By Brian Paglia
If there is one race track inextricably linked to Atlanta Motor Speedway's Thursday Thunder series, it is six hours and two states north in the epicenter of American racing. As well as any driver may perform in the "Thunder Ring" at AMS, the path to a career in NASCAR inevitably weaves toward Lowes Motor Speedway, toward Charlotte, N.C., toward the home of the majority of ownership groups that prop up the industry's most recognizable stars.
AMS and Lowes are united both by the company that owns them (Speedway Motorsports Inc.) and that many of Thursday Thunder's successful drivers test their skills at both tracks.
Ostensibly both tracks seem similar. The common ownership of Sppeedway Motorsports Inc. ensures those similarities. They are flat, quarter-mile short tracks designed around pit row. Thursday Thunder and Lowe's Tuesday night Summer Shootout series run through the summer for nearly the same duration. And the goal of each is to help young drivers develop and offer an affordable and entertaining event.
"Much like you would see similarities if you went to our different Sprint Cup races, you see a lot of those similarities roll over into our short-track programs as well," AMS Race and Competition Director Brandon Hutchison said. "We are very focused on the entertainment factor that this style of racing provides."
But racers find Lowes at Charlotte a fierce animal to conquer, and their families acknowledge there are stark differences in the actual racing experience between the two tracks.
Zac Kittle, who drives for David Ragan and races in Thursday Thunder's Pro division, just began racing in Charlotte this season. At AMS he's encounter tough scrutiny over the amount of wrecks in races and the contact that drivers make with one another.
At Lowes, wrecks and contact are typical of its Legends races, which he attributes to both the larger size of the fields and the greater intensity of the drivers who live within the lure of NASCAR stardom that seems so reachable in Charlotte.
"There's just so many cars," Kittle said, "that everyone's so competitive and so close. You have to be on the wheel every lap, and you have to be extremely aggressive. There's just so many cars that you're going to get wrecked twice out of the 10 races. There's so many cars."
Though the driving may be more aggressive in Charlotte, some drivers consider the "Thunder Ring" at AMS more challenging and thus driver-friendly. Charlotte's short-track is smoother, has easier transitions and wider turns, drivers say. AMS has tighter turns, not slight embankments on the turns and a slight dip going into turn three.
"Charlotte to me is easier to drive," AMS President Ed Clark said. "It's a little shorter, a little flatter, has a little more bank to it."
"(AMS) is definitely a harder track," said Winston-Salem, N.C., native John Holleman III. "But it's a lot more fun. The competition's better. The track's more for drivers and not for fans."
And Holleman's mother, Vicki, said AMS's racing experience is superior to Charlotte's in the way it treats the drivers and their families.
"People are a lot nicer down here," Vicki said. "Everyone's friendlier. It's more of a family environment. In Charlotte, people are no where near as friendly. We love it down here. We wish AMS was closer to home."