When Jason Corliss and his family-owned race team pulled into Thunder Road Speedbowl (VT) for the first time in 2004, they did so with a Street Stock being towed into the pit area on a tow dolly behind a pickup truck. On Sunday afternoon, nearly ten years later, things ended up coming full-circle for Corliss when he rolled into victory lane in the track’s premier divisions, the Late Models, at the conclusion of one of the most prestigious events held at the track each year.
The 25-year-old driver, who resides in Barre, Vermont, used a last lap, last turn pass on two-time Thunder Road “King of the Road”, Nick Sweet, to carve his name into the granite monument as the winner of the 52nd running of the Memorial Day Classic.
“It’s an incredible feeling,” Corliss told Speed51.com presented by JEGS. “I grew up at this race track. At three years old, I was coming to this track and watching that type of racing like you saw today. I started off in little four-cylinders dreaming and never having the money or opportunity to do something like this. I’ve met some fantastic people and I’ve had some great support over the years to get to this point. It feels good to finally get on top.”
Corliss’ win on Sunday was a prime example of a driver climbing through the ranks at Thunder Road and making it in the tracks premier division. The Barre, Vermont driver got his start in the tracks Street Stock division before progressing to Thunder Road’s intermediate division, the Tiger Sportsman, and eventually making his first start in a Late Model at the start of the 2013 racing season.
Throughout the transition from division to division, things weren’t always easy for Corliss. Being an underfunded race team, Corliss didn’t always have the best equipment to work with.
On Tuesday, Thunder Road owner Tom Curley referred to Corliss’ first Tiger Sportsman car as “a 20th-place car pulled out of a hay field”.
“It was the only thing he could get his hands on and he wanted to go Tiger racing,” said Curley. “He went and made a deal with the guy. They scraped their tire money together and scraped together what they could and came in and didn’t do particularly good to be honest. Once the thing stopped breaking because they were replacing all the parts and pieces, he got some fairly respectable finishes in a very competitive field of Tiger drivers.”
After recording respectable finishes in the Tiger Sportsman division, Corliss was offered a ride in the tracks premier Late Model divisions. Like with his Tiger Sportsman, when he first started racing that type of car, the equipment and resources made available to him may not have been up to par with the competition but he continued to stay positive and make the best out of the opportunity.
Still, with mediocre equipment at best, Corliss was able to record respectable finishes. That caught the eye of sponsors that offered to bring money on board. It even caught the eye other race teams who were watching Corliss record solid finishes with limited resources. One of those people that Corliss caught the eye of was a crew member for eight-time American-Canadian Tour champion Brian Hoar.
“One of Brian Hoar’s crew members took a liking to the way Jason raced and offered to help him on some off nights when Brian wasn’t racing,” said Curley. “All of a sudden this guy that works for RPM and works on the RPM race team, who is very quiet and doesn’t say much, started showing up at Jason’s pit on Thursday’s nights and Jason really came to life a little bit.”
Like he had throughout his racing career, Corliss and his team continued to stay positive, work hard, and improve each and every week. All the hard work throughout the years finally paid off on Sunday when Corliss proved to all of the current Street Stock and Tiger Sportsman drivers that it is possible to reach your dreams through hard work and dedication.
“I heard today in the office, all the staff was telling me that everybody watching the race was rooting for him,” said Tom Curley. “It wasn’t because they don’t like Nick Sweet because they do. Every single one of those teams, all of those Street Stocks and all of those Tigers, were yelling at the end because for them he is the example. He defined for them that everybody has a shot if it’s an equal playing field because he was one of them.
“That message sent on Sunday is sent to ever one of those guys in the Tiger and Street Stock divisions that anything is possible. If you dream those big dreams then you can make them come true. That kid is the poster boy for that. Jason Corliss dreamt the dream and lived the dream. He sends that message far better than I can send it to all those kids who want to drive these race cars and have great success.”
To many in attendance at Thunder Road on Sunday afternoon, Corliss’ win was unexpected. With heavy hitters and defending champions like Nick Sweet and Derrick O’Donnell in the field, the sophomore Late Model driver was considered an underdog by most people.
Key words: Most people.
One of those people that didn’t consider Corliss an underdog was Tom Curley. Curley, who has watched Corliss come up through the ranks at the track he owns, always knew that Corliss had a lot of talent behind the wheel and even went as far as to tell him on Sunday morning that he thought he could win the race.
“When I went into Thunder Road on Sunday morning, I saw his Dad coming through the gate so I knew that they were there,” said Curley. “I made an effort to go over to see them and I went to Jason and said, ‘You’ve always known that I think you’re a very good racer, you’ve got a lot of skills and more than that you have a great attitude. It’s so positive and it’s infectious.’
“I said, ‘You’re going to win a race here this year and I think you can win today.’ He said, ‘no’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I do. I think you can win today. Whether you do or not, it doesn’t matter to me but I think that now you’re capable, you’ve got good equipment, and you certainly know your way around here.’”
Following the win, Corliss’ style was compared by many people, including Tom Curley, to Nick Sweet’s – the guy he beat by .008 seconds to win his first career Late Model race. Both drivers reside in the tracks hometown of Barre, Vermont, both made their way through the Thunder Road ranks starting in the Street Stocks, and both exhibit respectable driving styles on the race track.
“Nick came through the system pretty much the same way, making the same kind of moves, which I as a promoter both times felt that both those kids had stepped up prematurely and I was wrong,” said Curley. “Both of them proved me wrong. They both drive similarly. They’re very, very curious and have a lot of respect for people around them. They don’t wreck a lot and they give lifts early in the day. If a guy chops them, they don’t lose their tempers and go nuts. They have that same kind of temperament that’s very similar to Joey Pole, who is now considered an ACT veteran. “
Corliss said following the race that just having his name in the same sentence as Sweet’s is an honor.
“I have a ton of respect for Nick Sweet. He is a fantastic person and a fantastic race car driver. To be able to be compared to Nick, I feel very fortunate. To have Tom Curley’s blessing and for him to be the one to compare me to Nick Sweet is very special.
“For me, I feel like I’m just this young guy that’s been given a great opportunity to race up front with guys like Nick Sweet for the win. To be able to put my name on the granite, I can’t even explain it.”
Now sitting at the top of the point standings after one race, Corliss hopes to use his win on Sunday as a momentum builder for the rest of the season. During the past two seasons at Thunder Road, the winner of the Memorial Day Classic has gone on to be crowned “King of the Road”. Corliss has high hopes of keeping that streak alive going into the 53rd running of the event.
“This is definitely a huge, huge step forward for our program,” Corliss said on Sunday. “It gives us the confidence to know that we can do this. We have the team, we have the car, and if we have all that I can drive it. It’s a hell of a start for us. That was our plan at the beginning of the year, to battle for the King of the Road.
“At the very least, we can show the rest of our competitors that we’re here.”