His legend wouldn’t allow him to be a spectator.

This was the inspiration which nudged Rickie Smith back into driving during next weekend’s O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at Bruton Smith’s palatial zMAX Dragway located on the grounds of Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Smith was involved in a two-car crash back in June at Bristol (Tenn.) Dragway where he and Pete Farber collided in the shutdown area. Farber was uninjured, Smith didn’t walk away as lucky. In fact, he didn’t walk at all.

The accident took off the top of Smith’s kneecap. For the former high school athlete, surgery was not only intended to allow him to walk again properly but also to provide a chance to adequately work his clutch pedal again.

The King, N.C. native was supposed to be out of action for at least three months. This included keeping weight off of his leg, maintaining a strict regimen of physical rehabilitation and remaining incapacitated until the severely damaged cartilage healed itself.

The doctors greatly underestimated the resolve of a drag racer, who as a sportsman competitor was so dominant, racers stopped showing up to race his class, leaving the sanctioning body no other choice but to cancel the class.

“I wouldn’t be driving if the doctors hadn’t have cleared me to race,” said Smith, who competed recently in the NHRA U.S. Nationals and finished as a quarter-finalist. “Once the doctor told me I could walk on it and go back to work… my job is a drag racer, so I figured I had better get back to work. I felt like I needed to get back out here for my sponsor too.”

Days before his accident, Smith had inked a major sponsorship with the Belmont-based Industrial Distribution Group [IDG] and had planned to debut a sleek new 2012 Camaro at the NHRA U.S. Nationals two weeks before the O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals at zMAX Dragway.

The accident forced Smith into Plan B, where he trained son Matt into the nuances of driving a nitrous-injected Pro Modified, as opposed to his championship-winning Pro Stock Motorcyle. The elder Smith didn’t have to school the kid on the finer points of driving a full-bodied car, as he currently holds the record as being the quickest in eighth-mile competition while racing overseas in Qatar last fall.

Being a good teacher, Smith believes, came from decades of match racing and competing on the now-defunct IHRA Mountain Motor Pro Stock series in the 1970s and 80s, where he stands as an iconic driver for this breed of race vehicle.

Smith stepped into the professional ranks during the 1978 season and within two years made drag racing history as he drove a 1978 Mustang II sponsored by country singers The Oak Ridge Boys to the first seven second run in Pro Stock history in Rockingham, N.C.

Smith cannot help but smile every time he tells the story of the momentous occasion.

“They came to the end of the track and hooked my car up to a tow vehicle,” Smith said. “They told me to go with them. I thought I was in trouble or something. I was so new to this Pro Stock game but I had never heard of them tearing somebody’s car down on the starting line.”

It was just the opposite. Smith was greeted by the late Larry Carrier, the first promoter to bring major league drag racing to the Charlotte area in 1974, and presented him with the historic time slip.

Smith would go on to win 32 Mountain Motor Pro Stock events and appear in 54 final rounds. He also scored victories in NHRA Pro Stock, ADRL Pro Nitrous and the NHRA’s crown jewel, the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis back in the formative stages of Pro Modified racing under the NHRA sanction.

Smith’s exploits behind the wheel also earned a spot in Bristol Dragway’s Legends of Thunder Valley, a Hall of Fame for the track.

Smith can hardly speak of his drag racing career without eyes welling with tears. This time, Smith believes it’s okay to cry when you’re talking about being blessed as he believes he has.

“I got out of high school and had a small football scholarship – I had been married four months and my wife was three months pregnant,” said Smith. “We have been married thirty six years now. When I went to driving bulldozers in construction with my grandfather, I only drove cars when I could find the time.

“But I worked many years to learn how to win and when I learned I just kept trying to do what I knew how to do the best. I only wanted to win. I was living my dream. I worked at it hard and lost a lot of time with my kids. I gave up a lot of my personal time to win those championships. You don’t realize that until you get old and see what you gave up. I can’t say that I would have done it different even though I know better now. Some moments you’ll never get back in life.

“I just look back at all the stuff I did in my life. I am blown away at the good fortunes that came my way. It’s more than you can ever imagine.”

And for Smith, who believes he still has a couple of years left in him as a driver, driving a racecar in the Carolinas was awfully good to him.

The six-race NHRA Full Throttle Countdown to the Championship postseason begins when the Full Throttle Drag Racing Series returns to zMAX Dragway, Sept. 15-18, for the fourth annual O’Reilly Auto Parts NHRA Nationals.

Tickets start at $20 and are available by calling 1-800-455-FANS (3267) or online at www.zmaxdragway.com.

Connect with zMAX Dragway and stay up to speed with all the happenings at the Bellagio of drag strips on Facebook at www.facebook.com/zmaxdragway and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/zmaxdragway.