Thursday Still Thunders

Vermont’s Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl has a long history of strong Thursday night programs. (Leif Tillotson Photo)
Vermont’s Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl has a long history of strong Thursday night programs. (Leif Tillotson Photo)

For many short-track racing fans, nothing on television has quite matched the Thursday Night Thunder USAC races presented live by ESPN from the Indianapolis Speedrome, and later from O’Reilly Raceway Park during the 1980s.

The network’s programming priorities pushed TNT off the ESPN schedule, but Thursday still thunders at a small group of weekly speedways, primarily in New England and the upper Midwest.

The flagship for Thursday night racing in the Northeast has long been Thunder Road Int’l Speedbowl in Barre, Vt. While its marquee event, the Milk Bowl, is a Sunday afternoon show in September, June through August has meant Thursday night on Quarry Hill for one of the biggest weekly crowds in the nation since the track opened in 1959.

Why Thursday at Thunder Road? The answer is simple. It’s payday. At the time the track was built, Barre was a one-industry town, and Thursday was payday at the granite quarry. Now the state government in Montpelier, fewer than 10 miles away, rivals the quarry for economic impact. It also hands out paychecks on Thursday.

“We’ve been fortunate to become part of the culture in central Vermont,” remarked promoter Tom Curley, who also operates the traveling American-Canadian Tour, which features the same crate-engine late models as Thunder Road’s high-banked quarter mile. Of course, Thursday operation presents its special challenges, especially time management.

“You have to be a well-oiled machine to get the program started on time,” Curley noted. Starting at 6:30 p.m., he tries to get the three-division show completed by 9:30 to 9:45 in order to get the large number of fans who make the 45-minute trek via Interstate 89 from Burlington, the state’s largest city, home before 11 p.m.

While Thunder Road is a Thursday night institution, Thompson Int’l Speedway in northeastern Connecticut is a relative newcomer to weeknight operation. Built as the first paved track on the East Coast in 1940, Thompson enjoyed great success with a weekly Sunday twilight modified program during the heyday of modified racing in New England.

Don Hoenig, whose family has owned the track since its inception, explained his choice to move to a weeknight schedule.

“People are looking for something to do on a weeknight in the summer,” he said, adding, “a lot of them get paid on Thursday, and you don’t have as much competition for the entertainment dollar as you do on the weekend.”

The immediate surroundings of the track and the adjoining golf course are decidedly rural, but Interstate 390, the principal north-south route from Worcester, Mass., along the eastern corridor of Connecticut, has two exits within five miles of the speedway.

Thanks to I-390, Worcester’s population base of a quarter million people is 20 minutes away, and Norwich, Conn., is little more than half an hour.

There’s no good, direct road from state capitals, Providence, R.I., to the east or Hartford, Conn., to the west, but Hoenig reports good patronage from industrial towns with a strong racing heritage like Woonsocket, R.I., and Fitchburg, Mass.

Thompson’s field is drawn from roughly the same area as its fans, which points to one of the drawbacks of weeknight operation.

“We open the pits at 2 p.m.,” Hoenig explained, “and a lot of competitors can’t take a half day off from work to get here for practice.”

The big five-eighths-mile oval runs six classes each week for its NASCAR Whelen All-American Series program, headed by the Sunoco Modifieds, which are essentially the same as Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway’s SK Modifieds.

That means today’s biggest drawing card in New England, Ted Christopher, is a Thursday night regular at the Big T. Whether they love him or hate him, TC puts fans in the seats.

Hoenig described his 2010 Thursday night season by saying, “We did OK.”

Like Thunder Road’s Milk Bowl, Thompson’s signature events, the Icebreaker and the World Series, are multi-day weekend shows in April and October, respectively. Some specials for the tour-type modifieds are worked into the Thursday schedule.

Wisconsin Int’l Raceway in Kaukauna, near Appleton, is the Midwestern equivalent of Thunder Road. Under the auspices of the Fox River Racing Club, it has raced on Thursday since the early 1970s, sending Alan Kulwicki, among others, on their way to NASCAR careers.

In 2010, WIR’s marquee attraction, the three-race Red, White and Blue Series, moved from the weekend to become part of the Thursday night schedule. Lowell Bennett captured the RW&B title, while Terry Baldry, whose career goes back to the Kulwicki era and before, notched his 15th track championship.

About 120 miles west of Kaukauna in north-central Wisconsin, the Thursday night success story of 2010 was written at State Park Speedway, a quarter-mile oval located in the Wausau area.

Long a Thursday night fixture on the circuit that included the more famous Dells Motor Speedway as its Saturday anchor, State Park had suffered in recent years under ownership that tried to introduce weekend racing. The track’s future was in peril until Ron Wimmer and his son, NASCAR driver Scott Wimmer, stepped in to purchase and revive the 50-year old facility.

They chose to present Thursday night racing every other week, and made rehabilitation of the run-down physical plant a top priority.

“We expanded the pits from 10 to 34 [concrete] slabs. We replaced the boards on all 1,200 seats and added 400 more. We built the playground for the kids. We gave the fans a full menu at the stands, and we built a new bar,” said Ron Wimmer. “We tried to do something for everybody.”

Wimmer feels his alternating-week schedule was a key to turning the track around.

“Ten events seems to work right for us, People are doing more family-oriented activities today. Every other week [scheduling] lets people plan things with their families and lets [competitors] work on their cars,” he asserted, noting it also makes each event special rather than just another weekly show. Although every race at State Park in 2010 headlined the super late models, he sees no conflict with WIR for cars or fans.

“That’s a big half mile. We’re just a quarter mile. After their season closed, we got a few cars from over there, but there’s really no overlap with Kaukauna,” Wimmer said.

How successful was the Thursday night revival at State Park?

Judging from the major event of the summer, the 30th annual Larry Detjens Memorial, it was a rousing success.

“The Detjens Memorial was the largest crowd the track had ever seen,” Wimmer declared proudly. For 2011, the Detjens race is planned to expand to a two-day event in late July, and the ASA touring series will appear for the first time in June.

Clearly, Thursday night is not for everybody.

“Saturday night under the lights” is as much a tradition in short-track racing as “Friday night lights” for high school football in many communities.

To race successfully on a weeknight requires both fan and competitor bases relatively close to the track, and a tradition like Thunder Road, WIR or State Park is a big plus. Where those elements can be put together, the results can be, well, thunderous.