Racing fever consumes Thorne
Jim Thorne's foot has gone from in his mouth to the gas pedal in the last 10 years.
Looking for a vehicle for his tree service in 1992, Thorne was searching for a truck. While surveying the area, he found one for sale and visited the owner's house.
A race enthusiast with a little experience, Thorne noticed the owner's extensive racing photos and memorabilia on the walls. Thorne spotted one car on the wall and discussed the driver's performance. He discussed how that particular driver did this and that and bullied his way to a win in a race Thorne also competed in.
The truck owner was Tom Charles as was the driver in the picture.
Thorne realized his faux pas, and later purchased Charles' truck. In the spirit of racing, the vehicle eventually was sideswiped by a dump truck.
Ironically, the two didn't communicate again until Thorne became a full-fledged racer in 1998. But now, the two modified-car drivers are close friends.
Of course, Charles, who has won more than 300 modified races, enjoys telling the story to others. Thorne laughs about it, too, but will tell anyone how impressive Charles is.
"He's an idol to me," Thorne said.
Last winter, the two drivers constructed a modified car that Thorne now drives.
Born to drive
Thorne's racing career actually started down a different track. Thorne's father always enjoyed demolition derbies, which ignited Thorne's interest in the sport. In 1976, at the age of 16, Thorne searched for a car to enter into a derby. Many vehicles were too expensive, but the Thornes finally found a junker that would work for between $25 and $30.
It turned out to be a winner, though. Thorne took first in his heat race, with many to come after that.
Thorne, though, wanted a change of pace. After 20 years of adult bumper cars, he started racing cars rather than destroying them in 1996. He then looked into purchasing a vehicle he could drive four years ago after racing in a cruiser division.
"I got the bug real bad," Thorne said.
Thorne, who lives in Reno, which is southwest of Tonganoxie, transitioned from demolition derbies to auto racing, but the crossover came with growing pains.
Auto racing was definitely a change of pace.
"I've done a lot of things in my life, but this is one of the most humbling things in my life," Thorne said.
It took some time, but Thorne gradually made his way up the modified standings, taking 15th at Lakeside Speedway in Kansas City, Kan., and 10th at Heartland Park Topeka in the overall season standings. He also frequents Central Missouri Speedway in Warrensburg, Mo. The competition allows his parents, who live less than an hour away, to attend some of their son's races.
The only drawback for Thorne is the home crowd. If you're not local, you're not liked.
"It's a different crowd," he said.
Closer to home, Thorne appreciates the atmosphere a little more. At Lakeside Speedway, fans can come down on the track to snag autographs and talk to drivers. The fan interaction is a hit with Thorne. One young fan begged him to sign her shirt, while another young fan, with tears in his eyes, handed Charles a dollar his allowance to fix a defunct motor he blew earlier in the evening.
"There might be a little Earnhardt out there," Thorne said. "You never know."
Racing consumes much of Thorne's life from spring through early fall. Along with his tree-service career, Thorne spends 40 to 50 hours a week working on his car or racing it.
Racing has become the Thornes' pastime.
"We don't drink, we don't dance, we don't do any of that silly stuff," Thorne said. "This is all we do."
Family outings usually occur at the races or in Thorne's garage because that's where any spare time is spent.
Jimmy Thorne, 22, and Heather Thorne, 17, know where to go to spend time with their father. Thorne knows the importance of his family's support, especially from his wife, Dee.
"She's the driving force behind this mess, I guess you could say," Thorne said.
Some spouses might not always enjoy their husbands' hobbies, but Dee supported Thorne's participation from the beginning.
"When he was ready to go into racing, I was tickled," Dee said. "I wasn't kicking and screaming at all."
Whether it was demo derby junker or a modified racer, Dee has had a hand in painting the vehicles and keeping them clean.
Thorne has also found assistance outside the family. Eric Knuckolls, Eudora, who raced with Thorne in the cruiser division in 1997, is a major part of Thorne's pit crew. The Thorne team also has help on Saturdays from 15-year-old Tyler Bundy, Tonganoxie.
"He's probably my biggest fan," Thorne said. "He's the next generation coming up. Everyone needs that hand."
A word from our sponsors
Advertising is a major player in auto racing. NASCAR vehicles are slapped with bunches of sponsors' decals.
Thorne also has a few and hopes to add some to the list.
Scotty's Auto Repair, Eastside Auto Parts and the racer's own Thorne's Tree Service are the Tonganoxie sponsors, while C-man Graphics, Lawrence, is the fourth contributor.
While other drivers attract larger sponsors such as Price Chopper and Sonic, Thorne is happy to have support from local businesses.
But, he said a few more wouldn't hurt for a sport that can get pricey.
"It doesn't pay its own bills, usually," Thorne said.
In the driver's seat
To be successful in racing, confidence is the key, he said.
Even a slight strut is healthy.
"You have to be halfway conceited to be good in this sport," Thorne said.
The Reno native has built up his confidence, but also takes pride in his humility. In his first year in the modified circuit, he was named sportsman of the year, and has been known for that attribute at most of the tracks he races at.
That accomplishment sometimes compromises a higher finish, but Thorne just enjoys competing and improving his spot in the standings.
Frank Hughes, a former driver who lives up the road from Thorne, stops in occasionally at Thorne's garage. Hughes summed up the rush that racing could give a person.
"There's something about going into the wall at 80 miles per hour and then turning the wheel," Hughes said.
Thorne's unsure how much longer he'll enjoy that thrill and the others he's grown accustomed to while racing. It certainly has its frustrating moments as well on Saturday, for example, he blew a motor at Lakeside.
But at this point, he knows he doesn't want to hang up the helmet anytime soon.
"As long as I get a little better each year," Thorne said.