Small Town, Tiny Track Add Up to Big-Time Excitement
by Gus Jarvis
May 27, 2010 | 4115 views | 0 0 comments | 27 27 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Photo by Torie Bowman
Photo by Torie Bowman
Photo by Torie Bowman
Photo by Torie Bowman
Photo by Torie Bowman
Photo by Torie Bowman
“Drivers, start your engines!”

For most of us, these famous words are usually heard on the couch, with NASCAR on TV.

But Torie and I heard them up close and personal, on a cool late-spring night, sitting front and center at the Thunder Mountain Raceway just north of Olathe.

The quarter-mile dirt track might be small, but the racing is as exciting as it gets.

Nestled in the Uncompahgre River Valley, with the Gunnison Uplift looming to the east and the Uncompahgre Plateau to the west, Thunder Mountain Raceway is host to 22 weekends of high RPM racing spring, summer and fall.

Drivers come regularly from around the region (think Delta, Ridgway, Cortez, Grand Junction, Montrose), bringing their well-tended racecars to the track to prove their might (and for wheel-gripping fun).

On any given race night, there might be up to seven our eight different race classes, providing a full span of racing excitement from drivers who are just starting to race to drivers with several decades of racing under their belts.

Since it was our first time at Thunder Mountain Raceway (we’re pretty green outside of NASCAR), we’d done a crash-course in the various classes of racing we were going to see that night, arriving at the track an hour before start-time to get an idea of what to expect from track promoter Kathy German, who took us into the pits.

First, for entry-level drivers, there is the pure stock class. Pure stockcars are not considered racecars, but, rather, just cars that race. This class of racing is perfect for high school racers, since it’s open to anyone with a car to race who’s 14 and older. There is a pre-race go-kart race that young drivers can participate in, as well.

Next up is the hobby stock race class, whose drivers get to experiment with racing at a relatively low cost, driving cars made up mostly of manufactured parts (with just a few racing parts allowed). So although hobby stockcars may look like cars you’d see cruising down U.S. Hwy. 550, they are actually considered racecars. “These are the cars that most drivers start off with,” German explained, moving quickly from car to car while drivers and mechanics tinkered under the hoods.

Next came the I stock cars – which, although they look like vehicles that have come right off the assembly line, she said, actually feature a variety of racing parts in unique combinations, so as to bring a fast-paced, fender-banging action to the track.

“They look like cars on the street,” German allowed, but actually, “These cars bring some of the best racing action.”

The sport mod and modified racing classes represent car racing’s move toward a more open wheel-style, with modifieds, since becoming popular in the late 1970s, having gained a reputation for fierce competitiveness that is unique to the car classification itself, complete with fully modified bodies, engines, transmissions and rear-ends.

Next came the dwarf racecar, which looks like a one-man go-cart but, out on the track, packs a punch with quick speeds. “These are just really fun to watch out on the track,” German said, adding that the racetrack’s owner, Gary Nelson, regularly races dwarfs.

But it’s the lightning sprint (or mini-sprint) class, featuring distinctive aerodynamic wings on their tops to provide down force – quick, hard-racing cars that provide excitement at every turn of the track – that’s probably the hands-down audience favorite.

“These drivers work really hard on their cars,” German said. “For a small track, we will get some pretty well-known drivers in the racing world coming here to race.”

Pit tour over, German headed off to rev up the night’s events, and Torie and I tucked into a fresh tray of nachos and a couple of snap-top cold domestic beers in the grandstands, filling up fast with families ready for a night of racing.

As the sun set, the track lights were illuminated and the racing began, starting with the hobby stock cars circling the track under the green flag. Next came the I-stock with a local Ridgway driver, John Young, getting the car he’s been building over the last eight months out on the track for its debut.

When it came time for the modfieds to hit the track, the racing action ratcheted up, what with the nail-biter high speeds, spin-outs, fender bending, and all-out fast-paced racing – pure entertainment like we’ve never experienced in our years in western Colorado. Before the night even came close to the end, we agreed we’d be back – soon – with family and friends.

What is really great about the racing at Thunder Mountain is the fact that once the racing starts, it keeps going. As soon as the last heat of modifieds leaves the track, it’s full again, now with buzzing lightning sprint cars traveling at speeds higher than you can ever imagine. (Afterwards, a driver told me that speeds on the quarter-mile track can get upwards to 50 to 70 mph. While that may not seem fast on the highway, imagine reaching that kind of speed on, say, a high school racetrack.)

Once the lightning sprints were done wowing the crowd with their neck-and-neck race to the checkered flag, the drivers headed to the grandstands for autograph signing. Judging by the smiles of the kids or the laughter of the drivers, I am not sure who had a better time.

A night at the racetrack sits well with adults and kids alike; it lasts for hours, and admission is just $10 for adults, $8 for seniors/military, $5 for kids ages 6-14, and free for kids 5 and under. Throw in affordable yet satisfying food from the snack bar (including brats, burgers and chili, all under $5) and the entire evening is less than family night at the movies, and packs a bigger adrenaline punch.

Thunder Mountain Raceway is located at 59039 Amber Road in Olathe. For more information, call German at 970/874-4883.

2010 Thunder Mountain Raceway Schedule (Go-karts race 5-7 p.m., grandstands open at 5 p.m., racing starts at 7 p.m.)

May 29 – Late models, lightning sprints.

June 5 – Go-karts, hobby stock, I-stock, sport mod, modified, lighting sprint, dwarf.

June 12 – Renegade, hobby stock, I-stock, sport mod, modified, cruisers.

June 19 – Go-karts, hobby stock, sport mod, modified, lighting sprint, late model.

June 26 – Go-karts, renegade, pure stock, hobby stock, sport mod, modified, dwarf.

July 3 – The Big 1, Lightning Sprint Nationals Sport Mod, $500 to winner.

July 4 – The Big 1, Lighting Sprint Nationals I-stock, $500 to winner.

July 10 – Go-karts, renegade, pure stock, hobby stock, sport mod, modified, cruiser.

July 17 – Go-karts, hobby stock, sport mod, modified, lightning sprint, dwarf.

July 24 – Go-karts, pure stock, hobby stock, I-stock, sport mod, modified.

July 31 – Go-karts, sport mod, modified, lightning spring, dwarf.

Aug. 14 – Go-karts, sport mod, modified, lightning sprint, dwarf cars, late model.

Aug. 21 – Renegade, pure stock, I-stock, sport mod, modified, cruisers.

Aug. 28 – Hobby stock, I-stock, sport mod, lightning sprint, modified special ($1,000 winner).

Sept. 11 – Renegade, hobby stock, sport mod, modified, lightning spring, cruisers.

Sept. 18 – Renegade, pure stock, sports mod, modified, hobby stock special.

Oct. 2 – Pure stock, hobby stock, sport mod, modified, lightning sprint, dwarf.

Oct. 9 – Renegade, pure stock, hobby stock, I-stock, sport mod, modified, lightning sprint.

(Schedule subject to change)
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