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Thornton grows into a contender

Photo by Brian Paglia
Peachtree City native Riley Thornton got his first win in a Legends car on Thursday Thunder’s opening night, and backed that up with a top 5 finish Thursday.

Photo by Brian Paglia Peachtree City native Riley Thornton got his first win in a Legends car on Thursday Thunder’s opening night, and backed that up with a top 5 finish Thursday.

Riley Thornton goes through the driver’s standard pre-race protocol — driving suit on, ear plugs in, helmet on, climb in the car, off to Thunder Ring.

When Thornton returns to the garages after the race, he knows his car will be intact.

That wasn’t a guarantee two years ago.

His car might have met the wall. Maybe another car. Regardless, there would be damage, and Thornton’s education in racing would be written in the scratches and scrapes all over his Bandolero car.

“I wrecked a ton,” Thornton said.

But here is Thorton now, nine points behind Young Lions division leader Evan Bell after two weeks of the Thursday Thunder season. He opened the season with his first career Legends victory. He backed that up with a top 5 finish Thursday.

“I feel I’ve gotten a lot better,” he said.

Thornton went from a danger to his own car to a contender at Atlanta Motor Speedway just by sheer persistence.

The Peachtree City native jumped into the 2010 Thursday Thunder season in week five, finishing last in 12th place in the Outlaws division in his first race ever.

But Thornton made a steady climb from there — from eighth to seventh to sixth by week eight. He capped off the season with his first top 5 finish, a fourth place showing in the season finale.

For Thornton, it was a wild introduction to racing. Some of his simplest perceptions were challenged immediately. Bumping, he found out, was not an accident. It was a tactical maneuver.

“I never thought about it,” Thornton said.

But, even as a newcomer to the sport, Thornton knew he couldn’t tolerate poor finishes for long.

“I was excited to start racing, but expecting to do better,” he said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself.”

So Thornton set out to get better.

His breakthrough didn’t take long. He raced in the 2011 Winter Flurry series at AMS and finished runner-up in the Outlaws division. The final week, he outlasted McDonough native Alex Coffey for his first win.

When he returned to Thursday Thunder that summer, Thornton got off to an inauspicious start — an all-too-familiar last-place finish. But he quickly rebounded, placing in the top 5 in seven of the following eight weeks and finishing fourth in the overall points standings.

“I was going for it,” Thornton said. “I was trying to get every win I could.”

And that was it. Thornton was hooked with racing.

The rising sophomore at Trinity Christian School says he spends his free time golfing and hanging out with friends, but there’s no time for that in the summer.

He’s on the racing circuit now, running at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday nights and AMS on Thursdays. He’s working with former AMS veteran Cody Haskins, who marvels at the progress Thornton has made in such a short time.

“He’s come along great,” Haskins said. “He’s showing great progress. We hope we’re a force to be reckoned with this season.”

If Thornton’s first two weeks this season are any indication, they will.