With the Chili Bowl Nationals tipped to favor midgets from Keith Kunz Motorsports, Clauson Marshall and Chad Boat Industries, why would other drivers even bother trudging to Tulsa in the middle of January?
If you’re Tanner Thorson, the answer is simple: He’s there to win.
“We try because we’re racers, and if you don’t try, you won't win,” Thorson said. “I think that’s the biggest thing for everyone that shows up and tries to beat those guys. You don’t know if you can win if you don’t try.
“I’m here to beat these guys, however it works out.”
Thorson was confident entering the week but struggled late in the VIROC race on Tuesday. He started on the front row, led laps, but dropped to sixth and made contact with Kyle Larson before finishing seventh. After a disappointing showing in the race of champions, Thorson elected to return to a traditional setup on his car for Friday.
“This is a new car that I’m not entirely familiar with, but I seem to make different cars work pretty good,” Thorson said. “I changed a few things from before—hopefully, for the better.”
On Friday, the 24-year-old Minden, Nevada, native was set to defend last year’s prelim night win. But his quest for the Golden Driller didn’t go according to plan.
Before Thorson was barely up to speed in his heat race, he caught the cushion and went for an unexpected thrill ride--No. 35 in the infamous Chili Bowl flip count. His Dave Mac Motorsports team thrashed to repair the car. Thorson started fifth in the C-Feature and finished third to advance to the second B-Feature. He lined up 13th and charged to second behind Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
In the A-Feature, Thorson lined up 20th behind Stenhouse and wheeled his way up to fourth. Thorson will have to come from the B-Main on Saturday to transfer to the Chili Bowl Championship Feature.
Clearly, it was a case of growing pains for Thorson in the No. 08 midget—and with his third team in the last 12 months. But where the driver goes, success invariably follows.
Short of winning a second USAC midget title, Thorson is coming off of his best season since 2016. He went with an old-school, four-coil set up last year on his midget. The move paid off with a series-best seven wins on the 2020 USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget tour. And, yes, Thorson proved he could beat the powerhouse teams on the tour.
“We have a great group of people—Lee Lindgren, Stevie Smith, my Draco guy, who provides me with springs, and Willie Kahne from Factory Kahne, he’s also a big part of it,” Thorson said. “I wanted to try it—and I did it. It was great.
“The season was awesome. We had a lot of speed from the first time I ran the coils to now. Our cars have been really good.”
Thorson started the season with a win at Bubba Raceway Park in Ocala, Florida—the first of four with Hayward Motorsports—then finished the year with three more wins behind the wheel of the No. 25 for Tom Malloy.
He became the first driver in two decades to bookend the season in Victory Lane and just the sixth in USAC history, along with Parnelli Jones, Rich Vogler, Billy Boat, Jason Leffler and Tony Stewart, to pull off the feat. His 20th USAC midget win moved Thorson to 33rd on the all-time win list—tying A.J. Foyt.
After the season, Thorson moved to Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, with long-time girlfriend Shaylee Smith. While he still maintains a solid relationship with Malloy, logistically it made more sense to join a local team. Enter Dave Mac Motorsports.
“My girlfriend and I, we’re getting ready to set up our lives and eventually build a place to call home,” Thorson said. “The shop is right down the road—about eight minutes from me. It’s just an all-around better deal for me. I can work on my car during the week, drive to the race track on the weekends and not worry about missing work.
“Dave Mac (McIntosh) and everybody on this team are buddies of mine. I feel like I still have good relationships with the Trench Shoring guys. Jerome (Rodela) and Chris (Tramel) and Tom Malloy are great people. I was visiting with them yesterday. But being in Oklahoma, this makes more sense.”
McIntosh has experienced explosive growth from one car to seven over the past four years. As the organization has blossomed into another haven for Toyota development drivers, having a veteran like Thorson is a tremendous benefit to the team.
“He’s made us step our game up,” McIntosh said. “He’s helped take us to the next level. He’s exactly what we needed. We needed a guy who could give us feedback. We’ve worked with Tanner. He’s a good friend of mine. We’ve talked race cars for the last couple of years.
“But now, with him being in our camp, it has been a game-changer, in my opinion. It’s going to make everyone around him and our team better. That’s all you can ask for. We know Tanner is going to be good. I told him when we decided to go racing, ‘I know you’re good. I know you’re going to be great in our cars. I want you to help everyone else around you be better also.’ He was like, ‘Let’s do it.’ That’s exciting for me, and it has raised the excitement level on the team to an all-time high.”
Thorson is up for the challenge.
“I think there are little things I can help with,” Thorson said. “I like working with younger talent that is coming up, too. Like Dave said, I think it’s a good deal for both of us. I can rely on them. They can rely on me. And in the end, I can help with the kids and make them better.
“Dave and I are ready to race as much as we can together. If it works out, we’ll run every race and run for the championship. If not, we’ll run as much as we can and run for wins.”
For the last six years, Thorson has qualified for the A-Main. His best result was fourth in 2015, 2017 and 2018. What would it mean to out-duel the best drivers in racing for the Driller?
“I think it would be big for me,” Thorson said. “I’ve been racing against them for so long, and being able to beat them at other race tracks is big. And for this team, (laughs) it would be out of this ballpark. Just starting out—and not having the finishes they deserve—it would be huge for everybody just to see Victory Lane.”