This ’40 Ford coupe was one of Bill’s many hopped-up street rods. He drove it to Denver an
“It was amazing the lengths we’d go to get something we wanted for our car,” Bill says. “For example, one day I heard a set of Smithy’s mufflers, and I was absolutely enthralled. What was that sound? It was fantastic! Of course, I wanted a set for my ’40 Ford coupe; unfortunately, the nearest set I could find was in Denver. No problem. I simply drove from Lincoln to Denver—about 500 miles each way—just to buy a set of Smithy’s mufflers. That’s amazing when you think about it. But I did what I had to do, in order to get what I wanted for my car.”
Episodes like this likely planted the seed for what would become Bill’s greatest adventure and undertaking.
Speed For Sale
Speedway Motors had its modest beginnings in this small storefront on O Street in Lincoln.
In 1952, Bill Smith was completing his Industrial Education degree at Nebraska Wesleyan University and was engaged to his college sweetheart, Joyce. He was also buying and selling used cars, campaigning race cars, and hopping-up hot rods for his buddies on the side. As graduation day approached, he had some decisions to make. “I was 23 years old and my life was at a crossroads,” Bill says. “I had been involved in racing in some form since I was 16, and had progressed to the role of car owner. My car had earned about $4,500 the previous summer, with the driver getting 40 percent. Plus, I had made a few bucks with my car business.”
Considering his success in automotive endeavors, the teaching offer Bill received with a $2,750 annual salary seemed unappealing. He also couldn’t shake an idea he’d hatched about opening up a speed shop to sell and install performance parts. Bill wondered whether such a business would work in Lincoln. “Yes, the hot rod hobby was starting to take off, but it was still a very limited market. But I had the idea and I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”
Bill decided to give his dream a chance. With a $300 loan from his fiancée, Joyce, he opened Speedway Motors in a 400-square-foot building located at 2232 O Street in Lincoln.
Bob McKee built a Pontiac Grand National Stock Car at Speedway Motors for Tiny Lund to dri
Business was a struggle in those early years. Not only was the customer base very limited, but it was also difficult to forge relationships with the fledgling automotive aftermarket manufacturers, most of which were far away and sold direct to consumers. Bill survived by doing anything he could to make a buck, from selling tire chains to installing parts that customers had purchased elsewhere. He also learned a few tricks to make his small shop seem a little bit bigger.
“Whenever I got a new part in, I’d put the part in the window and put the empty box up on the shelf, making it look like I had two of them,” Bill says. “I wanted to create the image that I had things in stock.”
Racing Toward Growth
Bill’s unwavering determination and effort earned Speedway Motors enough business to expand in 1954. The company moved a few blocks to a 5,000-square-foot facility at 1719 N Street, allowing more space for service that included specialty engine work, engine swaps, and header and dual exhaust installations.
In addition to the day-to-day parts business, Bill’s racing endeavors helped keep the Speedway Motors name out in front of racers and the public. His purple 4x Sprint Cars were familiar sights on area dirt tracks and were regular winners with drivers like Lloyd Beckman at the wheel. Bill also campaigned successful drag cars, and even dabbled in the up-and-coming NASCAR circuit, most notably with a ’56 Pontiac built by employee Bob McKee and driven by future NASCAR Hall of Famer DeWayne “Tiny” Lund.