By RICHIE MURRAY
OCALA, FL – A new year and a new beginning are just the things Tanner Thorson was seeking with the outset of the 2020 USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget season.
A highway crash last March sidelined the 2016 series champion with serious injuries. His eventual comeback was a mixed bag of highlight reel moments as well as an up-and-down closing to the campaign that left him without a full-time drive.
A Chili Bowl prelim victory in January was just a prelude to Friday night’s splendid drive by the Minden, Nev. native that witnessed him zip to the front in spectacular fashion just prior to and following a mid-race restart where he exchanged multiple sliders with series Rookie Buddy Kofoid to snare the lead and control the final 16 laps to score the win in the series season-opening Winter Dirt Games XI feature at Bubba Raceway Park.
Thorson’s 14th career USAC National Midget feature win in his Hayward Motorsports/OILFIRE – Factory Kahne – Walker Filtration – Smith Titanium/Spike/Stanton SR-11x moved him into the top-50 and in a four-way tie for 48th on the all-time series win list alongside Chuck Arnold, Jack Turner and Leroy Warriner.
The victory also provided Hayward Motorsports its third career USAC National Midget victory as a team, and first since August of 2016 with driver Bryan Clauson at Solomon Valley Raceway in Beloit, Kans.
In his third consecutive year of competing in a midget at the 3/8-mile D-shaped track, Thorson finally found his groove. He finished 9th and 7th there in 2019, but this year, made a few small mechanical changes and transitioned to Hayward Motorsports for whom he made two USAC starts at the conclusion of 2019 and was slated to do a part-time schedule for this season.
With a superb beginning to 2020, Thorson hopes that this run of success can translate into something even more.
“We were obviously way better than we were here last year,” Thorson recalled. “We’ve got the same package here, minus a couple little things that don’t matter. I’ve been very fortunate to get with Brodie and Sarah Hayward. They’ve kind of just let me do whatever I really needed and to get what I needed as far as shocks, motors, cars and just everything. It helps to have people behind me like that and allows me to kind of take my mind off the whole thing that happened last year. This is a good start to the season for us and maybe we can see about talking the car owner into running points.”
Thorson began the 30-lapper from fifth and steadily moved his way toward the front of the pack while USAC Triple Crown champ Jerry Coons Jr. held the top spot for the first ten circuits and last season’s Ocala sweeper Tyler Courtney gripped his talons on the bottom to inch closer to Coons.
Coons nipped Courtney by a nose at the line at the conclusion of lap four, then gapped the defending series champ by four car lengths. Suddenly, the newcomer on the scene was one of the newcomers to the series in Kofoid who raced around the outside of Courtney off turn four and continued to haul the mail ripping the high line while Coons worked the bottom out front.
On the 11th lap, Kofoid maneuvered around the outside of Coons exiting turn two. Rapidly closing on the lapped car of first-time USAC feature starter Dennis Misuraca, the elusive Kofoid ducked low into turn three to snag the lead for the time being.
Three laps later, Thorson was the man on the move, slipping under Coons at the bottom entry to turn one for second. Coons fought back on the inside and the two touched, forcing Coons sideways at the exit of the second turn.
Moments later, the caution fell for Jesse Colwell who slowed to a stop in turn two while running in the eighth position.
Now lined up right on Kofoid’s tail tank for the restart, Thorson used a massive run into turn one to slide up in front of Kofoid for the lead. Proving to be a quick-study, Kofoid answered the bell by turning down and returning the favor with a slider of his own in turn three to reobtain the point. However, as Kofoid slid up across turns three and four, that simply opened the door once more for Thorson to drive under off the fourth turn and slide his way back by Kofoid for good at the entry to turn one.
Thorson credited the formation of his success on the experience factor and a set of equipment that helped make the job a tad easier for him.
“I think a lot of it has to do with just having laps around here,” Thorson pointed to. “I’ve watched a lot of races here and I’ve been here the last three years. I think that helps a lot and I’ve watched a lot of non-wing races here as well. It helped to have really good shocks that allowed me to maneuver anywhere I really needed to, and it paid off.”
Two laps later, on the 17th trip around, Windom scooted by Kofoid for second and put his plan into place to chase down Thorson in the throes of lapping the tail end of the field.
A yellow flag for 14th running Robert Dalby following an apparent engine issue brought about the final stoppage, thus setting up a seven-lap sprint to the finish. Third place Kofoid split the gap between Thorson and Windom on the restart briefly into turn one before falling back behind Windom and into third.
Meanwhile, all that action did was provide Thorson more breathing room as he steadily built his lead up to a 1.969 sec. margin at the checkered over Windom, Kofoid, Courtney and Cannon McIntosh.
“We have a really good piece and we’ve had a good piece all the way since the Chili Bowl and even the Gateway race last December,” Thorson reiterated. “I just can’t thank everybody that’s involved enough. It’s really made it fun and easy.”
Chris Windom took a distant second behind Thorson in the Canton, Ill. driver’s USAC debut aboard the Tucker-Boat Motorsports/NOS Energy Drink – Pristine Auction – K & C Drywall/Spike/Speedway Toyota.
“Obviously, you want to come out and win the first race of the year, but we’ve been good all week so far,” Windom explained. “Tanner was just a little bit better than us there. I could get to him, but it was like we were the same speed after that restart. I just couldn’t quite do anything to gain on him and make a move on him. When we got to lapped cars, it would hurt him one car and I’d get hurt the next car. We kind of just stayed in the same spot.”
A career best third-place finish was the result for Penngrove, California’s Buddy Kofoid, leading four laps in just his fifth career series start piloting the Keith Kunz-Curb-Agajanian/Mobil 1 – JBL Audio – TRD/Bullet By Spike/Speedway Toyota.
“We’ve come a long way since practice yesterday and qualified well today,” Kofoid recapped. “I was okay in the heat race, made some changes and was extremely fast in the main. I think we were really first early, then could hang with those guys. I think I kind of messed myself up on that restart and kind of fell apart a little bit at the end. I was good finding the top early; I just wish we could’ve went green to checker.”
CONTINGENCY AWARD WINNERS:
Fatheadz Eyewear Fast Qualifier: Kevin Thomas Jr.
Simpson Race Products First Heat Winner: Kevin Thomas, Jr.
Competition Suspension, Inc. Second Heat Winner: Chris Windom
AutoMeter / Indy Race Parts Third Heat Winner: Tyler Courtney
KSE Racing Products / ProSource Hard Charger: Zeb Wise
Wilwood Brakes 13th Place Finisher: Steve Buckwalter
USAC NOS ENERGY DRINK MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE RESULTS: February 7, 2020 – Bubba Raceway Park – Ocala, Florida – Winter Dirt Games XI
FATHEADZ EYEWEAR QUALIFYING: 1. Kevin Thomas, Jr., 5, Petry-13.901; 2. Tanner Thorson, 19, Hayward-13.908; 3. Cole Bodine, 39BC, Clauson/Marshall-13.971; 4. Buddy Kofoid, 67, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-14.044; 5. Jerry Coons, Jr., 25, Petry-14.045; 6. Tyler Courtney, 7BC, Clauson/Marshall-14.099; 7. Tanner Carrick, 35, Petry-14.103; 8. Chris Windom, 89, Tucker/Boat-14.119; 9. Jesse Colwell, 21K, Reynolds-14.133; 10. Cannon McIntosh, 71K, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-14.140; 11. Logan Seavey, 21KS, Reynolds-14.143; 12. Zeb Wise, 71, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-14.212; 13. Andrew Layser, 82, Tucker/Boat-14.219; 14. Robert Dalby, 4, Dalby-14.231; 15. Daison Pursley, 9, Kunz/Curb-Agajanian-14.323; 16. Chase Jones, 7K, Irwin-14.370; 17. Steve Buckwalter, 25B, Buckwalter-14.527; 18. Dennis Misuraca, 92, Davis-16.111; 19. Oliver Akard, 41, Akard-16.191; 20. Mark Cole, 6x, Cole-16.816; 21. Mike Magic, 4m, Magic-NT; 22. Ethan Mitchell, 21, Reynolds-NT; 23. Michael Magic, 5m, Magic-NT.
SIMPSON RACE PRODUCTS FIRST HEAT: (8 laps, all transfer) 1. Kevin Thomas Jr., 2. Tanner Carrick, 3. Cannon McIntosh, 4. Buddy Kofoid, 5. Andrew Layser, 6. Chase Jones, 7. Oliver Akard. 1:55.647
COMPETITION SUSPENSION (CSI) SECOND HEAT: (8 laps, all transfer) 1. Chris Windom, 2. Tanner Thorson, 3. Jerry Coons Jr., 4. Logan Seavey, 5. Robert Dalby, 6. Steve Buckwalter, 7. Mark Cole. 1:54.193 (New Track Record)
AUTOMETER/INDY RACE PARTS THIRD HEAT: (8 laps, all transfer) 1. Tyler Courtney, 2. Daison Pursley, 3. Zeb Wise, 4. Jesse Colwell, 5. Cole Bodine, 6. Michael Magic (#4m), 7. Dennis Misuraca. 1:56.602
FEATURE: (30 laps, starting positions in parentheses) 1. Tanner Thorson (5), 2. Chris Windom (7), 3. Buddy Kofoid (3), 4. Tyler Courtney (1), 5. Cannon McIntosh (10), 6. Zeb Wise (12), 7. Kevin Thomas, Jr. (6), 8. Jerry Coons, Jr. (2), 9. Daison Pursley (15), 10. Andrew Layser (13), 11. Tanner Carrick (8), 12. Logan Seavey (11), 13. Steve Buckwalter (17), 14. Dennis Misuraca (20), 15. Oliver Akard (18), 16. Mark Cole (19), 17. Michael Magic (21), 18. Chase Jones (16), 19. Robert Dalby (14), 20. Jesse Colwell (9), 21. Cole Bodine (4), 22. Ethan Mitchell (22). NT
FEATURE LAP LEADERS: Laps 1-10 Jerry Coons, Jr., Laps 11-14 Buddy Kofoid, Laps 15-30 Tanner Thorson
KSE RACING PRODUCTS / PROSOURCE HARD CHARGER: Zeb Wise (12th to 6th)
WILWOOD BRAKES 13TH PLACE FINISHER: Steve Buckwalter
NEW USAC NOS ENERGY DRINK MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP POINTS: 1-Tanner Thorson-82, 2-Chris Windom-75, 3-Buddy Kofoid-72, 4-Tyler Courtney-70, 5-Kevin Thomas, Jr.-66, 6-Cannon McIntosh-64, 7-Zeb Wise-61, 8-Jerry Coons Jr.-57, 9-Daison Pursley-53, 10-Tanner Carrick-48.
NEW WINTER DIRT GAMES PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Zeb Wise-6, 2-Daison Pursley-6, 3-Dennis Misuraca-6, 4-Chris Windom-5, 5-Cannon McIntosh-5, 6-Tanner Thorson-4, 7-Steve Buckwalter-4, 8-Michael Magic-4, 9-Andrew Layser-3, 10-Oliver Akard-3.
NEW OVERALL PROSOURCE PASSING MASTER POINTS: 1-Zeb Wise-6, 2-Daison Pursley-6, 3-Dennis Misuraca-6, 4-Chris Windom-5, 5-Cannon McIntosh-5, 6-Tanner Thorson-4, 7-Steve Buckwalter-4, 8-Michael Magic-4, 9-Andrew Layser-3, 10-Oliver Akard-3.
NEXT USAC NOS ENERGY DRINK MIDGET NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP RACE: February 8, 2020 – Bubba Raceway Park – Ocala, Florida – Winter Dirt Games XI