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Young Thornton joins the family business

By Brian Paglia

bpaglia@news-daily.com

The night before Riley Thornton's first race ever, he was talking his dad's ear off. Just back from his first practice session Wednesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the 13-year-old from Peachtree City had much to discuss -- the 17:90 lap time, which he wasn't pleased with and the bump his Bandolero absorbed from another car that bent the axle of his left rear tire.

His thoughts were consumed by that which has consumed his family's life. Racing has been the Thornton's livelihood and their pleasure. Thornton's father, Chris, was just one of many to race. The family business provides two-way communications (radioes) for pit crews and drivers and track officials.

Perhaps it was only a matter of time, then, that this night would come. Tonight will be Thornton's first race ever, when he enters his No. 21 Bandolero into the Bandits division of Thursday Thunder.

"I'm kind of nervous," Thornton said, "but I'm just going to start in the back and try not to drive over my head or anything."

Thornton's transition into this venture wasn't so smooth. Last week, during his first practice session, Thornton took his car out to the track, had too much speed coming out of a turn and collided with the wall. He came back to the garage with the front of his car dragging against the asphalt.

But while his front bumper was re-attached, Thornton could only think of returning to the track.

"I really wanted to get back in the car," Thornton said. "I was anxious."

His car fixed, Thornton did return to the track. He ran two more practice sessions, both clean. On Tuesday, he got four hours of driving time at AMS on an empty track.

Now, Thornton's dad thinks he's ready.

"He learned it's not what it looks like from the stands," said Chris. "It's totally different. You enter the corner and how you enter the corner determines how you exit the corner.

"Maybe it's a humbling experience. Everything happens for a reason. He went out and I think he was trying to over-run the car without knowing how to drive the car. Hopefully, we have that out of our system."

This racing is just getting injected into Thornton's system. Though he's played baseball for years, Thornton felt the family itch to race long ago.

"I've always wanted to race," Thornton said.

Thornton first got in a Bandolero two years ago, just an informal practice run. Since then, he pleaded for a chance. Father waited, but he couldn't wait any longer.

"We put him in a Bandalero about two years ago and I thought about doing something, but I backed off," said Chris.

"This year I just decided let's jump into it and do it."

Before Thornton's race tonight, there will be trepidation from mom, Larea, and dad, but also satisfaction. Thornton's parents grew up in Peachtree City. Chris has been coming to AMS since he was nine.

Tonight feels like the next logical step for a young boy born into the Thornton family.

"It's a little nerve-racking right now," said Chris, "but it's been good."