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Sam William Smith

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Sam William Smith, born February 10, 1942 in Los Angeles to Sam Henry Smith of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Gertrude Eileen Mulick of Omaha, Nebraska, died on July 9, 2017 in his home in Torrance, California. He was 75 years old.

As a young boy he lived on Stearns Drive in Los Angeles before the family moved to Inglewood, where he grew up. Intellectually gifted, he excelled in mathematics and physical sciences, but had a flair for language as well, as evinced by a second-place plaque for a high school essay on crime prevention. His studies in French and Spanish enabled him to read Cervantes in Spanish and Victor Hugo in French. Despite lifelong asthma, he ran track at school. He graduated from Inglewood High School in 1959 and took engineering courses at El Camino College.

Best friend and fellow Mobile filling station mechanic Tom Willhite introduced him to Martha Lou Trammell, sister of Tom's wife Ruth. Sam and Martha were married on June 26, 1964. They lived in Redondo Beach before settling permanently in Torrance, California. They raised two sons, Sam Wesley and William Joseph, separated in 1989 and divorced in 2003. Sam never remarried.

His 33-year career with the City of Torrance began in 1966 when he was hired as a surveyor in the Building and Safety Department. He held various positions with the City over the years, including Public Works (grading) Inspector, Draftsman, Civil Engineering Assistant and finally, Assistant Engineer, the position from which he retired in 2000. A set of revisions to the Uniform Building Code for soil grade and drainage sloping proposed with supervisor Bill Becker was a career highlight. The revisions were later ratified and adopted by the City.

Sam's great passions were motorsport racing and engineering. An original "American Graffiti" kid, he and elder brother Jack spent late nights on weekends building "cherry" hot rods. Together they were fixtures on the drag racing scene in Long Beach, California. Sam was Class Champion in the American Hot Rod Association World Championship at Lions Draft Strip in 1965 and 1966 and set a world drag racing record in 1965. He also ran cars at Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1968 through 1970, placing first in his class there in 1970.

From hot rods, the motorsport enthusiasm expanded to motorcycle trial riding and road racing. On February 14, 1981, a motorcycle accident in the Palos Verdes Hills nearly killed him, breaking his pelvis in seven places, a medical record. After a 12-hour operation, four months in the hospital and eight months' recovery, he returned to life and work on crutches with a partially paralyzed leg, nerve damage and chronic neuropathic pain. Disabled but undaunted, he faced the many adversities life held in store for him with a courageous tenacity that can only be described as heroic.

Despite the accident, he remained a motorsports enthusiast to the end, watching races on TV, studying magazines, attending car shows, and, until his final years, fixing his own cars. The Laird Smith Triumph motorcycle, a collaborative project with high-school friend John Laird, set a World Land Speed Record of 106.490 in SCTA Class 650CC/P-PP on August 14, 2012 at Bonneville Salt Flats.

In addition to motorsports, before his accident he also enjoyed running, swimming and body surfing. After the accident, he lifted weights and took long walks on his crutches to Palos Verdes and back. As a spectator, he watched football, boxing and the Olympics, attending the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles with his family. He loved the outdoors and feeling the heat of the sun on his skin.

He loved music, always listening and learning to appreciate diverse genres, from country and western to opera. He taught himself the rudiments of guitar with the Frederick Noad Method on public television. Some of the favorite concerts he attended included Ray Charles, the Platters, Willie Nelson, B.B. King, Roger Waters, Don McLean, Phantom of the Opera and Smokey Robinson.

Sam continuously explored his native environment and commanded an encyclopedic knowledge of Los Angeles and its history. He drove fast in the mountains and widely around the country before the accident. His travels eventually brought him to Mexico and England. Even as his mobility declined, he cruised the neighborhood on his own in an electric wheelchair.

He savored good food and was known to drive as far as San Diego just for a tasty Mexican combo plate at Casa Del Pico. In addition to Mexican, he loved chili dogs, Italian food and Philippe's Original French Dip sandwiches best. For the better part of two decades, he kept a regular luncheon date at Ragin' Cajun restaurant with long-time friend Bill Becker.

For better and for worse, Sam had a philosophical bent; he remained voraciously curious to the end of his days. A famous talker, his Irish gift of the gab would keep you up at night if you gave him half a chance. His passion for politics shifted from the conservative to the liberal spectrum over the years. While it may have been easy to disagree with him, it was difficult to discount him. Most who knew him would say that, despite and because of his shortcomings, he was truly a wise man.

Though he had a temper, particularly as a younger man, this softened over the years, and many people knew him as a kindhearted and generous soul. His hearty laugh was instantly recognizable, and he never lost his sense of humor: despite obvious physical pain and discomfort, he made wisecracks to his nurses the day before he died.

Most of all, he never stopped changing, evolving and growing in his journey as a human being.

He is survived by his ex-wife, Martha Ortega, two sons, Sam Wesley (wife Carmen Lemoine), 45 and William Joseph, 40, (wife Jennifer Tran Smith), William's two daughters, Josephine Saffron Tran, 9 and Virginia Lou, 5, a step brother, Martin Greisiger, Jr., and a nephew, Michael Smith, son of elder brother Jack Michael Smith, as well as dear friends