There was a time, now years ago, when some may have questioned Kevin Thomas Jr.’s chances to make it as a professional sprint car racer. However, at no point has any sane individual doubted his desire to succeed.
As a high school student, Thomas routinely made the 1,000-mile round trip from Cullman, Ala., to compete on the bullrings of Indiana. Not horribly surprising, in his early years he was routinely getting his hat handed to him by people like Dave Darland and Jon Stanbrough. Instead of pouting, he asked questions, he watched film, and, predictably, he improved. Today, Thomas is unquestionably a star on the USAC sprint car tour, and by extension one of the top traditional sprint car drivers in the land.
Over the past two seasons, few men have been as successful as the “Alabama Kid.” In 2017, he won 20 races, captured the Indiana Sprint Week title and capped off the year with a victory during the Oval Nationals at California’s Perris Auto Speedway.
Because he was pursuing other opportunities at the beginning of the year and missed the Florida swing, any chance to capture the AMSOIL USAC Sprint Car Series championship was lost. This year, he vows it will be a different story and his eyes are squarely on the prize. As of this writing, Thomas had notched 18 victories and was leading a close battle for the USAC sprint car title.
To the outsider, Thomas’ chance to grab the brass ring is not a question of talent, but one of temperament. It would be nearly impossible for anyone to be more self-critical, and after a recent unforced error at Lincoln Park Speedway he let everyone know just how disgusted he was with himself.
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Nonetheless, he quickly eschews any suggestion that the fiery side of his personality can derail him from his most cherished goals.
“I’m super hard on myself,” he admitted, “but that’s how I have gotten to where I am at. I expect more out of myself than others expect me to be able to do. That’s how I have always been. It was the same in baseball, football and basketball. I was a little firecracker then, and it isn’t a whole lot different now. I’m intense when it comes to competition and it doesn’t matter what it is. We could be playing for dinner and trust me, I don’t plan on paying for your dinner. I hate losing more than I like winning.”
Talking to Thomas, one quickly learns that certain words emerge as themes. Notably among them is mindset. Simply put, there seem to be two primary frameworks that have anchored his season. One of them is not new, but reflects his overriding belief that he can win every time he straps in a race car.
“I walk in every race feeling like that,” he said. “To others it might seem arrogant, but those same people don’t hang out with me on the golf course on Wednesday to see what kind of guy I am. They just see me at the race track, where I’m intense and don’t really talk to many people. Look, I try to buffer, and joke and laugh, but man, as soon as I strap a helmet on, I just see red.
“I don’t see anything else. I just see red,” Thomas continued. “That is the way I was built. That’s the way it is. I know I’m not the easiest guy to be around at the race track, but I expect excellence from me and everyone else.”
The bottom line is that for Thomas racing is serious business.
“I have had people say, ‘Why don’t you smile,’ and I say, ‘Why would I smile,’ I haven’t won yet. If we don’t win, it isn’t good enough,” Thomas explained. “That’s the way I live life. It’s not always the most popular. I don’t always get the most cheers because I don’t do things like go out and sign autographs in the middle of the heat races. Going out there and socializing won’t win the race. It might help you sell 10 more T-shirts, but I want to sell 10 more T-shirts because I lapped the field. That’s the way my mind operates.”
While high intensity is part of his basic DNA, Thomas has also come to realize that if he is going to reach his overarching goal, his mindset might need to be calibrated just a bit. Before the first wheel was turned this season, Thomas entered into an agreement with Hoffman Dynamics, the most successful sprint car team in USAC history.
When you join a squad that has won 11 titles and more than 100 USAC-sanctioned events, much is expected. This meant Thomas would benefit from the Mean Green sponsorship and a host of other contingency arrangements. While Thomas keeps the car at his shop, he still leans on the experience of the Hoffmans at critical times.
“If we are struggling on the setup, for example, I can bounce some things off of them,” he said. “Sometimes I talk to them about running a team or fighting for a championship.”