Much has been written about Derek Thorn’s acumen behind the wheel, and deservedly so. In the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series, his record stands apart from any other driver in series history. He leads in wins (51), top-5’s (76), Top-10’s (84), Poles (60), Money Earned ($338,430), Laps Led (5,004), Average Finish (4.52) and Qualifying Average (2.25) to name several. But little is recognized of his loyalty to the SRL, and his longevity in the series. On May 1st, Thorn will break through another barrier, when he makes his 100th career start in the SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series. It will be at a track that has seen Thorn win on five different occasions in the SRL, and once more in two starts in the ARCA Menards Pro Series West Series. That track is the historic Stockton 99 Speedway, a mainstay of the series since series season #2.
The Speed51.com top-10 short track driver of the past decade, began his SRL career at Irwindale Speedway in July of 2009. It was an inauspicious start for the 2019 Snowflake 100 winner, finishing 16th, after motor issues sidelined him in the Dan Smith owned car. Thorn was 23 years old at the time, and was just beginning his journey to West Coast stardom, in the most competitive series on the West Coast. It was a journey that flew by in a New York minute, that led to some great relationships along the way.
“Time has flown by, and what stands out the most is how lucky I’ve been to be surrounded by great people”, Thorn stated. “Byron and Carol have given me opportunities I’d otherwise only have dreamed of. Mike and Vicki Keen have been a huge part of the growth of Campbell Motorsports and helping me grow as a person on and off the racetrack. It is crazy how fast 100 starts have come and gone. I can guarantee I wasn’t thinking about marriage or having kids at my first SRL start and here I am well over a decade later with the love of my life and two crazy kids. The journey has been amazing and the people that have helped me along the way are what I cherish most.”
Thorn will join a list of only four other drivers to achieve the 100 starts plateau in the SRL. Jacob Gomes leads the all-time starts list with 110. Scott Sanchez has 109 and Campbell Motorsports teammate Carlos Vieira has 105. NASCAR Southwest Tour Series veteran Keith Spangler is the other, with 102 starts. The 100-start feat is impressive for the Lakeport, CA born driver, but it also allows Thorn to grasp his length of involvement behind the wheel.
“I feel like an old fart joining the 100 club”, Thorn joked.
With thirteen seasons in the SRL, Thorn’s reputation as a driver has grown in conjunction with the growth of the series. It has given Thorn the opportunity to meet new people and create new friendships and partnerships. He has seen the series go from perimeter chassis cars, which were the standard after the NASCAR Southwest Tour Series disbanded, to the offset chassis and rule sets that match the East Coast standards. It is a transition that Thorn appreciates when he visits some of the biggest races in the country. The series has also helped him get name recognition headed to those big events.
“It’s what helped me get noticed”, Thorn admitted. “Working at Joiners I met Dan Smith, who gave me my first start, which eventually opened the door to (Byron ) Campbell, (Bob) Strandwold, (Joe) Farre, and (Bob) Bruncati. As the SRL has grown, it has given drivers a platform to stand out on a national level. Over time it has gained more rapport amongst the rest of the country and continues to show a lot of talent and great teams, that when given the opportunity, can compete against some of the best teams around the country. Ricky Brooks (Head Tech Inspector) has been able to help merge the East and West on rules, which has made things easier to travel the country with the same car.”
Through 100 starts, Thorn has experienced some intense battles. He has been challenged by track and Super Late Model series champions at each and every event. Drivers such as M.K. Kanke, Eric Schmidt, Dave Byrd, Jacob Gomes, Jeremy Doss, Jonathon Gomez, Craig Raudman, Auggie Vidovich, Eric Holmes and most recently Preston Peltier have challenged Thorn at every turn. He has enjoyed the tough competition the series has provided, and the rivalries it created. But one of those rivalries in particular, has kept the Campbell Motorsports driver on his toes over multiple seasons, and helped sharpen his skills behind the wheel.
“Jim Pettit stands out as one of the guys I enjoyed racing against the most”, Thorn recalled. “The rivalry we had on track led to some hard feelings at times, but I always respected Jim and his abilities. Looking back, I felt I learned a lot behind the wheel when we would race together. He definitely kept me on my toes.”
Despite Thorn’s immense success in the series, and in Super Late Model racing in general, he has had victories slip through his fingers on multiple occasions. Just last December he finished second in the Snowball Derby at 5 Flags Speedway, despite leading with less than 10 laps to go. He was wrecked out of the lead at the All American 400 last October at Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway, a race he had completely dominated. He has come close to winning multiple Summer Showdowns at Evergreen Speedway, coming up just short. In SRL competition, he has had his fair share of disappointments as well, but he was philosophical about them.
“There’s always those races that slip through your fingers, or bad luck strikes at the worst possible time”, Thorn explained. “We’ve definitely have had a few of those in the SRL, but we’ve been fortunate to have the opportunity to come back and have another shot at that particular track and race. Pikes Peak was an awesome place to go back to and get a win at, as well as getting our first Winter Showdown win, after having come so close a couple times.”
Thorn will now turn his attention to the destination of start #100. It is a facility that had given Thorn some frustration in the past. His first two starts resulted in 20th and 17th place finishes. He was winless in his first four series starts, but finally broke through in start number five. Since that time, Thorn has rattled off six victories in seven starts, including an ARCA Menards Pro Series West victory. But Thorn always enters Stockton with caution, as the unique layout can make for a challenging event.
“Stockton is a very humbling place to race”, Thorn revealed. “My first few starts there, I don’t think I finished. Everything happens really fast, and you never know what cards you’ll be dealt. We will go into it prepared as much as possible, and make the most of it.”
Over the last 13 SRL seasons, Thorn has amassed more success than any other pavement short track racer on the West Coast. There have been many who have supported him and helped in that journey. Thorn is thankful for those who have been there for ride and lended the support that has led to that success.
“The list of thank you’s would take up an entire article, then I would feel bad because I’d probably miss someone” Thorn related. “But some of the biggest…my wife never gets enough credit for all she’s done to support me through this whole journey. Thank you to my mom and dad as well, who have been behind me every step of the way. The Campbell Family and Mike and Vicki Keen have not only been the biggest part of my success, but have helped me become a better person throughout the years. Junior Joiner and Dan Smith got me started in Bakersfield and helped me get noticed. Junior gave me a job in Bakersfield when I couldn’t find work in Wisconsin, and he always supported me anyway he could.”
Thorn continued, “Dan Smith took a risk on me as a driver. We blew an engine then I totaled his car in the first two starts. Then in one of my first starts with Campbell, I totaled a car of Byron’s out at Irwindale. I always scratch my head at how I got so da** lucky to have people that stuck with me, when they could have easily moved onto someone else. That’s the most humbling part of all. Thank you to all of you that have helped me get to where I am. It’s a long list and I appreciate all of them because I wouldn’t be where I am today without them.”
The “Spears Southwest Tour Series 125 presented by Senneker Performance” will be Round #4 of the 2021 SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series season. They will be joined by the SPEARS Pro Late Model Series presented by Sigma Performance Services, who will race for 75 laps. The Legends and B4 Cylinder Divisions will also be on the card. Spectators will be welcomed to next weekend’s event, with Admission Gates opening at 5:00 pm. Qualifying is scheduled for 6:00 pm with racing to follow. For those who can not attend, the race can be followed LIVE on SpearsRacing.TV. It will be broadcast on MAVTV at a time and date to be named later.
Celebrating its twenty-first season in 2021, the SPEARS Southwest Tour Series is a regional stock car series competing on paved ovals in the southwestern portion of the U.S. “The SPEARS Southwest Tour Series…Where the Champions Race”.
-SPEARS SRL Southwest Tour Series Press Release
-Photo credit: Speed51 Photo