Regan Smith has taken to life in the Colorado high country like a mountain goat. Last summer, he and his wife moved into a new home deep enough in the wilderness that wild animals occasionally wander onto their back porch. He took part in a Warren Miller ski film in which his No. 78 Chevrolet, outfitted with studded snow tires and a ski rack on its roof, skidded along the snowy mountain passes near Telluride, with U.S. freestyle skier Jess McMillan in the passenger seat. He even got caught up in the Denver Broncos' playoff run, no small feat for a driver typically interested only in auto racing and ice hockey.
But hey, thin air can make people do strange things. So can driving for the only Sprint Cup organization based out of Denver, which led Smith to leave the NASCAR hub around Charlotte, N.C., and relocate to the front range of the Rockies in a move his Furniture Row Racing team considers much more than just a geographic shift.
"Personally, I can't even put a value on it, because it's really special," said Joe Garone, the team's general manager. "He's saying, just as he does with his driving, 'I'm 100 percent in. I'm all in. I want to be with my guys, I want to be close to the team.' Now, making that move, I don't think it was that tough for him, because he loves to ski. ... But he loves the mountain life up there, and I think it's a big deal. I think it's a big statement from him."
Furniture Row made a big statement of its own this past spring, when the single-car organization closely allied with Richard Childress Racing won at Darlington Raceway for its breakthrough first victory in NASCAR's premier series. Now the task is to build on that, to deliver more consistent results and perhaps multiple race wins, and having Smith in Colorado is all part of the master plan. Smith bought his new home in Denver the same week as his Southern 500 victory, and moved in two months later. For a driver and a team that started out on a limited basis in 2009, went full time the next season, and finally found their legs last year, it was the perfect time.
"Originally, I wanted to get there somehow," Smith said. "The second year when we went to full time, it was pretty evident by the midway point of the season that I needed to be there -- to be able to walk trough the shop, to be able to see the guys, to be able to do that more often in between this race and that race every month or two or something. I'm somebody who, I enjoy being around the shop. I enjoy being around that, seeing what they're doing, seeing the new parts that they're building, seeing the guys who maybe don't travel with us. .... I think in order to do that, I had to be in Denver. That being said, it took a little longer than anticipated for reasons out of everybody's control with the housing situation and stuff like that ... but I'm very fortunate to be there now, and I'm loving it."
For Smith, 28, the move to Denver marked the first time he has lived outside of the Charlotte area since he first moved south from upstate New York. "It's certainly different," he said, particularly when his wife, Megan, calls to report a bear on the back porch. "She was scared half to death," he said. The Smiths also have seen bobcats, mountain lions and elk traverse their back yard, all of them serving as reminders that they're not in North Carolina anymore.
Although it's not unusual for a driver to live far from his race shop -- for instance, Tony Stewart's primary address is Columbus, Ind., while Carl Edwards' is in Columbia, Mo. -- that luxury is typically reserved for top-tier drivers with their own aircraft, an extravagance Smith does not have. When he was first signed by Furniture Row, Garone and team owner Barney Visser expressed to Smith a desire to have their driver eventually live in Denver. Visser's company, which also backs the race car, is headquartered in the Colorado capital, which led to the race team being based there.
"Barney and I, when we first talked to him, we told him openly, 'We think you need to come to Colorado, just because it makes the team stronger,' " said Garone, a former Cup Series crew chief who also is a Denver native. "We understood what a big deal that was for him. But it shows you the faith he has in our race team, just like we do with him. It's a big deal."
So was the victory at Darlington, which the team hopes to build on this year thanks to what it calls an "open book" alliance with RCR. Smith has long been friends with RCR driver Paul Menard, and this past spring began brainstorming regularly with RCR's Jeff Burton, with whom he shares some tendencies inside the race car. "Think of Furniture Row as a fourth car at RCR," said team technical director Mark McArdle. Due to sponsorship concerns, RCR scaled back from four full-time cars to three for this season, although it will field a fourth vehicle in at least the first five races of the 2012 campaign.
Furniture Row obtains its cars from RCR, gets its engines from the Earnhardt-Childress engine-building consortium, and receives technical help from RCR. When the team went full time in 2010, its points for the first five races came from the former No. 07 car of RCR. When the team's transporter was involved in an accident outside Denver, a replacement came from RCR. About the only thing Furniture Row doesn't get from RCR is its pit crew, which is supplied by Stewart-Haas Racing.
"I think when it's all said and done, we can communicate openly about anything we want to talk about, and learn anything we need to learn from them, and vice versa. That's the best relationship you can possibly have," Smith said. "It's been compared to other relationships in the garage area, and personally, I don't compare it to any other relationship, because I think ours is more open than anybody else's out there."
The hope is that relationship will help net better results for a team that was among the best in Sprint Cup qualifying last year (14.8 average start, 11 top-10 starts), but all over the map when it came to race results (21.5 average finish, five top-five finishes). Despite the Darlington win, Smith finished 26th in final points, a fact that scuttled any hope of making the Chase as a wild card. The goals in 2012 are to race forward from qualifying position, and smooth out the bedeviling inconsistencies that plagued a team that would finish seventh one week and 34th the next. "The consistency part is something we're going to work on hard," crew chief Pete Rondeau said.
Toward that end, Smith's model is another RCR driver -- Kevin Harvick, who has shown a knack for squeezing the most out of his car at the end. "I certainly think this is our year, that this is the year that this team takes the next step," Smith said. "I felt last year that we could win races, and we accomplished that. I think this year we can win more than one race. I think we can accomplish that."
That is, if he can get out of Colorado first. Earlier this week on Twitter, Smith reported that he was snowed in after the area around his house had received more than 15 inches of snow. "Should have bought those snowmobiles," he wrote. In the high country, life is always an adventure.