5 Minutes With Jeff Smith
Anyone who has read car magazines in the last four decades knows that when you see a Jeff Smith byline you’re in for a quality, technical read. Jeff is a longtime automotive journalist known for his detailed tech articles ranging from intricate engine assembly to suspension and brake specifics that have helped countless DIY hot rodders.
Jeff landed his dream job, a staff position on Car Craft Magazine, in 1979 – his first job after earning a journalism degree from Iowa State University. That gig turned into a 35-year stint in publishing, including the editor’s chair at Car Craft (twice), Hot Rod, and Chevy High Performance. He recently returned to Iowa and set up shop where he continues to work on tech articles and prepare for videos and podcasts, including Car Guy Confessions. He’s busier than ever but we snagged a few minutes of his time.
Goodguys: You saw the OEs slog through the 1970s and ’80s. Did you ever imagine being able to buy a 700-plus horsepower new car?
Jeff Smith: I remember when GM was pushing the V6 and wondering if we were facing the end of OE V8 engines. Thankfully we survived that. Equally baffling is a 700–800hp and now a Chrysler 1,000hp production car! While these are great, it seems a bit over the top. An honest 800hp in a heavy car on a road course is extremely difficult to drive. I have a 550hp autocross Chevelle – it’s difficult to put the power down. It’s fun, but not easy to drive. I can’t imagine how twitchy it would be with another 300hp!
GG: What do you see as the biggest performance technology advancements in recent decades?
Smith: Clearly, it’s digital control. Digital EFI allowed the expansion of turbochargers with big power. Now digital control has extended to 6-8-10 speed automatic transmissions and dual-clutch “manual” gearboxes. We have digital data loggers that give you a hundred pieces of information on a single quarter-mile pass to help you dial in the car. It’s amazing, but it requires skill to manage and tune.
GG: While at Chevy High Performance (’98-’03), you were a huge proponent of pro-touring cars. What do you think of today’s pro-touring rides?
Smith: I really had to battle management to keep pushing pro touring. They didn’t think it was anything special, but we could see it growing. When Mark Stielow came up with the term and gave it to me – that just pushed it over the top. The cars have evolved into amazing and incredibly sophisticated machines built to a much higher level than I ever imagined. My personal version is more conservative but also moving in that direction. I recently purchased a 427c.i. LS Chevrolet Performance crate engine from Scoggin-Dickey mainly to pull 100 pounds off the nose of my ’65 Chevelle.
GG: You’re a proponent of driving your cars and were there for the start of Power Tour, Fastest Street Car, and Real Street Eliminator. Events like these seem more popular than ever now.
Smith: Yes, it seems there are events now all over the country. Brock Yates’ One Lap of America was created in that same time period, but I’m pretty sure Car Craft’s Real Street Eliminator was the forefather of all these pro touring events. It tested and promoted cars that did everything well – accelerate, brake, handle, and be roadworthy. I need to get my Chevelle back on the track so I can get involved again.
GG: You’ve met many hot rod legends – who were a few of your industry heroes?
Smith: I was a longtime John Lingenfelter fan before I met him, and we did a ton of stories together. I miss him greatly. I met Jon Kaase back when he was Dyno Don Nicholson’s crew chief and he’s another very intelligent and fun engine guy. Very early in my career I met and talked with Grumpy Jenkins and had the pleasure to meet Zora Arkus-Duntov. Jim McFarland shaped my life as a technical writer; he was editor at Hot Rod in the late-’60s and was at Edelbrock as head of R&D. Scott Sullivan is another guy I admire just because he can build almost anything and make it look so damn good!
Smith: Execution – cars just keep getting better both from performance and aesthetic standpoints. I’m not very good at predicting the future (I was the one who said they’d never build the Viper!) but I think electric power will have a place in the performance world. It does not have to be an either/or situation but we need to make it inclusive. I just watched a video of the Ford Cobra Jet 1400 electric drag car run an 8.12 at 179mph. I’d like to know more about how all that works.
GG: You’re involved in a couple podcasts, have dabbled in YouTube, and still write print and online articles. Is there a medium you prefer?
Smith: I do a podcast, Car Guy Confessions, with Cam Benty and Steve Strope, that is also produced by Auto Revolution as a video. It’s a lot of work but fun at the same time. Cam and I also started a YouTube show, Jeff Smith’s Garage, but since I moved back to Iowa, I have not had time to get back into that. Still photography and writing are where I started and are still my prime direction.
GG: Any advice for upcoming automotive content creators?
Smith: Be true to your readers. Do your research and dig up the information they need to be successful. One thing that bothers me are online “stories” that are little more than a press release. That reveals minimal effort. Hot Rod’s longtime technical editor Marlan Davis was the best at going far beyond the normal effort to dig up useful material. His “Hot Rod to the Rescue” series was fantastic. It was extremely difficult to produce. I did the wrench spinning on two of them for him, but they were real-world problem-solving stories.