The track and field team from Buhach Colony High School was in the stands cheering wildly during the last IMCA SportMod race at Merced Speedway.
The team wasn’t cheering for a teammate running to victory in the 800-meter or the mile. The team was cheering for one of their teammates, Tanner Thomas, who has become the fastest racer on the quarter mile - behind the wheel of a race car.
The trophies for three out of the four IMCA SportMod features this season at Merced Speedway sit in the Thomas family’s Atwater home. Tanner and his brother Chase have emerged as top contenders in the speedway division with the largest field of competitors. More than 40 drivers have tried to finish the race where the Tomas’ have – first across the finish line.
Chase, 19, has won a feature, and his little brother, Tanner, 16, has won two. They will race in Saturday night’s program featuring the IMCA Modified, SportMod, Mini-Stock and Valley Sportsman divisions.
STAYING FIT AND DRIVING FAST
Tanner Thomas loves running. The sophomore competes in cross country and long distance events on the track for Buhach Colony.
“There are a lot of fast high school athletes out there, and competing with them helps me be competitive as a driver,” explains Tanner. “There are benefits in being an athlete that help being good behind the steering wheel of a race car.
You have learned that there is mental preparation for competing in an event. You know about timing, coordination and how to pace yourself.”
Tanner sees a lot of misconception about what it takes to drive a stock car.
“People think it is like driving on the road – its not,” he says. “You are suited up in a fire suit, in a hot environment, you’re using your arms to steer a ton and a half car sideways on dirt.”
Keeping his body fit has resulted in success for Tanner.
“As the race goes on, and especially if there are no caution flags, you need to have physical stamina. You can’t get tired, even though you are always working. You have to maintain coordination and hit your spots on the track every lap.”
Tanner balances his schedule - but some time track meet schedules collide with race days.
“Track keeps me sharp,” he says. “I have been able to manage track, school work and racing. I think they all work together for success. I may show up late to the speedway because I’ve been at a meet.”
“There’s definitely a brotherly rivalry between us,” says Chase Thomas. “Of course we trash talk each other. But we never touch each other’s car on the track. We drive clean, we just talk trash.”
Their father, Darren, an accomplished driver who now serves as crew chief for his sons, mediates the banter between the two. Two seasons earlier, he set out on a mission to teach his sons ways to be successful in the complicated world of SportMod racing.
“He still has a lot to teach us,” says Chase. “We got through last season, and over the winter we learned how to set our cars up for different types of track conditions. The adjustments to the chassis are critical, and knowing what you feel when driving and how to translate that to the right adjustment is a key to success.”
In the pits on race night, Tanner is quick to let his brother Chase know that the track is slick, and that fits his driving style.
“It’s a friendly rivalry – we throw a few digs at each other,” he says. “We race each other for bragging rights, but at the end of the weekend, we are side by side working on each other’s car.”
Chase, who has finished school and works as a tradesman at Modern Air, credits their father with the driving style he and his brother have.
“Drive against others they way you would want to be driven against,” he says his father taught he and his brother. “You just don’t want to tear cars up on the track. When you do something stupid you can hurt your car and another driver’s car.”
Tanner sees that racing has improved at the speedway.
“Everyone is trying to race clean this season,” he says. “We don’t want to rough anyone else up and we don’t want anyone to rough us up. When that stuff starts, it tends to get out of hand.”
Chase is quick to admit when he is wrong.
“If my car comes in contact with another car, it is not intentional,” Chase says. “If that happens, I go to the pit area of the other driver and explain what happens. Another drive apologized to me after hitting my car in a race. He came up to me and apologized – I thanked him and said ‘its all good’.”
THE FUTURE IS BRIGHT
Both Thomas brothers plan to continue racing in the SportMod division, which is considered the minor league of IMCA’s big league – the Modified division, which has tracks and events across North America.
“I want to keep learning and get a better handle on my car,” says Tanner. “I have to work on passing. I’m going to stick with the division for a few years.”
Chase wants to travel while staying in the division.
“I would like to race at other tracks just to get more experience,” says Chase. “There is so much more to learn.”
THIS WEEK AT MERCED SPEEDWAY
The IMCA Modified, IMCA SportMod, Mini Stock, and Valley Sportsman divisions will make up the card. Each division will have a full program of qualifying races and a feature event.
The speedway’s pit area will open at 2 p.m. The grandstand gates will open at 5 p.m. Cars will be on the track at 6 p.m., with racing beginning at 7 p.m. Admission is $12 for adults, $10.00 for military and students with school ID, $5 for children 6-12 years old. Children under 6 years old are free. A family four-pack of ticket is $30.