Three races—and three months after recovering from a horrific wreck—Tanner Thorson knew he was back.
The 22-year-old racer had overcome a broken foot, broken arm, broken ribs and a cracked sternum. Thorson had even suffered a punctured lung before climbing from the fiery remains of the transporter carrying his race car through Modesto, California, in the wee hours of March 4, 2019.
With an assist from his former team owners, Keith Kunz and Pete Willoughby, Thorson wheeled the No. 98 KKM midget to Victory Lane at Lincoln Park Speedway on the third night of last year’s Indiana Midget Week.
“It was a really big win, because at that point, I didn’t know if I could still do it,” Thorson said. “We ran the night before at Montpelier and were really fast. Then Gas City, and we were really good there. But it took a minute to step back and re-acclimate, approach the situation right.
“The biggest thing was having confidence in myself more than anything—and wanting it more than anybody. I felt like I drove really hard to—not necessarily on the race track—but drove myself as a person trying to get my mental and physical health back to normal. I think that made me go after it a little bit harder.”
If all goes according to plan, Thorson hopes to repeat the feat with the No. 19 Oilfire Whiskey Midget for Hayward Motorsports this week.
“I got my first-ever USAC win at Gas City, and I’ve won at Lincoln Park in Putnamville, twice,” Thorson said. “Putnamville, we've been fast every time we’ve been there. I think between there and Lawrenceburg, Lawrenceburg is my jam. I love that place. Those two tracks just suit my driving style as far as how I grew up racing. But I feel we’re going to be competitive at all the tracks.
“We have a new package that I tried last week, actually (at Lake Ozark Speedway in the POWRi series). I don’t have a lot of laps on it but got enough to know that it’s going to be pretty good. We were quickest in first practice. There are a few things we have to fine-tune, but I think it will be sharp. If not, I can go back to where we were and know that I have a fast race car, too.”
After a drama-filled 2019, Thorson has enjoyed a successful run this season. Working on his own equipment with assistance from long-time friend and crew chief Lee Lindgren, Thorson won his qualifier in January at the Chili Bowl Nationals. He won the USAC National Midget season opener at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Fla., in February and backed up that win the following month with the 2020 Shamrock Classic in DuQuoin, Ill. Thorson started 15th and passed Chris Windom for the lead and the win with 15 circuits remaining in the 50-lap feature.
Following a hiatus during the COVID-19 pandemic, Thorson finished fourth the first night at Port City Raceway in Tulsa and 10th the following night. The 2016 USAC Midget champion currently sits fourth in the standings entering the competition in the Hoosier State.
Thorson will face a stacked field this week with Kyle Larson running the full schedule, along with USAC regulars Tyler Courtney, Windom and defending IMW champion Logan Seavey. Although Larson is racing for Tucker Boat Motorsports, Thorson doesn’t believe it will be a deterrent.
“Larson is always one of the guys to beat,” Thorson said. “Rico (Abreu, 2014-2015 IMW champ), Larson, (Christopher) Bell—they’re always the ones to beat. But Larson is going to be in a different car than he ever has. That’s never really stopped him.
“Chad Boat prepares really fast race cars, but I think it will be a different driving style than what they have for Windom. Still, that camp is really smart and Larson can overcome it better than most.” (Thorson won't have to contend with Bell, who is racing at Talladega in the NASCAR Cup Series on Sunday.)
Thorson is grateful to put forth such a strong effort in midgets, but ultimately, he would love to run winged-sprint cars. Still, winning the Indiana Midget Week title would be close to the top of his bucket list.
“It would mean a lot,” Thorson said. “We’ve been really, really strong there every year I ran it, but little things here and there seem to bite me in the butt. Two years ago, I think all I had to do was run in the top 12 (in the final race) and Logan, Justin Grant and Courtney all got into it, piled up and collected me. I finished 20th and it killed my shot there.
“I think everything I’m going to do and what I can do, it just means so much more to me because of how much I put into my race cars and because I damn near do it by myself. Obviously, a win matters, but trying to get that championship locked up would be really good, because that’s the one thing I haven’t done. I’ve won a lot of the big races, but Indiana Midget Week I’ve been trying to win for a while. But yeah, it would mean a whole lot.”