HAMPTON — The first time I stepped foot onto a NASCAR-level racetrack was about this time last summer.
I was in just my first few weeks as a full-time sports writer for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. I wasn’t sure what to expect from my new gig, let alone this new venue.
Thursday Thunder welcomed me with open arms. I became a fan, not just of racing itself, but of the atmosphere that surrounded the competition.
Amateur racers trying to make a name for themselves. Some barely as tall as the cars they were driving. Others old enough to be my father. All of them vehemently supported by family and friends who desired to see their racing dreams turn into reality.
Well, tomorrow the racing series returns to the Atlanta Motor Speedway for its 16th season. And this time, while I have a better grasp on what to expect, there are still enough unknowns to keep in steady anticipation over the next 10 weeks.
Last season the Jorgensen family jumped on the scene and owned the quarter-mile track. Between siblings Taylor and Jensen, the Jorgensens grabbed checkered flags in the Outlaws division every week, with Taylor picking up nine wins and tying for the national championship in points.
Can Taylor Jorgensen replicate that same success this season as she moves up to the Semi-Pro division and trades in her bandolero for a legend car?
Will younger brother Jensen — still competing in the Outlaws division — be able to follow in his sister’s tire tracks?
Will McDonough driver Alex Coffey be bale to rebound from a somewhat tough season last year?
Two years ago Madeline Crane of Meansville placed second in the Outlaws division. After a fifth-place finish in the Young Lions division last season, she’ll be looking to get back to her goal of winning it all.
Based on what I’ve learned about the event, every year a new driver seems to rise up and show a new level of skill, placing them within the upper echelon of racers.
Could Tyler Mosley be that driver this year? Mosley has steadily inched his way up in the final standings each season. Perhaps it’s his time for a true breakout year.
Can racers like Chandler Smith, Evan Bell and Mason Massey repeat as champions of their respective divisions? Or will last year’s second-place finishers like Ashton Winger, Riley Thornton and Christopher Clanton be able to supplant them?
Whatever the case, one thing is for sure. I’m looking forward to seeing what this year’s action at the Thunder Ring will bring.
Maybe in the next few years, a few of these drivers will make it to the NASCAR ranks, just like the 50-plus Thursday Thunder alumni currently racing professionally, and I’ll be able to point to them while watching SportsCenter and say, “I remember you!”
Thursday night signals not only the starting of the engines, but the beginning of new careers.
Gabriel Stovall covers sports for the Clayton News Daily and Henry Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter? Follow him @GabrielStovall1