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Excitement, and stakes, high in Thursday Thunder opener

At the end of the day, Wednesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway is all about racing and getting cars ready for Thursday. Chandler Smith, 9, takes a few laps around Thunder Ring in his No. 26 Bandelero.

At the end of the day, Wednesday at Atlanta Motor Speedway is all about racing and getting cars ready for Thursday. Chandler Smith, 9, takes a few laps around Thunder Ring in his No. 26 Bandelero.

The Thursday Thunder summer racing series has Atlanta Motor Speedway bustling with activity and full of young drivers brimming with excitement and expectation as it returns for its 15th season.

The 10-week summer racing series has proven to be a lot of fun for its fans and even for the families of the young racers of various skill levels. But the lighthearted moments do nothing to squelch the competitive desire these young motorists have.

For Zach Leonhardi, Thursday’s opening day of racing will in no way be treated as an exhibition.

“It’s very important for me to get off to a good start Thursday night,” said the 11-year old Smyrna native. “Getting a good start early means you can get a good points lead and you’ll have an idea of the people you know you can be able to beat later on.”

Leonhardi, in his third year racing, will be competing in the Bandelero Bandits division against some familiar drivers, and judging by the way they’ve gone at it in previous years, Zach’s father Michael believes that this year could make for some close races and photo finishes.

“I’m really excited for the Bandits this year because these kids started out at the same time,” Michael Leonhardi said. “They have been maturing together. Last year about four or five of these drivers were literally hundredths of a second apart from each other. So this year it’s going to come down to the driver who makes the mistake.”

Bandits racer Chandler Smith has already spent much of the year traveling and successfully competing throughout the southeast. And while the 9-year old may be short in stature, it doesn’t take long to see he is long in confidence.

“I think I can get third or second in this series,” Smith said. “I’ve heard rumors that some drivers are a little stressed out because they heard I’ve gotten way better.”

His father Mike has been around Thursday Thunder long enough to know that no driver will back down from another.

“I think you can look at about five or six cars out here that can win it on any given night,” he said.

For many, Thursday Thunder is a way for young drivers to begin living out their dreams of driving on the NASCAR circuit. Former Thunder champions like Joey Logano, David Ragan and Reed Sorenson are names that may sound familiar to racing fans. That’s because each of them are current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series stars.

Fifteen-year-old first-time Thunder participant Eli Bailey is hoping to add his name to that list some day.

“Racing is everything to me,” said Bailey, of John’s Creek. “Especially with me being a Black driver, there aren’t a whole lot of us, so I want to work hard to come up through the ranks one day and hit the NASCAR circuit.”

This year’s drivers come from as near as Jonesboro and as far as Nassau, N.Y. The races begin each Thursday night at 6 p.m.