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Ricky Thornton Jr. (Paul Arch photo)

Ricky Thornton Jr.: Crown Jewel Connoisseur

It was swiftly approaching 11 p.m. on Nov. 4, the weather had turned frigid at The Dirt Track at Charlotte and most of the fans had left the stands.

But on the track’s frontstretch, with his No. 20rt dirt late model behind him — engine still hot — Ricky Thornton Jr. radiated a warm smile.

Sporting his neon-orange-and-blue fire suit, the 33-year-old was beaming as he savored his latest accomplishment.

In only his second visit to the four-tenths-mile North Carolina facility, Thornton had demolished his World of Outlaws Late Model Series competition and prevailed — not once, but twice during the four-day World Finals.

Prior to 2023, his only start at the World Finals was in 2014, when he finished 20th driving one of Mike Marlar’s backup cars.

Thornton’s victory in this year’s World Finals finale, worth $25,000, prompted a memorable trip to victory lane on an otherwise bone-chilling night.

“It’s huge,” Thornton said bluntly. “It’s another one of those crown jewels you want to win. It’s definitely going to be special for a few days, but we’ll turn our focus up to the next one and hopefully we can do the same.”

His response may sound cavalier, but the truth is Thornton’s World Finals triumph is just one line on a winning résumé that includes victories at the Lucas Oil Late Model Knoxville Nationals, Elkhorn 100, Firecracker 100 and the Prairie Dirt Classic.

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When considering the big picture, Thornton earned 33 dirt late model victories this year. In all his racing, including late models and micro sprints, the Arizona native amassed 39 triumphs, 68 podium efforts and 95 top-10 results. 

All told, he earned an estimated $1.2 million.

When asked how he did it, Thornton chuckled.

“It took a lot of hard work,” he said. Like a true racer, the first group he credited for his success was his crew. “My guys make it easy on me. I really owe all of them. They bust their butts at the shop, and make sure we got a really good car every time we get here. It makes my job a lot easier at the race track.”

Thornton pilots the No. 20rt dirt late model owned by Todd and Vickie Burns of SSI Motorsports in Morgantown, Ind.

After pairing for a successful part-time run in 2020, Thornton took the ride full time beginning the following season.

Since then, the team has been a lethal combination, with Thornton winning The Dirt Track World Championship and the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Rookie-of-the-Year title in 2021.

But while they’ve made themselves known in the dirt late model world over the past few seasons, nothing compares to the victories they collected in 2023.

Thornton competed in 123 events this season, logging 39 victories, which made it difficult for the Arizona native to zero in on the most important wins. But if he had to choose, the list would look something like this: Knoxville Late Model Nationals, Prairie Dirt Classic and the World Finals.

“I lived in Iowa for about four or five years, so we always went to Knoxville. I always ran well, but I was never good enough to win,” Thornton explained. “I was always like a top-10 car.”

This year, Thornton changed his tune when he arrived at the famed Iowa half-mile in September.  He swept all three nights of Lucas Late Model Dirt Series action at Knoxville, taking home $64,000 for his trio of victories.

He became only the second driver to win all three nights (the first was Billy Moyer in 2010).

“That was pretty awesome,” Thornton said, unable to wipe the smile from his face.

Next, the Prairie Dirt Classic at Illinois’ Fairbury Speedway in July — a longtime crown jewel on the World of Outlaws Late Model Series calendar.

“It’s one of those places I struggle at — for some reason, the little bullrings, I just don’t run very well. So, we didn’t really have big expectations going there,” Thornton said.

Starting off, it helped that he won his prelim night with a last-lap, last-corner slide job on Hudson O’Neal, which set the SSI Motorsports team up for a strong showing during Saturday’s main event.

But the 100-lapper held its fair share of surprises for Thornton, who broke a crank trigger on lap 81 while leading.

“Luckily, we have two ignition boxes in the car and I was able to switch it, put the other one on, and it fired back off. They threw the yellow for me and put me back to like sixth or seventh, and it kind of lit a fire under me after that,” he recalled.

“I kind of did whatever I needed to win and I mean, I about knocked the fence down 10 different times, but I was able to get back to the lead and win it. I think the crowd kind of appreciated it a little bit. They went wild.”

Rtj Late Model Winner
Ricky Thornton Jr. celebrates at The Dirt Track at Charlotte in November. (Frank Smith photo)

He went sixth to first in six laps to overtake Bobby Pierce. The $62,000 triumph at Fairbury was his second career World of Outlaws Late Model Series victory.

His next World of Outlaws win wouldn’t boast quite as high a purse, but it was by no means less meaningful. After kicking off World Finals week with an 11th-place finish on Thursday, Thornton rebounded to score back-to-back victories on Friday and Saturday.

However, it’s his Saturday night win that takes the cake for the 33-year-old.

“I didn’t do it from the front row,” Thornton said, eyes wide as he described the 50-lap race that had just taken place at The Dirt Track. “I started 10th and really just kind of Hail Mary-ed the top and got to the lead. Me and Cade (Dillard) threw a bunch of sliders.

“I was hoping the race was going to end sooner than later, because it felt like it was starting to get pretty thin up there, but it worked out.”

It more than worked out, and the reward for Thornton’s relentlessness was evident as he posed in front of race car, held up the $25,000 cardboard check and smiled for the row of photographers assembled on the frontstretch.

Familiar with the victory lane routine, Thornton beamed like a natural as the camera lights flashed on his three-tiered trophy.

In the closing moments, as the Arizona native prepared to jump in the seat and steer his late model back to the SSI Motorsports pit area, he recognized the gravity of what he had accomplished this season.

“There was a lot of good ones and a lot of not so good nights. But overall, our year’s been really awesome,” Thornton said. “A lot of hard work, and it’s definitely showing.”

Thornton posted a dominant season in the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series, setting a series record of 19 victories.

He ultimately finished third in the standings — worth $125,000 — due to the “Chase for the Championship” format of the series finale at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, where he finished eighth in the 100-lapper.

This story appeared in the Jan 10, 2024, edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.

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