Leroi “Tex” Smith – Prolific Author, Hot Rod Pioneer
The early, post-World War II hot rod culture of Southern California was awash in talent, innovators such as Ed Iskenderian, visionaries like Wally Parks, journalists like Dean Batchelor, to name but a few. Leroi “Tex” Smith would be a first-ballot member of this exclusive club.
Tex was born on January 4, 1934 in Oklahoma to Ester Mae Welch, with both Cherokee and Choctaw heritage. Ester married one Carlos Debs Smith when Tex was six, thus the Smith surname. The family moved frequently and Tex bounced from school to school, eventually graduating from high school in Idaho. Luckily for Tex, his stepfather was a handy with a spanner; he introduced Tex to tinkering with old cars.
Baseball also captivated young LeRoi. His diamond exploits were good enough to earn a pro contract with the St. Louis Cardinals. Unfortunately, the Korean War intervened, and he was drafted. He joined the US Air Force cadet program and learned to fly jet fighters while stationed in France and Germany. During this time, he also met his first wife, Peggy, who brought four Smith children into the world: son Scott, and three daughters, Shawna, Stacey, and Sierra.
Upon his release from the military, Tex, who had reached out Wally Parks while overseas, joined the Hot Rod magazine staff as an associate editor. Through his relationship with Parks, Tex participated in the NHRA’s seminal Drag Racing Safety Safari that introduced the sport across the land.
Tex Smith left Hot Rod in 1964 to pursue a freelance writing career. He was a gifted and prolific writer. He penned a wide range of books on hot rodding, go-karting, and other topics, including “We Came in Peace,” a recounting of the moon landing. It sold more than 4 million copies.
There really wasn’t much Tex didn’t do. He produced TV shows, orchestrated magazine promotions, carried out PR campaigns, and of course, wrote technical books on hot rodding. During this period, he also freelanced for Rod & Custom magazine, where his long-term fishing buddy Tom Medley had taken over as publisher and steered the editorial package toward “the street.” The duo’s creative collaboration hit its zenith with the formation of the first Street Rod Nationals in 1970 – in part by a faux $750 freelance writing check to Smith!
About this time, Tex also helped Tom McMullen launch Street Rodder magazine, which soon became the leading publication on the hobby. Later, he became editor of Old Car Weekly in Krause, Wisconsin, before heading to Dallas, Texas, to become PR director for the “Great American Race” cross-country excursion for antique automobiles.
In 1985, Tex retired to the wilds of Idaho to pursue the elusive rainbow trout. But his restless professional spirit prevailed, and in 1987 he launched yet another magazine, Hot Rod Mechanix, a hands-on book aimed at low-buck rodding and the do-it-yourself ethic. Tex was always a strong believer in simple hod rods, making use of wrecking yard bits whenever possible. He proved the point with his “dollar-a-pound” roadster, a ’30 Ford highboy fashioned from odd bits, including a Volvo four-cylinder engine. It’s more than ironic that while at Hot Rod he spearheaded the XR-6 project car, a futuristic take on the traditional roadster. The car was a harbinger of today’s modern designer hot rods. Adding to the irony, the XR-6 won the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster trophy at the Oakland Roadster Show.
In addition to Hot Rod Mechanix, Tex Smith Publishing produced a wide range of automotive books on traditional hot rodding, on Flathead engines, on history, on fat-fendered rods, on, well, you name it. Like noted earlier, Tex was prolific.
Retirement called again in 1999, this time for real. That year he visited Australia for the first time, having developed a friendship with Larry O’Toole who published hot rod books and magazines down under. After Peggy passed away in 2001, Tex returned to Australia and remarried – and he stayed in Australia until his passing in 2015.
While Tex backed off the throttle in his later years, he found the time and energy to put his life down on paper. No one had more stories than Tex Smith. He could spin a yarn like few others. Before he passed, he saw an early proof of the book. O’Toole reported that Tex was pleased with the result.
Goodguys founder Gary Meadors had been close friends with Tex since the late-’60s. “Tex was the guy who led the charge for the beginnings of street rod magazines and that of course led to coverage of street rod events and other forms of hot rodding,” Meadors once said. “Without that leadership, our hobby and industry probably would not be what it is today.”
And that is as good a definition of a hot rod legend as one can find.