TULSA, Okla. — Ricky Thorton Jr. is used to racing cars with fenders on them, but when he makes his Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals debut Friday evening he’ll enter an entirely new world.
Thornton, who earned the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series Rookie of the Year Award last year, is wheeling a midget owned by Michele and Ricky Johnson in his first Chili Bowl appearance.
It’s something new for the native of Chandler, Ariz., who has been having fun with the situation leading up to his first racing laps Friday evening.
“I was kind of was making a joke, at least tonight is my qualifying night and I can’t knock the quarter panel off,” Thornton said. “I’ve always wanted to come to this deal and I finally got the opportunity here with Ricky Johnson and their whole crew. We’re just going to try and make the best of it.”
While this is his Chili Bowl debut, it won’t be Thorton’s debut on the quarter-mile temporary dirt oval that is Tulsa Expo Raceway. That came two weeks ago during the Tulsa Shootout, where Thornton competed in three divisions as a warmup for the Chili Bowl.
“I’d never ran a micro either. The cars are so much smaller, steering is so much faster,” Thornton said. “I just learned to kind of slow myself down. The late model, you try to be as smooth as you can, but at the same time it’s so big the car kind of is just super slow.
“I’m glad I came there now not knowing we’d only get three laps of practice for this deal, so at least I’ve got maybe 100, 150 laps around the track. The more I can learn the track, the better I am.”
Thornton, who is one of nearly 100 rookies competing in the Chili Bowl, grew up watching sprint cars and midgets in his native Arizona. However, he decided to follow in his father Ricky Thornton Sr.’s footsteps by driving modifieds before later transitioning to late models.
However, he was always fascinated with sprint cars and midgets after watching them race locally in his youth. So when the opportunity arose for Thornton to unite with the Johnson family for the Chili Bowl, he couldn’t say no.
“Growing up in Arizona, there is a lot of midget and sprint car stuff,” said Thornton. “Being a sprint car guy I think it’s kind of funny I run modifieds and late models now. I think probably the biggest thing everybody is here. It doesn’t matter what you race, the best guys get to the top.”
Thornton believes he can make Friday’s preliminary feature during Driven2SaveLives Qualifying Night. With any luck, a decent finish there will leave him in a good position heading into Saturday’s final day of racing inside the Tulsa Expo Center.
“That’s kind of our goal. See if we can get in the A main tonight,” Thornton said. “That would kind of set us up somewhere decent for Saturday. The biggest thing is I’ve got to go out and have a really good heat race and not put myself so far behind that I have to run a C or D or something. As long as I can get my job done, we should be alright.”
Thornton said if things go well this week, he’d like to return to Tulsa for another Chili Bowl.
“I’d love to,” Thornton said when asked if he’d like to come back to the Chili Bowl. “Usually, we’re out on the West Coast running the late model this week. It’s been tough because I’ve never gotten the opportunity to come here. I’ve always wanted to. I think we’ve got plans to run the Shootout again already next year, so we’ll for sure be at that. Then depending on how we do tonight, we might be able to come back and run this again.”