By Doug Gorman
When the green flag drops tonight to usher in the seventh season of Thursday Thunder at Atlanta Motor Speedway, this year's participants will have different reasons for competing in the popular 10-week series.
Some will compete simply because they love racing, others will strap themselves into their Legends or Bandolero racers for the sure exhilaration they get from driving fast, while others, especially some of the younger drivers, compete because they have visions of someday driving on the NASCAR Nextel Cup circuit.
Drivers who fall into the latter category have plenty of Thursday Thunder history to fall back on. Since the beginning of the AMS summer series, Thursday Thunder has served as an excellent grass-roots racing program for drivers who view the sport as more than a hobby.
Reed Sorenson, who started racing in the Thursday Thunder series in 1998 has just graduated from Woodward Academy and could be on the brink of racing stardom.
Sorenson won Thursday Thunder points titles in 1998, 99, and 2001. Sorenson is in his second season as a racer on the American Speed Association stockcar series. A year ago he was ASA rookie of the year. Last week, Sorenson made his ARCA debut with a top-5 finish after leading the race most of the way. He has signed a development Busch deal with Chip Ganassi. Sorenson is running full ASA schedule this year and plans on racing in a limited number of Busch races including the fall race in Atlanta.
Joey Clanton raced in a handful of Thursday Thunder events in 1998 and 99, winning once. He has been one of the most dominant drivers on the ASA series, winning the rookie of the year in 2001 and the points championship in 2002.
He started the season on the NASCAR Truck Series, but recently lost his ride. Last year, he raced in 18 Busch races, posting one top-five.
Doug Stevens has won more points championships than anyone else in the history of Thursday Thunder with four Pro Division titles. Stevens also races some on the ASA and ARCA series. He was recently hurt in an ASA race in Kentucky, but he is back in Georgia recuperating.
Michelle Theriault set some track history when she became the first female driver to win a Thursday Thunder track championship, by capturing the Young Lions' Division in 2001. She helped her own cause by winning four of the series' 10 races that season.
Theriault, who graduated from high school last month, now races late models on the Hooters ProCup Series. She has also been featured on "The Drive", a reality television show on Country Music Television, which gives viewers a behind the scenes look at racing.
David Ragan, Joey Logano, and Walt Brannen are all former Thursday Thunder Points champions in various series. All three drivers are now part-time racers on the ARCA circuit.
Logano still holds the Thursday Thunder record for the most overall wins with 14.
Atlanta Motor Speedway President Ed Clark isn't surprised Thursday Thunder has been used as a springboard to bigger and more lucrative series.
"It's a good training ground for young drivers to get seat time," said Clark. "More and more people are racing legends cars now. You'll see more people going to the upper levels. It's neat to see a kid start out in Bandoleros and Legends and move up to late models."