Worth The Wait: Thirty-Six Seasons In The Making Of A Track Title

In this age of instant gratification — where one can share thoughts with their friends immediately with a click of a button on social media, view favorite TV shows right away with on-demand, or get an answer to a question quickly with a Google search — it seems unfathomable nowadays to wait for anything.

That mentality permeates into auto racing, too.

It took 36 seasons for Steve Ritchey to win his first championship, fielding the No. 98 Sportsman Late Model for Jed Emert at Smoky Mountain Speedway in Maryville, Tennessee. (Photo: Michael Moats)

Winning Expectations

As much as you see young phenoms winning races and championships, far more racers go home without a winner’s trophy. Yet, society expects drivers to win every time they enter an event. The unrealistic expectations place a heavy burden on race car drivers. So much so that budding racers, especially those of the millennial and Gen Z age, hang up the helmet before their racing career even has a chance to take off. 

Just think; what if Dale Earnhardt gave up before he turned ripe old age of 28. He would have never won the NASCAR Cup Series Rookie of the Year, let alone seven championships.

Another case in point, which strikes closer to weekly racers, is Steve Ritchey, 65, of Maryville, Tennessee. He started racing in 1984, coincidentally when he was 28. It took him 36 seasons to finally win a track title, albeit as a car owner for Jed Emert, 25, also of Maryville. The duo scored the triumph in the sportsman late model division at their hometown’s

Smoky Mountain Speedway.

Ritchey started racing in 1984 at age 28. He hung up the helmet at the end of 2008 and has fielded rides for racers ever since. (Photo: J.A. Ackley)

What took so long?

Ritchey certainly didn’t buy his way to success. He earned a decent living in the maintenance department of a metal processing plant for 45 years, but he had a family to provide for — a wife and two daughters. Ritchey understood how racing played a role in his life.

“It’s a hobby,” Ritchey said. “I don’t spend any money that comes to the household on the race car. I totally rely on what little bit of income tax [return] we get — me and my wife splits it — I take that, and what the car wins. I do have some [sponsors, too].”

This means you shouldn’t count on Ritchey mortgaging his house for the latest and greatest trick part. Instead, he focuses on what he needs to stay racing.

“There have been a lot of times when we needed something, but we didn’t have the money to get it,” said Ritchey.

I was told I’m too nice. – Steve Ritchey

Not Missing Races

Don’t mistake his prudent spending for lack of passion. He lives and breathes the sport, as evident in the following incident during the late 1980s.

“I wrecked a car one night, and destroyed it,” Ritchey said. “We raced Friday night. I worked on the car all day Saturday. I started to work back on it on Monday because I do not do anything on Sunday. I took the bare chassis [to the chassis repair shop] on Tuesday. That following Friday night [the track] had a tractor pull; they didn’t have a race. I got the car back the following Tuesday . . . bare chassis. My brother and I put that car back together — Tuesday night, Wednesday night, Thursday night, Friday evening. We went to the racetrack with it. It wasn’t completely finished — we had to work on it at the track. We ran it that night — it wasn’t that good. We came back the next week and qualified on the pole. That was a lot of work.”

He missed scheduled races only once in 36 seasons.

“In ’91, I broke my wrist at 411 on my birthday [in August],” Ritchey said. “I missed races from there through the rest of the season. Other than that, I’ve been at the track for every race we had.”

Too Nice

Ritchey came close to a championship in the early ’90s at 411 Motor Speedway, coming within a scant six points. He admits he could have won more races and possibly a championship sooner.

“I was told I’m too nice,” Ritchey said. “I wasn’t aggressive because I knew if I tore it up, that would be it for a while, and I wanted to race every race.”v

Ritchey stepped away from the driver’s seat at the end of 2008 and put one of his nephews in the cockpit. He won in his first night out. A couple of years later, he fielded a ride for another driver before calling on Emert for the 2014 season. The pairing with Emert did not start with immediate success.

“We didn’t have any luck,” said Ritchey. “We blew four engines up. I almost quit. I put the last engine I had in the car. I had no money to go through the winter with.”

Emert and Ritchey confer prior to the final feature of 2019. (Photo: J.A. Ackley)

This was the closest Ritchey had come to missing races other than when he was injured. When things looked their darkest, Ritchey found the key to reaching Victory Lane.

“A friend of mine told me, ‘There’s no way that Jed is comfortable in this car,’” Ritchey said. “Jed was using the go-kart mentality of trying to hold himself up in the car. When we bought a seat that fit him, that’s when we really took off. In 2016, we ran second the first night. We didn’t change anything else. We just got him comfortable.”

Nothing Comes Easy

In 2019, Ritchey and Emert ran the seven-race sportsman late model season at Smoky Mountain. They won three and finished second twice. Entering into the season finale, they had to finish 21st or better. The same night, Smoky Mountain was inducting Ritchey into its hall of fame. The stars seemed to align for Ritchey.

“Everybody said we had it locked up, but I know better,” said Ritchey. “You don’t ever have anything locked up until the checkered flag falls.”

Early in the evening of the final event, Ritchey’s wife, Libby, passed out and fell ill.

Everybody realized how big of a deal it was for Steve. – Jed Emert

“I told her, ‘We’re going to take you to the hospital,’” Ritchey said. “Well, she wouldn’t go. Finally, she said, ‘The only way I’m going to go is if you stay here.’”

Ritchey insisted he go with his wife, but she stood firm. He reluctantly agreed while one of his daughters accompanied his wife to the hospital.

With Ritchey’s ailing wife on the team’s mind, Emert started the feature Third. However, nothing comes easy for the Ritchey team. While running up front, Emert got a flat tire, which relegated him to the back of the field. He worked his way to a top-10 finish, earning him and his car owner their first championship.

“To win it for Steve, who I have watched try to win it for as long as I’ve been alive, I can’t express how much that meant to me,” Emert said. “Just to see the smile on his face and people come over to congratulate him … everybody realized how big of a deal it was for Steve.”

Looking Back

Through the trials and tribulations of 36 seasons, Ritchey not only survived to race another race — he thrived. The thing that kept him going was his love for the sport.

“I look back and think, how in the world did I do that?” Ritchey said. “I wanted to race ever since I was a little bitty boy. Some people who I have raced with through the years go strong for three or four years, and they’re gone. I’m like the tortoise from the tortoise and the hare.”

Ritchey proves that the dreams you put so much work into become so incredibly satisfying when you finally achieve them. That’s something you can’t obtain instantly. Not on social media. Not on a couch. Not behind a computer screen. You got to be there — as often as you can. Within the means you have. That’s the only way you can punch your ticket to personal success in auto racing.

The family and friends of Ritchey and Emert celebrate the championship triumph. Michael Moats photo credit

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