ANDERSON, Ind. — Looking at it on the surface, one might think that T.J. Thompson walking into the Little 500 at Anderson Speedway and leaving celebrating a win is the punchline to a Hollywood movie script.
After all, for a mechanic and pit crew member at Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing to get a last-minute call to crew on Bobby Santos III’s pavement sprint car — and then for Santos to win the race — is like something out of a dream, isn’t it?
For Thompson, the dream became reality in one thrilling Saturday night spectacle.
Santos passed Shane Hollingsworth inside of 100 laps to go at the high-banked, quarter-mile oval and recorded his first victory in seven starts in the most-prestigious asphalt sprint car race in the country.
Thompson served as a tire changer during Santos’ pit stops Saturday, a similar role to the one he plays on the big stage with RLLR in the NTT IndyCar Series for Indy car veteran Graham Rahal.
But not only was such an endeavor not in the initial plans for Thompson, it wasn’t even one that he’d considered being able to take on until a couple of weeks prior to the race, which was rescheduled from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day weekend due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was the week of the (Indianapolis) 500 because I was at the (Indianapolis Motor) Speedway working on the RLL cars, but that week off in between qualifying and the race, I got a text message from my buddy Tyler (Rivard) about working for Bobby that week,” Thompson told Sprint Car & Midget. “Two years ago, he actually lived with me out here while he was working for Bobby. We each have our own places now, but it was pretty much about the same time I started with RLL that we were living together and he started working for Bobby out here.
“At that time, it was just him and Bobby as the only two full-time employees there, running all Bobby’s Silver Crown and sprint car stuff, but I’ve known Tyler since I was six or seven. We grew up racing go-karts together and it was just kind of funny that we both found our way out to Indiana at the same time,” Thompson added. “But he shot me a text and said, ‘Hey, one of our guys is out for the Little 500 and we need a (pit) gunner. And I told him that our schedule was kind of really up in the air at that point, but to let me figure out when it is and what’s going on. At the time, Gateway (World Wide Technology Raceway) wasn’t confirmed, but it was most likely going to be the weekend it ended up on.
“I told him to pencil me in and I’d come do some practice, but obviously, I knew I had to stick to the IndyCar stuff first. And it just worked out that I was able to have the weekend off and went out there and changed tires for them. And son of a gun if Bobby didn’t drive the thing all the way to victory lane.”
For someone who had only even attended the Little 500 once, being in the infield and absorbing the sights and sounds from ground level was exhilarating, Thompson said.
“Saturday was my second time actually being there. I went in 2019 for the actual race, the night before the (Indianapolis) 500, just to watch … and I sat in the grandstands, but it’s a totally different experience when you’re down there in the bowl,” Thompson relayed. “It’s literally dug out and everything goes up around you; the banking is ridiculous, and then the grandstands are above that. When you’re watching them roll around for pace laps and you’re looking up and it’s like people for what looks like a mile from all the way down in there, it’s crazy.
“As soon as they start rolling, the ground shakes and it feels like an earthquake’s going on,” Thompson noted. “It was a really cool experience, especially right at the start when all of them fired off and you had 33 guys three-wide on what isn’t a three-wide track,” he added. “That (the start) might have been the wildest part, to me.”
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