0

Thursday Thunder doing well despite tough economy

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

The choreography begins immediately, and it is what Cody Haskins must do right now to survive as a driver.

Haskins, statistically the best Semi-Pro driver thus far in Atlanta Motor Speedway's Thursday Thunder summer series, juggles the black No. 99 Legends car, the one Young Lions driver Justin Thomas and his family own. While Thomas develops with his car, so does Haskins, and thus a fluid dance ensues each Thursday night.

Haskins drives the car for his Semi-Pro race, has a few minutes to tweak it, then watches Thomas do the same.

"I come in (from my race)," Haskins said, "get out of the car, do a little work to it and then Justin gets in the car and does his race."

It is what Haskins must do - but also relishes - to prolong his racing career.

He has lost sponsorship and been given that ever-coveted independence from his racing father to financially support his own endeavor. Wherever Haskins' driving future goes, he is on his own. So to endure, Haskins works as Thomas' crew chief, who in turn allows Haskins, 17, to use that black No. 99 Legends car.

In Haskins there tells one story of the impact of the recent economic maelstrom on Thursday Thunder, but around him there are other signs, though they are not as gloomy as one would assume.

"It's not extreme," AMS President and General Manager Ed Clark said. "I'm sure it's cost us some cars. I'm sure guys had to park their cars and maybe cut back, and instead of running Lanier and here run one or the other. But it hasn't been extreme by any means."

Indeed, AMS anticipated that with its niche market in Thursday Thunder as a frugal form of adrenaline entertainment, it could weather economic turmoil, or perhaps even thrive because of it. Families would shorten their travels, staying closer to home and Thursday Thunder would greet them with affordable $5 tickets and thrilling racing. Maybe the grandstands would flourish with new fans.

If there was going to be an impact, maybe it would be in the garage, where the drivers spend nearly $300-400 a week to compete. Maybe a fuller grandstand would watch a smaller field.

But AMS has been surprised.

"We thought the car count would go down, but the grandstand might go up because people were staying closer to home rather than traveling," Legends of Georgia director Peter Horne said. "It's $5 tickets, and you can't beat that for the price of entertainment.

"But the car count seems to be holding up and it seems like the grandstand has taken a hit. It's nothing extreme, but it's gone down a little."

Clark said Thursday Thunder participation has been down about 10 percent compared to last season. On opening night last year, there were 102 drivers. This season there were 93 drivers for a weather-delayed opening.

Since then the car count has dropped steadily, though not drastically, until last week, when there were 79 cars. But 62 cars attended yesterday's practice, the most all season.

"I think last week when it dropped to 79 cars, we were a little concerned," Horne said. "But to hear that there were 62 cars at practice - I think we'll be back up in the high 80s again."

The cost of fuel and the general resources needed to compete have dropped Thursday Thunder's car count, though Haskins' ordeal began when his sponsor retracted their support. Haskins was racing late-model cars at Lanier and other tracks around Georgia, which costs as much as $2,000 a week. His sponsor could no longer afford that.

So to race Legends, Haskins went to work. By working with Thomas, he gets paid to support his racing and has a car. But only Thomas has given him a chance to be a crew chief.

"It's just not many people are going to trust a 17-year-old kid as a full-time crew chief," Haskins said.

The work of being a driver has become more arduous for Haskins, but he returns every week now. "Ever since I was 9-years-old it's been my dream to win this series," he said. Though he labors in the most uncertain time of his racing career, he comes back to Thursday Thunder at AMS for the same reason a surprisingly significant number of drivers have despite the economic conditions.

"People need an outlet," Clark said, "a way to get away from all that. As racing goes, Legends cars are an extremely efficient way to go racing, a cost-effective way."