GAINESVILLE, Fla. --
Smith had planned to retire following the 2013 season, but those plans changed and the longtime drag racing standout has returned in 2014 to defend his championship. That title defense starts this weekend as the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series competes as part of the Amalie Motor Oil Gatornationals at legendary Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
It is the first of 10 events and Smith, who won two events and advanced to four final rounds in his nitrous-injected IDG Chevy Camaro, is excited to be back behind the wheel and added the only way to top last year would be to win another championship in 2014.
"That would be a nice thing to happen," the King, N.C. native said. "IDG said they wanted to go again and I love to race. I've been doing this 40 years and I've been lucky enough to win some championships. I've been successful and I'm very grateful for that. I feel good and I think we'll run well this year."
With a host of talented competitors, the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series looks to be as competitive as it has ever been during the 2014 campaign. A total of 28 competitors make up the diverse and star-studded entry list for the Gatornationals, a sign of how tough the field will be throughout the season.
"With 25-28 cars at these events, you're going to get a lot of tough competitors and it's really going to toughen up the field, that's for sure," Smith said.
Troy Coughlin, the 2012 world champion in the class, finished second a year ago in his turbocharged JEGS.com Chevy Corvette. After a productive off-season and with many of the same pieces still intact on his team from two extremely productive years, Coughlin is ready to compete for another championship.
"We're looking forward to going down (to Gainesville) and putting some runs on it," Coughlin said. "It's running pretty good. We're making headway, and (crew chief) Steve (Petty is) doing a good job, no doubt.
"We're thrashing hard on horsepower and how to get it to the ground. I've got the best team out there. We still have the same team coming back, and Steve is still doing the orchestrating. Same car, same engine and it's kind of nice going into the season with everything exactly the same as we ran the year before."
Defending event champion Von Smith and his Al-Anabi Racing Camaro are after a second straight victory in Gainesville, while other challengers include Mike Castellana and his nitrous-injected Al-Anabi Camaro, Mike Janis, who won the prestigious Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals in his Camaro, and category veteran Danny Rowe.
Rowe, who posted four No. 1 qualifiers a season ago in his Agave Underground Tequila Camaro, will also have a new teammate in his two-car stable.
"This is a huge season for NHRA Pro Mod and Danny Rowe Racing," Rowe said. "First and foremost, we're starting the year with a two-car team, with veteran driver Steve Matusek behind the wheel of a second Agave Underground Tequila Pro Mod Camaro.
"Secondly, we found a little more horsepower over the winter and we're excited to see what we can do with it. We couldn't be more excited to have Steve and his family join the team, and we're excited about what this group can do together this year."
Rickie Smith also enters Gainesville with strong momentum after running an impressive 5.84 seconds at 247 mph during testing. The key will be getting that to translate on one of the most historic tracks on the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series circuit.
"Gainesville has always been one of my favorite places to race," Smith said. "We're always trying to find some new things and I think we have. We definitely found out how to run quicker and now we just have to make the right calls at the track. We just have to be consistent."
Featuring the world's fastest and most unique doorslammer cars with an extremely diverse collection of vehicles, including '68 Camaros, '67 Mustangs and '68 Firebirds as well as late-model cars, the NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series offers something for every kind of hot-rodding enthusiast.
NHRA Pro Mod Drag Racing Series sessions are scheduled for Friday, March 14 at 1:45 p.m. and Saturday, March 15 at 11:30 a.m. and 1:45 p.m. Eliminations begin on Sunday, March 16 at 9:30 a.m.
To purchase general-admission or reserved seats for the Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals, log on to www.NHRAtix.com or call the NHRA Ticket Sales Center, (800) 884-NHRA (6472). Middle school, high school and college students can purchase tickets at 50 percent off with a special student discount ticket, which is available at the gate. General admission tickets for children 12 and younger are free with any paid adult ticket.