Photo by Derrick Mahone
In his fourth season in the Thursday Thunder racing series, Riley Thornton has emerged as a contender for the championship.
HAMPTON — Riley Thornton and his father, Chris, can now laugh about it.
At the time, three years ago, it wasn’t a laughing matter for the Thorntons, or the other Bandolero drivers at Thursday Thunder.
It seemed every time Thornton was on the track, it was a safe bet that a wrecker was near and the caution flags would come out.
In fact, Thornton’s very first time in the Thunder Ring at Atlanta Motor Speedway ended soon after driving on the track.
Minutes into a practice run for Thursday Thunder, Thornton wrecked his brand new white Bandolero on the fourth turn, and had to be towed into the garage.
As Chris Thornton recalled that event on Wednesday steps from the track, he grinned and shook his head.
Riley also laughed when he thought back to that warm June day at AMS.
“I’ve grown smarter as a driver,” the younger Thornton said.
Now 16 and two years removed from a treacherous first season at AMS, the Peachtree City native is now a leading contender at Thursday Thunder. He enters the season with a nine race win streak, which includes winning the last two Thursday Thunder races and all seven of his Winter Flurry events.
He finished second in the Young Lions division with 903 points, all the while switching to a Legends car. Evan Bell of Buford is the defending champion after amassing 973 points last season.
Thornton’s crew chief Cody Haskins says that the young driver is more confident now, and has the ability to possible become a champion this season.
Riley and Haskins began working together at the end of the 2011 season.
And it has given way to marked improvements.
“Obviously he has progressed into the top three through five,” Haskins said. “He has won some big races. He now understands racing and the feel of his car. He can communicate that to me. At first, he didn’t know the difference in racing. He knows his equipment.”
Even when he was going through that “frustrating” first season, Thornton never entertained the thought of quitting. The isolation feeling of not being wanted on the track wasn’t enough to push him away.
“There were a lot of drivers mad at me because of the wrecks,” he said. “I didn’t have that many friends. There are people mad at me now because I win. This all comes with the territory of racing.”
After getting burned out on baseball, where he played second base on a travel team, Thornton was ready to give racing a try.
His father has been involved with the sport for generations.
But it is the thrill of excelling in an individual sport that kept him motivated through the tough times on the track.
“I have more of a passion for this,” Thornton said. “This is a lot more fun. I just got burned out on baseball. I like racing in terms of the individual sense that it brings. It’s like it’s one versus about 20 other drivers.”