Tommorow's stars racing at Thursday Thunder

By Doug Gorman

I've written many times in the pages of the News-Daily and Daily-Herald how I never thought much of auto racing before moving to the Southern Crescent.

I held tight to that nasty stereotype that racing was for "rednecks."

I made all the jokes, mocked the way drivers talked and sounded totally ignorant.

Even after going to college in North Carolina where the sport of auto racing is second perhaps only to ACC basketball in popularity among sports fans, I couldn't talk myself into liking racing

It took my first assignment at Atlanta Motor Speedway for a NASCAR event before I really grasped what all the fuss was about among the throng of racing fans.

I quickly realized NASCAR fans came from all walks of life.

Yes, some are beer-guzzling "good-ole boys" (but aren't many college football fans too?), some are cooperate executives and some arestay-at-home moms. Some are college students and some are families who are just seeking a good time.

Now, you can count me among racing's converts.

One of my favorite moments was my one-on-one conversation with Adam Petty. As in true Petty fashion, he made me feel at ease. Months later, he was killed in a wreck while testing in New Hampshire. That one hit me pretty hard.

I quickly learned the average NASCAR fan picks a favorite driver to cheer for like a college football fan cheers for his favorite school. There's no middle ground. A Georgia fan never cheers for Georgia Tech, and Jeff Gordon fans aren't going to praise Tony Stewart.

But it wasn't the little subcultures that make up NASCAR that finally got me hooked on racing.

That came when I started covering Thursday Thunder at AMS. The popular 10-week summer racing series has brought the sport to the masses, because its affordable and offers men, women, boys and girls who have a need for speed, the chance to participate.

The closest most drivers in Thursday Thunder will ever get to a Winston Cup race is a computer video game, but it's still a great time.

For a small collection of drivers, Thursday Thunder appears to be serving as a great springboard to the "Major Leagues" of racing.

Busch Series driver Joey Clanton is a former participant in Thursday Thunder. Last week, the Busch rookie and former champ on the ASA series, turned in a fifth-place finish at Pikes Peak.

Clanton is in contention to win the Busch rookie of the year crown.

Doug Stevens, who has dominated the Pro Division at AMS and is again in contention for his fourth points title, is an occasional driver on the ASA, Hooter and ARCA circuits.

Reed Sorenson, who won several points titles in Thursday Thunder, is contending for the rookie crown at ASA. The high school student has also signed a developmental deal with Chip Ganassi racing.

Michelle Theriault has added a woman's touch to the Thursday Thunder series. In 2001 she became the first and only woman to win a points title at AMS. Today, she races late-model stock cars at Lanier Speedway. Chris Dilbeck and Joey Logano are current drivers in the Pro Division of Thursday Thunder who have legitimate chances of someday competing on the NASCAR circuit.

With all this talent coming out of the AMS summer series, there can be little doubt that somewhere down the road a future Winton Cup champ will be able to say they got there start racing on the AMS quarter-mile for 10 weeks every summer.

Won't that be cool?

Gorman is the sports editor of the Daily. E-mail at dgorman@news-daily.com. He's column appears on Fridays.