Will Thomas III was turning heads nearly a decade ago as a young driver, winning big Late Model shows in the Northeast and even a feature at New Smyrna Speedway in Florida. Then, in the eyes of asphalt fans, he seemingly disappeared.
That changed when the Sharpsville, Pennsylvania racer brushed off the dirt he had been racing on the last few years to compete in the 27th Annual U.S Open weekend at Lancaster National Speedway (NY) in late September. This time it was in a Race of Champions Tour Modified.
Thomas was returning to the site of where he had landed a win in a Late Model in 2006. That year he won the first of two championships in the now defunct Mid-Atlantic Asphalt Racing Alliance. Making his debut in a Modified was quite a positive and different experience.
“If you didn’t like asphalt Modifieds I’d question if you really liked asphalt racing or not,” Thomas told Speed51.com powered by JEGS following his first career RoC start. “They are really good cars. We’ve raced on the blacktop before a lot in the Late Models. We switched and started running dirt near the end of 2011 when the popularity of the Late Models faded a little bit up here in the Northeast. We really enjoyed it.”
Racing on the pavement was something that continued on in Thomas’ mind even while winning Dirt Crate Late Model and Modified races and championships mostly at Sharon Speedway (OH) near his home. A few life events had him considering making the return.
“I met my wife through racing,” Thomas explained. “I lost my dad about a year and a half ago so that was my best friend who always went racing with me. Now for us to be able to come up here in Western New York and race with my family it’s pretty special to us.”
Thomas’ wife Tammy is the sister of George Skora III, a rival back in the Late Model days. Skora switched to Modifieds when the TBRA Late Model Series shut down after his 2012 championship, and was a crucial part to bringing his brother in-law back.
“If my in-laws didn’t race pavement Modifieds we probably wouldn’t have owned one,” Thomas admitted. “I know my wife really enjoys getting back here. I’ve got some guys that have been with me for a long time, and they enjoy being back to the blacktop as well.”
In addition to family and longtime crew members, the knowledgebase came from a couple very successful and recognizable names as well, one of them being a former U.S. Open Modified winner and the other a Canadian racing legend.
“When we got the car it wasn’t put together yet,” Thomas said. “We started doing it and my father-in-law was helping me, but he’s got a lot of stuff going on at work. Charlie Rudolph, who I got to know a little bit better through dirt racing, offered to finish the car for me. I can’t say enough about Charlie. He’s just a great guy who comes from a long background of racing, and without him we definitely wouldn’t have been here.”
“Then Friday night, Junior Hanley came down from Canada to come see us. Junior’s another great friend. I’m real fortunate. I don’t know if I’m any good at this racing game, but I know a lot of good people who have fortunately helped me out a lot.”
At the end of 125 laps, the asphalt Modified came home in one piece and with a top 10 finish. Nevertheless, Thomas was not entirely satisfied with his performance.
“It’s a little bit frustrating finishing seventh because I know we had a lot better car than that,” Thomas recapped. “I made a bad call on the pit stop and told them to tighten it up. My goal was to run in the top five and I think we could have solidly done that if I didn’t mess it up. We had a really good baseline on the car and just inexperience drove my decision. If we would have just left it where we were we probably would have been a lot better.”
For the time being, Thomas returns to the dirt ranks for some end of season shows. It remains to be seen at what frequency he will run on pavement in the future, but at least one important member of his everyday life motioned that it is not a matter of if but when they will be back.
“Well, my wife is nodding her head yes so I imagine we’ll be here,” Thomas indicated regarding the 2016 RoC season. “How much of it we’re going to do I’m not 100% sure yet, but it’s fun. Everybody enjoys it. As long as I can figure out a way to pay for it and I’ve got help to do it we’ll race.”
If his Race of Champions debut was any sign, perennial top competitors will have to contend with the ‘Bill Thomas Special’ in races to come.