INDIANAPOLIS — Prior to tonight’s return of Thursday Night Thunder at nearby Lucas Oil Raceway, one of the drivers who was catapulted to stardom by the famed racing series that aired on ESPN got a chance to get back behind the wheel of a dirt midget.
Jeff Gordon — the four-time NASCAR Cup Series champion whose racing career blossomed, in part, due to the exposure provided by Thursday Night Thunder’s television coverage decades ago — returned to the driver’s seat Thursday afternoon at The Dirt Track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Gordon turned laps around the quarter-mile dirt oval nestled inside the third turn of the 2.5-mile IMS paved oval, driving a No. 4 midget prepared by Clauson Marshall Racing and dressed in a throwback paint scheme reminiscent of the Diet Pepsi colors he once made famous while driving for Rollie Helmling.
The Vallejo, Calif., native won five Brickyard 400s in the NASCAR Cup Series on the “big track” at IMS, but his heart has always remained with dirt racing, the discipline which began his path toward the major leagues.
“I have to thank Tim (Clauson, CMR co-owner), because I don’t think it would have happened without him creating this idea,” noted Gordon. “And then that immediately extends to Doug (Boles, IMS President) and Rollie, and how important Indiana was to me and to my career … it’s special.
“This [area] was home for me for a long time.”
Thursday’s event and Gordon’s exhibition laps were used to promote the upcoming Driven2SaveLives BC39 powered by NOS Energy Drink at The Dirt Track at IMS, which takes place Aug. 18-19 following the NASCAR/IndyCar tripleheader weekend on the IMS road course.
Boles and his family were also in attendance Thursday for Gordon’s IMS dirt-track session, as was Helmling, who stood next to Gordon’s original championship-winning car from 1990.
After climbing from the modern-day version of his midget from decades past, Gordon bore a wide smile as he spoke on the intricacies of the IMS dirt track and what he felt.
“I can see how this [place] puts on a heck of a race,” said Gordon. “It’s tight enough to where, if you’re going to run the bottom, you have to be really disciplined. But I can see someone blasting the top, too, to make speed. It has some good options, and I had a blast.”
Gordon’s last of 12 career USAC midget victories came during the 1991 4-Crown Nationals at Ohio’s Eldora Speedway, the same year he won the USAC Silver Crown Series championship.
Lucas Oil Raceway – the nearby .686-mile paved oval in Clermont, Ind. – has revived the Thursday Night Thunder name for a sprint car and midget twinbill taking place at the track Thursday night.
The event will also celebrate the drivers, like Gordon, Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman, and others, who advanced into the top levels of motorsports in the United States after racing in the original Thursday Night Thunder Series.