The words “Thursday” and “Thunder” just go together.
This week, “Thursday Thunder” will come down from the skies and hit the track at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Thursday Thunder alumni include a Daytona 500 winner, a NASCAR national series champion, an Indianapolis 500 driver and even the president of its host track, and it opens its 18th season this Thursday.
Drawing its roots from its nearby sister track in Charlotte, Thursday Thunder, the summer Legends car and Bandolero racing series at Atlanta Motor Speedway, has cultivated its own crop of quality drivers and has emerged as a premier development program for all ages and levels of competition.
“This is always an exciting time for the competitors, when you get ready to open a new season of Thursday Thunder,” said Ed Clark, Atlanta Motor Speedway president. “It’s hard to believe I was in the room when the concept of Legends cars began years ago.”
Known as one of the most challenging quarter-mile asphalt tracks, the “Thunder Ring” at Atlanta Motor Speedway produces some of the best racing in its class and has developed a reputation as an undeniable proving ground for developing drivers.
“With our tight, flat quarter-mile track, and all four corners uniquely different, we’ve been told by drivers running, even in the Sprint Cup circuit, that this is quite the challenge for a driver,” said Clark. “And if you can come here and race on our track and be fast consistently, you can pretty much go anywhere and have good chances of doing well.”
Its reputation notwithstanding, the numbers don’t lie. NASCAR heavyweights Joey Logano, David Ragan, Reed Sorensen, Chase Elliott and Ty Dillon are just a handful of drivers who once turned laps in Thursday Thunder.
“Our alumni list is something we’re very proud of,” Clark said. “For the young drivers coming into the program, it shows them that if you come here, it’s a great learning experience.
“Racing here and doing well provide you the opportunity to learn and hopefully have the opportunity to advance your career up through other divisions.”
One young driver few would be surprised to see join the ever-growing list of Thursday Thunder Alumni to race in NASCAR is Albany, Georgia’s Wilder Etheredge. At just 10 years old, the second-year Bandolero driver is already showing Chase Elliott-esque promise behind the wheel.
Oozing with natural talent, the youngster is surrounded by friends and family who are excited to help him realize his racing potential. Not the least of those is his grandfather, Skip Nichols, the winningest driver in Thursday Thunder history. Nichols retired from racing following his eighth Masters Division championship last year to focus on Wilder’s development as his crew chief.
“This is a good program for young kids like Wilder, as well as a good program for old-timers like me,” said Nichols. “I’m really looking forward to getting on the sidelines and being there for my grandson. Hopefully he’ll get the opportunity one day … that I got back then to pursue a career in racing.”
Wilder won his first race in the Beginner Bandits Division last year and finished his debut season with six top-5 finishes in nine races.
Echoing Ed Clark, Nichols knows the challenges of the tough asphalt quarter-mile but views it as an advantage for developing drivers.
“If you can drive this track, you’re going to be good at any other track that you go to,” he said. “I can certainly attest to that, because I’ve been to many race tracks over my 55 years of racing, and this is one of the hardest tracks to get a handle on. But if you get a handle on this one, you can go just about everywhere and be competitive.”
Amber Fleeman, a regular in the Semi-Pro Division and a sophomore at Georgia Tech, enters her sixth year racing at Atlanta Motor Speedway and has made her mark both on and off the track.
“Not only is this a race track for me, it’s a place where I come hang out with friends,” she said. “I have so many friends here. I appreciate everything everybody does here.
“I’ve loved every summer series I’ve raced, every winter series I’ve raced. I love this race track. I’ve never been to a race track where you will see the people who greet you to get your pit passes with a smile on their faces. They ask you how you family’s doing, how everything’s going in your life. They want to know how school is going.”
Fleeman has several top-5 finishes at AMS and hopes to see her first victory in 2015. But it won’t be easy.
Thursday Thunder will hit the track June 4, featuring five racing divisions with various skill levels and competition, including Bandolero cars in the Beginner Bandits, Bandits, and Outlaw divisions and Legends cars in the Semi-Pro/Young Lions and Masters/Pro divisions. The summer racing series will run eight consecutive weeks from June 4 through July 23, as drivers of all ages and skill levels compete in the 18th season of quarter-mile racing at AMS.
Infield admission is available for spectators, and passes may be purchased at the Security Command building near the speedway’s main entrance. Infield passes are $12 for adults, $5 for kids ages 6 through 11, and children ages 5 and younger are admitted free. Grandstand tickets for the affordable, family-friendly racing series cost just $6 for adults, $2 for kids ages 6 through 11 and is free for children ages 5 and younger.
For more information, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway ticket office at (770) 946-4211, (877) 9-AMS-TIX or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.