Summer racing series begins

By Anthony Rhoads

Stockbridge's Jim Gresham would rather forget about last year's opening race of Atlanta Motor Speedway's Thursday Thunder summer racing series.

Gresham didn't even get to compete in the feature race of the Thunder Roadster Division as he wrecked his car in a qualifying race.

But Gresham came back to win five races and he completed his worst-to-first season by capturing the points championship. Gresham also competed in the Masters Division last year, finishing eighth in the final standings.

Starting Thursday, Gresham and his fellow competitors will get back into action as the green flag will drop on the 2004 Thursday Thunder season.

Gresham again will pull double duty this year as he plans to race in both the Roadsters and Masters divisions.

"I think we'll have a good season," Gresham said.

Gresham has a unique perspective on Thursday Thunder as he competes in two different styles of cars. The Roadsters are open-wheel racecars similar to Indy cars of the 1960s. The Legends cars are 5/8 reproductions of classic cars of the 1930s and 40s.

"They're totally different," he said. "The Roadsters drive more like a full-size car; the Legends are like rollerskating on ice. It's a tremendous challenge to drive."

Thursday Thunder not only provides an outlet for Gresham to compete but like many other drivers, he makes the racing series a time he can spend with family.

His 11-year-old grandson Max Gresham has raced in Thursday Thunder since 2001.

"That's one of the best things about this series is that it's a good family experience for the drivers and the fans," Atlanta Motor Speedway president and general manager Ed Clark said. "It's fun to see the family and kids come out and have a good time."

Thursday Thunder also gives Clark a chance to change from a race-track executive to competitor on the race track.

Clark competes in the Masters Division and plans to race a full schedule this year. Last year, he raced in seven events and posted one top-five finish.

"It's a ton of fun," Clark said. "I really enjoy getting in the car and I enjoy the camaraderie with the other guys. Last year, I crashed and four different guys helped work on the car to get it ready to race."

In addition to being a place where hobby racers can compete, the series has turned into a solid proving ground for drivers who want to move up into higher levels of racing.

Several drivers have gone to on to compete in national series including Reed Sorenson, who won the American Speed Association rookie of the year in 2003. Sorenson was then signed to a developmental contract with Chip Ganassi, one of the premier owners in racing.

Other Thursday Thunder alumni include Joey Clanton, who won the 2002 ASA national points championship and competed in the NASCAR Busch Series last year and two NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series races this year; Doug Stevens, who has raced in many ASA, ARCA and HootersPro Cup events; and Michelle Theriualt, a current competing in Hooters ProCup.

"I hope in a year or so, I'll be out there with them," said Chris Dilbeck, a recent Henry County High School graduate who raced at Thursday Thunder since 1999.