The NNKC is where he started in a Sportsman kart years ago and worked his way up to the 125 class before moving on.
“In 2004 I busted up my ribs a couple of time running the shifter karts,” he said. “ I was running with NNKC and the IKF regional series so in 2005 I bought a Legends car and raced the last season at Champion Speedway in Carson City.”
From there he stepped into an IMCA Modified, which meant he moved from a kart, that basically has no suspension, to a car equipped with a normal suspension then to a racer that has a radically different set up.
“It was as probably like night and day as you can get,” he said.
While asphalt changes little during a day or evening of racing, dirt can change radically in a very short period of time. And driving a modified just adds an additional challenge.
“The rear suspensions on those dirt modifieds are complex as there’s a lot of components happening at the same time. And of course knowing how to put all those together on a track is the million dollar question,” he said.
The modern modified, or dirt late model, uses a “Four Bar Suspension.” Thompson explained because of that these cars really don’t drive well when a driver is off the throttle but will if they’re on the throttle.
“If you get completely off the throttle with one of those four bar suspension cars, they will not drive,” he said. “The handling goes completely away.”
Thompson explained staying at least partially on the throttle, even if the car is out of shape, is one of the most difficult things to learn for a new driver. So it takes some time to learn the technique of how to drive these racers.
“When I got into the Legends car I was competitive right away. In those dirt modifieds there are more elements to getting the car to handle,” he said. “It has to do with the mechanical side of the picture as well as the driver and how they use their hands and feet because a lot of times you’re using the brake and throttle.”
So while he was learning to drive the modified, Thompson had to really concentrate on his feet and not so much on the track. But when he was racing in a pack of cars he then had to focus not only on his feet but what was happening all around him.
“All I can say is when you see a good late model or modified driver and they get around the track and make it look easy, I can assure you it’s not that easy,” he said.
With his experience he’s now driven three completely different animals.
“I don’t think many people have driven those three different types of suspensions. But I have, and it was good, but the dirt modified was a big challenge,” he said.
Another challenge for dirt track drivers is the lack of practice time.
“The circle asphalt track we had at Carson you got a fair amount of practice time as we had three sessions and you didn’t have to worry about the track changing, water or dust. With a dirt car, you show up, get a wheel pack session then you might, if you’re lucky, get a three or four lap practice session when the track is decent, and then they tell you to go race,” he said.
This makes a very difficult and steep learning curve for any rookie in a modified. Things get very interesting when a driver is dealing with a very slippery wet track or when its dry slick, which is like driving an asphalt car with cold tires and very little grip.
He added that during a 30-lap feature a driver usually finds only about five to 10 laps where the car is really good so they spend most of the time managing the lack of grip.
That and the handling make racing a modified in a pack a difficult proposition where it’s hard not to hit anybody.
Thompson was an IMCA member for three years, from 2006 through 2008 although he hardly raced during the 2007 season.
Returning to the karts in 2009 he found things were very different.
“When I left NNKC I was in an 125 shifter kart and doing well as we had a very, very strong contingent of drivers up here and I was definitely competitive with them,” he said. “We were bumper-to-bumper and we were fast.”
However while he was gone the class might have disappeared but the efforts of Mitch Kennedy, who is probably the Grand Master of the 125 shifters.
“It was a good strong class and kind of went away for various reasons,” he said. “Mitch is a 125 shifter guy and he’s the constant for the class up here. So he’s kept it alive and we have to give a lot of credit to him for doing that.”
Thompson also found the 125s are a bit different from what he knew before he left.
“The motor package is different as they have a little less power and they call it a Stock Moto,” he said. “Still it has good power but its not quite the beast they were as it was difficult to drive in terms of your body.”
Thompson explained the physical demands of driving a 125 shifter means that conditioning is a big thing for the drivers.
“My Modified buddies go, ‘Oh go karts are for kids.’ And I said, ‘I’ll tell you what, that little go kart right there, that 125 shifter will eat you alive.’ Once you get up to speed you won’t be able to last three or four laps because physically they are nothing like a dirt modified,” he said.
A modified driver is strapped in a seat with a support for his helmet the cars don’t pull the G loads karts will. Kart drivers have no bars around them, no real neck support and as a result sit in a wrap seat.
Thompson explained this puts a tremendous load on the body’s core muscles as well as a driver’s neck.
“I can go out and drive a dirt Modified for two hours straight and it wouldn’t bother me, well I might get a little tired,” he said. “I go out for 15 minutes in my shifter kart and I can’t breath.”
When driving a 125 shifter the driver is subjected from 2 to 3.5 G’s in a turn. Shifting also adds a fore and aft motion to contend with and at speed around Desert Park Raceway a driver will shift about 40 times a lap.
“Actually the karts keep me in better shape because weight’s a big deal so I have to stay trimmed down. So I feel better and that’s one of the upsides about karting as it keeps my weight down and I’m starting to train in the gym,” he said. “To keep one of those things at speed for 15 or 20 minutes, you’ve got to have conditioning.”
When asked why he didn’t return driving a clutch TAG kart, Thompson said with a laugh, “Quite frankly I’m a shifter snob, I like jamming gears. And driving a 125 shifter hands down is the funnest to drive.”
Interesting enough the cost of racing a shifter kart and a modified, if nothing is broken is about the same. Tires for a kart will run about $200 for a set and entry fees will run that amount to about $300, which is about what a night of racing a modified costs.
Looking toward the upcoming 2012 season, Thompson added he feels it will be a good year as he’s heard a couple of guys that are going to be competitive are coming into the class.
“I think Mark Nason and Mitch are probably going to be driving a little bit more, I’ll be back and John Morgan will be back,” he said. “I would say a this point, conservatively at least four or five karts every race and maybe as much as seven or eight.”
Both current F80 shifter champion Gerry Williams and Steve Ryckebosch may also be joining the class so there is a possibility of from five to six 125 racing this season.
“I won the class championship last year if you will, but honestly it was not a strong kart count,” he said. “It’ll be much more difficult to win the 2012 based on what the kart count is going to be plus the level of talent. I’m looking forward to it.”
Thompson also gave credit to fellow racer John Morgan, who made a commitment to race at all the club events and help make the class viable again.
When he drove a modified Thompson had a couple of small sponsors but now he’s sponsored by his business Air Medic, which services and cleans duct work for both commercial and residential heating and air conditioning systems.
As for his favorite part of racing Thompson said, “As I’m getting older I’m becoming a little bit of a fuddy-duddy so I would say the camaraderie in the pits before and after the races, the personal relationships you generate, that’s a big attraction. For me, when I’m in the seat whether it be in a kart or dirt modified I’m perfectly comfortable. I’m in my element, I’m perfectly relaxed and I get more nervous going down the freeway.”
Getting ready to go on the track Thompson will relax as he feels his senses get more acute. Once on the track he always has respect for the machines he races.
“You need to respect them, if you don’t you’re going to get hurt,” he said.
While he might race a modified again, if the right situation comes along, Thompson is back to his racing roots the NNKC, which begins its new season in April.
“I think it’s going to be great, 2012 is going to be a fun year and we’re going to have guys coming into the class,” he said. “I think we’re going to have some good scraps on the track and I really look forward to that.”
OTHER RACING NEWS
•Exit 28 continues with its off-season weekend practice sessions. For more information go to, www.livfast.com.
•At the opening round of the WORCS series, staged at Glenn Helen in Southern California, locals and now teammates for Kawasaki Team Green Justin Soulè and Bobby Garrison had a place-swapping duel for third. In the end Soulè ended up third, his best season opener finish to date.