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Green flag ready to drop

By Anthony Rhoads

It's almost time for local racecar drivers to start their engines.

For 10 weeks throughout the summer, racers will compete at Atlanta Motor Speedway's Thursday Thunder series. The green flag on the 2003 season will drop next week on June 5 and racing action will continue each Thursday until Aug. 7.

Since its beginning in 1998, Thursday Thunder has become a popular event for local race fans. Attendance runs at more than 1,000 each week with last year's July 4 event attracting a Thursday Thunder record crowd of more than 7,000.

"This is really a lot of fun for us," Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark said. "It's just a fun activity to come out and do. It's a fun activity you can do together. We certainly enjoy it and we're going to have a great summer."

The racing events aren't held on the 1 1/2-mile track but on the speedway's "Thunder Ring," the quarter-mile track that includes the main frontstretch and pit road.

"It's a small track and you beat and bang," Thursday Thunder competitor and 2002 Chargers Division champion Bubba Harry said. "It's tough competition. It's tough to pass; it's hard to race here. If you can race here, you can race anywhere."

Thursday Thunder has given young drivers like Harry (who is 18) a chance to work their way up the ranks.

Henry County High School student and Hampton resident Chris Dilbeck is another young driver who wants to race in NASCAR someday.

Dilbeck won three races last year and finished third in the final Semi-Pro Division points standings.

"This is definitely my home track," Dilbeck said. "I pass it every day on my way to school and I pass it every day on my way home. I also intern here for the NASCAR races so I can learn more about racing. It's the coolest thing."

Thursday Thunder racing is not just for the boys. In recent years, female drivers have proven they can be competitive with the men.

In 2001, Cindy Anderson became the first woman to win a feature race at Thursday Thunder and went on to four victories that season in the Semi-Pro B Division.

That season, teen driver Michelle Theriault also made history when she became the woman to win a points title when she won four races and the season championship in the Young Lions Division.

Bre Sharp, a 12-year-old from Jonesboro, is looking to follow in the footsteps of Anderson and Theriault.

Sharp has raced in the Bandolero Bandits Division since 2001 and was fourth in the final rankings last year.

"This year I want to win the points championship," she said. "I think I can learn from last year. I have the experience now and I think that will help me this year."

This season, Sharp is moving up to the Young Guns Division, which is for drivers ages 12 to 16. Bandits is the youngest division with competitors ages 8 to 11.

The premier division at Thursday Thunder is the Pro Division. In that division, drivers must have successfully completed in another form of professional racing.

Drivers can also be eligible for the Pro Division if they first compete in Semi-Pro (a division one step down from Pro) or Masters (a division for drivers 40 and older).

Other divisions in Thursday Thunder include the Bandolero Outlaws (for drivers 17 and older), Chargers (for beginners), and Roadsters (an open-wheel division for drivers 16 or older). Thursday Thunder has been a stepping stone for some drivers who want to compete in the highest levels of racing.

Some Thursday Thunder alumni include current NASCAR Busch Series and 2002 American Speed Association champion Joey Clanton, ASA and ARCA competitor Doug Stevens and Reed Sorenson, who is challenging for this year's ASA rookie of the year award.