedway Motors.
Since its inception in 1952, Smith’s Speedway Motors was — and is — a runaway success. It is one of the world’s largest racing and performance parts suppliers, as well as a manufacturer and retailer of street rod components and kits. Literally thousands of Speedway parts and accessories are cruising around every Goodguys event.
Smith passed away in 2014 at the age of 84, but not before leaving an everlasting mark on the industry he loved.
D. William Smith was born in 1929 in Lincoln, Nebraska. His father worked as an engineer for the Lincoln Telephone and Telegraph Company; his mom was a homemaker. At 13, Smith earned his first real job working for a local secondhand repair man. A year later, he bought his first car from the man, a used 1917 Ford Model T roadster pickup.“I had it all figured out,” Smith once said. “I was going to get rich with that pickup. In those days people burned their trash in the alley behind their homes. Eventually they would end up with a huge pile of ashes. I figured I could make some good money hauling those ashes to the city dump. My plans were to charge a dollar a load. Needless to say, I did not get rich.”
At 17, Smith stepped up from cars to motorcycles, buying an old Indian, then trading it for another, faster model. “I used to pull up next to cars on the highway in third gear,” he said, “Egg them on a little, shift into fourth, and leave them in the dust. Most cars in those days would seldom run over 85mph.”
Later, Smith embarked on a clandestine career as a flat-track motorcycle racer. Clandestine because he feared repercussions if his mother found out. That fear also helped him decide that cars were safer than motorcycles. “One of my early race cars was a Ford Model A Roadster A-V8,” he explained. “I would tow it to the races with a rope, often over 100 miles away. I would convince a local 14-year-old kid to steer the car. Not sure how old you had to be to just steer a car down the highway, but we never got pulled over.”
Smith abandoned his racing career early, when he learned he was a better mechanic than driver. But he soon found out he was a better businessman than driver or mechanic, because in 1952 – after graduating with an education degree from Nebraska Wesleyan University – he started Speedway Motors, borrowing $300 from his bride-to-be, Joyce, and converting a 20×20-foot storefront near downtown Lincoln into a speed shop.
At first the 23-year-old Smith struggled, but his knack for business soon emerged, and by 1955 Speedway Motors had expanded to a 50×125-foot shop with nine employees. “We were doing engine swaps, averaging three to four a week,” Smith once said. “We could make anything we needed, and we designed our own motor and transmission mounts as well as shifter brackets. We had also expanded into building complete racing motors. I built all types of racing engines, but especially Flatheads.”
The speed shop served Smith well, but it was the mail order business that launched Speedway Motors’ growth. Smith first handed out catalogs at regional races, then began advertising in Hot Rod Magazine in the early 1960s. No zip code. No telephone number. He shipped parts via Greyhound bus – even complete engines. The success of Speedway Motors propelled innovations that are now commonplace. Speedway built the first fiberglass race car bodies in 1955, followed by the first fiberglass T-bucket kits in the early-’60s. Speedway once shipped at least one T-bucket kit every week for 20 years.
Speedway Motors also was the first to offer a 1934 Chevy roadster body in fiberglass, and later a ’glass 1934 Ford club cab pickup. Today, Speedway Motors manufacturers thousands of products for street rods, race cars and muscle cars, and still sells T-bucket kits. “I have always believed in the importance of offering a kit car at a reasonable cost,” Smith once said. “This allows the entry-level customer a chance to build a car and be involved in the hobby without spending a fortune.”
Smith was also deeply involved in motorsports, from Bonneville to circle-track racing. He once helped field a Speedway-equipped streamliner driven by Don Garlits that topped 220mph at Bonneville. Later, the Speedway-sponsored MacKichan-Schulz streamliner set a record by topping 328mph.
It was circle-track racing where “Speedy” Bill really flourished, though. In 1955, he fielded a Pontiac NASCAR racer for future legend Tiny Lund. And his involvement in midget and sprint car racing was widespread, including a signature sprint car win at the 1976 Hulman Classic, where driver Jan Opperman topped USAC’s best. In 1978, Doug Wolfgang won the Knoxville Nationals driving “Speedy” Bill’s 4x sprint car.
Smith’s longtime involvement in rodding and motorsports also included preserving it for future generations. In 1992, Smith and his wife, Joyce, established the Smith Collection, a nonprofit museum devoted to automotive and racing memorabilia. Now known as the Speedway Motors Museum of American Speed, the collection encompasses more than 150,000 square feet and includes hundreds of vintage race cars, classics and historic hot rods, plus an amazing variety of engines, hundreds of pedal cars, countless automotive toys, and an incredible array of other artifacts. It’s a true treasure that draws thousands of enthusiasts to Lincoln every year.
The ever-expanding Speedway Motors empire is entirely family run. Bill and Joyce’s four sons – Carson, Craig, Clay, and Jason – continue to oversee the day-to-day operation of the business. Together, the family and staff work hard to provide customers with that “fast, friendly, and courteous service” on which Bill insisted.
Bill Brennan, editorial director at Street Rodder, knew Smith for many years and greatly admired the man. “He was always up for a spirited debate about West Coast magazine guys who he thought didn’t know what was going on. But he was always the first to treat you to a meal and was helpful with all our magazine projects. Bill was always a gentleman and his knowledge of our hobby turned business was second to none.”
Let Goodguys Gazette’s own Damon Lee, who worked for the man himself at Speedway Motors, have the final word: “‘Speedy’ Bill embodied the American dream. Starting from humble beginnings, he followed his passion and relied on tenacity, dedication, and hard work to establish an amazing automotive aftermarket empire from an unlikely location. He was opinionated and outspoken, but also tremendously loyal to his friends and extended family of Speedway employees.”
In other words, a legend of hot rodding.