Photos courtesy ThorSport Racing
In this day and age, running a NASCAR team outside the Charlotte area is a rarity.
With the centralization of stock car racing around Charlotte, many question whether a team can survive outside NASCAR’s hotbed.
But ThorSport Racing, based in Sandusky, Ohio, is doing far more than simply surviving. With Matt Crafton in the process of running away with the Camping World Truck Series points title, ThorSport is thriving far from the speed hub located in the heart of North Carolina.
What started as a small single-truck organization back in 1996 has morphed into an outpost of speed housed in a state-of-the-art race shop on the shores of Lake Erie.
Crafton and teammate Johnny Sauter drive for the two-truck operation, which also produces ARCA cars for legendary driver Frank Kimmel.
But ThorSport’s ascension to the top of the truck series is far from an overnight success story. Instead, it took a series of calculated business decisions by owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson to build the team into what it is today.
David Pepper, the general manager of the team, has been with the organization for over a decade. He has watched the momentum build slowly with each passing year.
“I would describe it as a snowball,” Pepper said. “They had some limited success and 2004 was kind of a change in the lifecycle for the race team. It went from a smaller, kind of a family-feel race team to more of a corporate race team.
“It went from a single-truck organization to a multi-truck team at that point.”
Pepper said that continuity has played as big a role in the team’s success as fiscal restraint. The key, he said, has been identifying a core group of top employees and keeping them on board. Then, when it comes time to add personnel, the team finds the best people on the market to surround that core group.
“It’s kind of like building a football franchise,” Pepper said. “It’s building depth within the organization at positions. Where 10 or 12 years ago, you had seven or eight guys working here, and they were working on one truck, now you’ve got upwards of 70 guys here and you’ve got a lot of backup guys.
“If your first-string guy goes down, you’ve got guys who can step into those positions.”
Crafton drove his first race for ThorSport in 2000 and Sauter is in his fifth season driving for the team.
That sort of stability in a stable of drivers on the truck circuit is almost unheard of and, according to Crafton, loyalty inside the organization is a two-way street.
“That’s what Duke and Rhonda have always told me,” Crafton said. “If you stick with us, we’ll stick with you and we’ll make this thing better each and every year.”
Of course, being located in Ohio isn’t without its challenges. Joe Shear Jr., Sauter’s longtime crew chief, resigned over the summer. Among his reasons for leaving Shear cited the inability of ThorSport to get enough qualified people on board to run his team at the highest level.
But Pepper downplayed the notion that operating so far away from Charlotte is a challenge.
“I don’t think challenge is the right word. Different is the right word,” Pepper said. “There are very talented people across the country. Clearly there is a centralization of racing talent in the Carolinas. That’s not to say that we don’t tap into that market.
“We’ve built a very good organization and a very good team,” Pepper continued. “We’ve got a lot of good things going on up here so there’s a goodly number of people that have jobs in North Carolina that inquire about coming here because it gives them an opportunity to work for a quality team and win races.”
Where others see challenges in running a team in the Midwest, Pepper sees advantages. From a travel standpoint, ThorSport’s shop is much closer to several tracks on the circuit than Charlotte is, giving his team longer to work on their trucks between races.
While it takes more organization and foresight to stay stocked up on parts so far away from Charlotte, Pepper pointed out that the team also has a more dedicated workforce because signing on with ThorSport requires a deeper commitment.
“If a guy is having a bad day, and he’s talking to his buddy at lunch in North Carolina, he can roll his toolbox across the street for 50 cents more an hour,” Pepper said. “That is not entirely the case here. When you commit to being at ThorSport Racing, it’s a true commitment. You move here, you invest in the belief that we’ve got a great company out of the circle of race teams in North Carolina.”
Crafton’s season thus far is perhaps the most compelling evidence that ThorSport is on the rise. Barring a huge collapse over the final 10 races, the organization will likely be hanging a championship banner in its race shop following the season.
For now, it’s enough for Pepper that ThorSport is a force to be reckoned with every time it unloads at a racetrack.
“We don’t go to the racetrack thinking, ‘Boy I hope we run well here this weekend,’ ” Pepper said. “We go to the racetrack knowing that if somebody is going to win, they’re probably going to have to beat us. We’re one of the teams to beat.”