Three months ago to the day, Tanner Thorson lay in a bed at Sutter Health Memorial Medical Center with broken bones and bruises from a horrific highway accident that occurred when he was driving home from the World of Outlaws show in Las Vegas.
Both Thorson’s lungs were punctured in the multi-vehicle wreck. One lung had collapsed. Thorson cracked his sternum, broke his ribs, left arm and right foot—which had to be reconstructed. The injuries and the wreck, which destroyed the truck Thorson was driving, put a hiatus on his racing efforts with Tri-C Motorsports and crew chief Lee Lindgren.
The 23-year-old racer didn’t know when or if he would return to competition after he was finally released on March 10.
But Indiana Midget Week called—and so did Pete Willoughby, literally, with an offer Thorson couldn’t refuse. Willoughby, KKM team owner Keith Kunz's business partner, offered Thorson the opportunity to come home—to the organization that guided the driver to the 2016 USAC Midget Championship.
On Tuesday night, Thorson finished second behind Keith Kunz Motorsports teammate Logan Seavey at Montpelier Motor Speedway in the Indiana Midget Week opener.
“The USAC show is stout--all the top guys were there,” Thorson said of his competition. “I didn’t know where I was going to be coming into the night after being away for so long. I wondered about coming back, whether I would be healthy enough.
“You really don’t know where you’re at until you get on the track. And last night, the track was kind of crappy. It was a driver’s track. You really had to finesse your way around it.”
Thorson did just that as he quickly knocked off the rust. He qualified second and finished third in his heat. Thorson started the 30-lap feature fourth and passed Zeb Wise for second with five laps left.
Prior to Tuesday’s competition, Thorson had not even sat in a simulator since racing with the Outlaws at the Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But he felt no fatigue during his first race back.
“As far as what I need to use in my body, yeah, it’s there,” Thorson said. “Obviously, I’m not as strong as where I was when I got out of the car. But I didn’t feel tired until on the drive back. It’s kind of repetitious, like riding a bicycle. The more I race, the faster I’ll become.”
Certainly, Thorson’s conviction is buoyed by racing under the KKM banner—and Kunz, who oversaw the driver’s return. The Minden, Nev., native has worked on his own equipment for the last two years since initially parting ways with KKM.
For Thorson, the time with Kunz was invaluable.
“Keith worked really hard all night with me,” Thorson said. “It was good for us to share thoughts and ideas. I never had that opportunity in the past. He’s the best for a reason. When I was younger, there was a lot I took that for granted. It’s crazy to see them do seven or eight cars — and some of the best in the field. You don’t realize how much time and effort is put into making this deal work. I had to find that out for myself.
“But it really helps, knowing these cars are so good. This is my first time back with them after two years. I did my own deal, but all that time, you sit there knowing you have to beat the Kunz cars to be successful. Having someone to wrench on the car that knows what they’re doing, it’s a huge confidence-booster.”
Thorson’s work ethic has been on display over the last two years, and so has his ability to compete against the top teams in grassroots racing on a limited budget. In the 2018 Chili Bowl—the Superbowl of Midgets—Thorson DNFed in his heat race on his prelim night but came back to win the D- and C-Mains, finished fourth in the B-Main and 10th in the feature.
On Saturday, the night of the 2018 Chili Bowl main event, Thorson won the C-Main then finished third in the B-Main. He started 17th in the feature and finished fourth behind the KKM midgets of Christopher Bell, Rico Abreu and Spencer Bayston.
This January, Thorson won the Vacuworx International Race of Champions on Tuesday. During his prelim night, he won his heat, his qualifier and finished second to Justin Grant in the Friday night feature. He finished 10th, one spot behind Seavey in the A-Main, as KKM’s Bell out-dueled Kyle Larson for his third-straight Chili Bowl win.
“I had a good time doing my own deal, but it’s great to be back with the team I started with—that I learned everything with,” Thorson said. “Before Pete called, I was trying to figure out what I was going to do. I’m blessed that they gave me this opportunity. You really don’t realize how much these guys actually do for you.
“A lot of these younger kids don’t realize that. I’ll be the first one to admit that I didn’t see it, growing up in this series. You don’t realize how grateful you should be for these guys that bust their butts to prepare these cars so you can race. I worked in the shop with Keith for three or four years but I never had to work on the cars once I got to the track. I have a new respect for the crew after having to work on my own cars, setting them up and then going to the car wash.
“I think that helped me a lot and helped me to grow.”
On Wednesday, weather permitting, Thorson will race at Gas City I-69 Speedway—the quarter-mile dirt track where he scored his first USAC Midget win. He’s circled Saturday’s race at Lawrenceburg on his schedule—his favorite of the five tracks. Thorson isn’t sure how long the ride with KKM will last, but with a second chance to compete with USAC’s top midget organization, he’s going to embrace each moment.
“I’ve had a lot of success with Keith—starting back in ’13,” Thorson said. “It’s like family here. When I came to the shop, it was like I had never left. We’re not racing for points, we’re out here to win. We can take chances, try different things. I’m game for whatever they want me to do.
“I’m super grateful for the opportunity that Keith and Pete gave me. It’ s something I’ll always cherish. I’m blessed to be able to get to run for them. I want to have fun. This is my living but I’m not going to do it if I’m not going to have fun. We’re not running points so it’s not so serious. It’s really the best scenario possible.”