ANATOMY OF A COMEBACK: THE RETURN OF TANNER THORSON
Story By: Richie Murray – USAC Media
Photos By: David Nearpass & Rich Forman/USAC
Speedway, Indiana (June 7, 2019)………The Accident: It was Monday morning, March 4, 2019. USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget champion Tanner Thorson had wrapped up competing with the World of Outlaws at the Dirt Track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway days earlier and was driving the Tri-C Motorsports hauler back to the team’s Sacramento, Calif. shop.
Thorson wouldn’t get a chance to complete the mission, the result of a fiery multi-car incident on Highway 99 in Modesto, Calif. that left the Minden, Nevada driver battered, broken and bruised, but, thankfully, alive.
Thorson’s hospitalization resulted in multiple surgeries to repair a broken right foot and a broken left arm. He also had a breathing tube put in to help pump up his collapsed lungs. He’d also suffered a cracked sternum, broken ribs and a punctured lung in the accident.
“It’s been really hard,” Thorson admitted. “I’ve never been through anything like this. I thought for sure if I was going to get hurt, it was going to be in a racecar.”
This was the reality that Thorson was living. He went from traveling the country gravitating from race-to-race, track-to-track, in midgets and sprint cars one minute to lying in a hospital bed contemplating the future. Would it involve racing? Tanner didn’t know that answer and, in fact, attempted to cleanse himself from racing, refusing to let it cross his mind until he knew he was capable of doing it. One aspect that Tanner was not privy of early on in the recovery was the full situation with his left hand.
“I didn’t find out until about a month and a half, two months ago, that the doctor came out and told my parents that I may never be able to use my left hand again. No one told me because they didn’t want me to get down on myself. I feel like that helped me. My parents were by my side for so long through that time, all they wanted was the best for me and they tried to keep that away from me. When I figured that out, I really started to wonder that I might not be able to do this. My hand might give out or something. I just kept pushing. That’s all I could do.”
Once Tanner was released from the hospital, the bite of the racing bug still had just as much teeth as it did prior to the accident. Tanner kept going to the racetrack and, in fact, was back in the pits for a World of Outlaws race at Chico, Calif. the weekend following his release. He helped his friends, wrenched on a few cars and kept his head in the racing game and off the pain.
However, much of his focus went toward personal reflection and improvement, the things he felt he could control amidst the thoughts of what the future could hold.
“I just focused on trying to better myself in that time period of being out,” Thorson said. “There’s a lot of time you don’t realize you’re missing as far as spending time with family and friends. It’s something I tried to focus on as much as I could and not worry about the racing aspect of it because it was either going to work or it wasn’t.”
“Obviously, I was dwelling on it and wondering at the same time if I could do it again,” Thorson continued. “I’d tell people ‘I want to race. I can race right now.’ But I think that was more me trying to settle my mind down.”
After a successful five-year run for the Keith Kunz Motorsports/Curb-Agajanian USAC Midget team between 2013-2017, Tanner set off on his own course, running winged sprint cars on the west coast for Clyde Lamar and part-time with the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series for owner Randy Young while making an occasional midget start.
However, Thorson never forgot where he got his start. After all, KKM is where he made his first laps in a midget, scored his first win a midget and his first championship in a midget in 2016. Vice versa, the same can be said for KKM, which gave him a phone call with an offer that Tanner couldn’t refuse.
“When I got the phone call from (KKM’s) Pete (Willoughby) to come run for them again, it was one of the best phone calls I could’ve had at that time, just knowing that someone was still out there,” Thorson said. “Pete and Keith and all these guys are like family to me. It’s my other family over here.”
The announcement of Thorson’s return was both stunning and admirable. Many were surprised at the remarkably rapid recovery made by Thorson to even entertain the idea of jumping back in a racecar for the most grueling week of midget racing all year in “Indiana Midget Week.” Once he was in the car, the question became ‘How long will it take him to shake off the rust and get back to speed?’ Those particular questions didn’t take long to get answered.
In the opener at Montpelier, Thorson timed in second quickest, transferred through his heat and finished 2nd in the feature. Rather quickly, this became more than just a fuzzy, warm, feel-good story. This became the comeback of a driver who was ready to contend for wins right away.
Tanner backed up his performance the following night by qualifying 3rd, winning the semi, then finishing 5th in the main event, the only driver to finish in the top-five in each of the first two races. By virtue, he found himself at the top of the “Indiana Midget Week” standings entering round three at Lincoln Park Speedway in Putnamville.
But, as Tanner said pretty bluntly, there was still room for improvement.
“I’m really, really hard on myself,” Thorson said. “I ran second my first night out, and that still wasn’t good enough for me.”
With the wounds and scars still visible on his body, Tanner delivered a performance that he said is “definitely one I’ll remember forever.” And is one that will certainly remembered by those who were there to witness it as well.
Thorson used the bottom to capture the lead with just four laps remaining, enduring attack after attack from Kevin Thomas, Jr. and Kyle Larson down the stretch to earn his 13th career USAC NOS Energy Drink National Midget victory, a dream scenario.
“It’s a dream come true again, to be honest,” Thorson said. “I sat out for three months just wondering if I was going to be able to do it again. I’ve been having doubting feelings in my mind and I didn’t know if I was going to be okay to run. I knew I probably could’ve run; I would’ve just had to change my ways. Obviously, it’s hard to do that.”
The situation put Thorson and Kunz working in tandem on the No. 98 for the entirety of “Indiana Midget Week,” something of which they haven’t been able to do in a number of years.
“Keith has worked really hard and close with me. I haven’t worked with Keith since 2014. We work really well together. It’s really cool to work with him and be able to talk to him one on one versus one on five like it used to be. I’m just really blessed to be able to come back and race with these guys. I needed that win.”
The future for the 23-year-old Thorson certainly holds a lot left in the tank where he reiterates his home is in midget racing. Tanner has taken inspiration from the team that he has seen up close and person, and one that’s been a major part of his life and career. Something of which he hopes to give back one day to young, up-and-coming drivers like himself.
“I have a lot of passion for this sport. The midget world, this is my gig,” Thorson made clear. “I eventually want to own a team like Keith Kunz and be able to develop drivers and have a big company like they have. This is kind of my dream ever since I started there. I want to do this one day. I still want to race, but I want to help kids out and try to make them as good as they can and try to go out there and win races. I think that’s what pushed me along during those three months of just not giving up.
With three races remaining in the IMW series, Thorson holds a 17-point lead over Logan Seavey, Tyler Courtney (-26), Jason McDougal (-40) and Shane Golobic (-53).
Friday at Bloomington, pits open at 3pm (Eastern), front gates at 5pm and hot laps begin at 6:30pm with qualifying and racing immediately following. Sprint Cars and MMSA Mini-Sprints will be on hand as well. Adult general admission tickets are $25, students with valid ID are $10, kids 12 and under are free. Pit passes are $30 apiece.
Saturday at Lawrenceburg, pits open at 3pm (Eastern), front gates open at 5pm and hot laps begin at 6pm with qualifying and racing immediately following. Sprint Cars and UMP Modifieds will join the Midgets. Adult general admission tickets are $25, kids 7-12 are $7. Children 6 and under are free. Pit passes are $30 apiece.
Sunday at Kokomo, pits open at 3pm (Eastern), front gates open at 3pm and hot laps begin at 6pm with qualifying and racing immediately following. It’ll be a true doubleheader with Sprint Cars and Midgets on the docket. Adult general admission tickets are $25, kids 12 and under are free. Pit passes are $30 apiece.
Watch each and every “Indiana Midget Week” race live and on-demand at http://www.FloRacing.com/. Listen live on the USAC app. Follow along with live updates on https://www.facebook.com/usacracing/ and https://twitter.com/USACNation, plus live timing and scoring on the Race Monitor app.