Crafton's championship was built in Ohio
November 14, 2013, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- All Duke Thorson wanted was a show truck.
That was it, just a vehicle he could use to market one of his companies, which manufactures products related to highways and driveways. He had no intention of ever putting it on a race track -- until a local driver changed his mind. Then suddenly he was fielding an entry for Terry Cook for three races in what was then a fledgling NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. But nothing else at ThorSport Racing happened quickly after that.
"I think a lot of times, people get in there and kind of lose their head or lose their way, and overspend themselves, and then they're gone," Thorson said, referring to NASCAR team ownership. "So what I've tried to do every year is, live within our means, and grow with our partners, businesses, whatever it is that’s funding the operation, and grow accordingly."
It's been 17 years since ThorSport began in what the team's general manager called "a very dark little end" of Thorson's industrial complex in Sandusky, Ohio, a town outside Cleveland better known for the assortment of roller coasters at Cedar Point amusement park. But there were no crazy climbs and dips when it came to Thorson's race team -- by design, it was built slowly and prudently, expanding only when resources allowed. Thorson runs the operation just as he does his other businesses, which is why it's been around for so long, and why it will clinch its first championship behind driver Matt Crafton on Friday night.
Crafton, 37, only needs to start the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway to secure the first national title for himself and his race team, both of which offer lessons in perseverance. Crafton came from humble beginnings and climbed through the ranks due in part to a knack for managing equipment. In a way, ThorSport rose in a similar manner, expanding only as resources allowed, to the point where Crafton and teammate Johnny Sauter combined to lead the points all season. The organization also won the ARCA title with Frank Kimmel, who will drive a third truck in Friday night's event.
"I equate it to football, like the Patriots or Steelers -- if you're going to build a winner, you do it over a long period of time, and do it slowly and smartly and calculated," said David Pepper, who has been the team's general manager for the past decade. "You don’t just do it overnight. These things don’t happen overnight. The ones that happen overnight, they're gone overnight, too. This has been built and put into place to be here for a number of years, and hopefully compete at a high level for a number of years."
That process, though, could occasionally be maddening -- in racing, money buys speed, and there were times in ThorSport's earlier days when the team felt outgunned. That first season as a two-truck operation netted final points finishes of 19th and 29th. "Those days when we didn’t have it and you knew why, whether it was brakes at Martinsville or whatever, it's really frustrating," Thorson said. "But you've got to weigh -- do I want to be able to do this is in two or three weeks? Or do I want to go for a win, and if you don’t get it, you're done?"
ThorSport chose a steady course, one reason its divers are better known for their consistency -- Crafton leads the series in top-10s, Sauter is tied for most top-fives -- rather than racking up race victories. Even so, the team in those early days was less competitive than it is now, one reason Crafton left after an original stint there for a ride with Kevin Harvick Inc. But he always kept in touch with Thorson, and when the KHI seat proved an awkward fit, he sat across from his former and future boss at a Perkins restaurant and laid out what he believed the organization needed to be more successful.
"I was up front about it," Thorson remembered. "I said, 'OK, we've grown from this level to this level, and each year we'll address it, and whatever we're able to do, we'll do it.' And I think the last three or four years, at the Truck Series level, we've pretty much been able to do whatever we've needed to do parts- and pieces-wise. So that’s been the difference."
Pepper recalled a similar conversation. "He said, 'If you're patient, you'll get it all. But not in a year,' " the GM said. Over time the team grew from that dark little corner of ThorWorks Industries, to a larger warehouse that once had served as a paint factory, to its current 100,000-square foot shop. Parts are shipped in and out via freight, piggybacking on loads related to Thorson's other businesses. A truck makes occasional runs to distributors in North Carolina, but only when it can come back full. Everything at ThorWorks operates in the same cost-conscious way, whether it's the highway sealant business, the Carolina Nut Co. brand that's on Sauter's truck, or the race shop.
"We try not to make bad business decisions," Pepper said. "We are very much driven by this is a business, not just a race team."
And it all happens near the shores of Lake Erie in northern Ohio, far from the Charlotte hub that's home to most NASCAR racing operations. Once again it goes back to the idea of treating racing like a business -- all of Thorson's interests are housed in the same place, so there was never any thought of locating his racing operation somewhere else.
"I want to make sure I'm on top of where the money's going, and I can only do that if I'm here," Thorson said by telephone from his office. "If you're a team owner and you're from North Carolina, I totally understand it. if you're a team owner and you're not from North Carolina, I don't get it whatsoever. It would be the same as the Minnesota Vikings playing in Carolina, or the Oakland Raiders playing in Denver. Why aren’t they all in one city? It doesn’t make any sense, I guess. Professional sports from different cities, it's a really unique concept."
Still, it can be a shock to the system. Pepper remembers that "awful cold" January day when Thorson first picked him up from the Cleveland airport. Crafton, a California native who prefers warmer weather, lives in Mooresville, N.C. "I'm not going to lie," the driver said, "there are times where I've said, 'We have to have it down here to draw more people, all that.' He has dug his heels in there, said, 'We're going to stay here and win a championship.' "
Those at ThorSport see the location as an advantage -- while it can be harder to attract new employees, once they're there, they're usually there for a long time. "If you had a bad morning, you can't roll your toolbox across the street during lunch to the next race team. You're going to have to roll that puppy a long way," Pepper said. It forces the team to be more judicious in its use of parts, since they can't just run over to a distributor like their competitors in the Charlotte area can. And it's closer to Truck Series events in the northeast and Midwest, which comprise a healthy chunk of the schedule.
Of course, there can be drawbacks -- for instance, the only Chick-fil-A in Sandusky is inside Cedar Point, which at times leads to the odd sight of ThorSport employees with southern roots and season passes heading to an amusement park on their lunch break. But to those building trucks in Ohio, the area code has never proven a barrier to competition. That's in large part due to Thorson, as low-key a team owner as there is in NASCAR, someone who's rarely been at the track in recent years because of his daughter's budding Equestrian career.
"He just doesn't like and care for all the hoopla," Crafton said. Which explains why when Thorson is at the track, he often stops in at the transporter to pick up his radio, visits briefly with the team, and then buys a ticket and heads up into the grandstand to watch with his wife and daughter. "He doesn't sit on pit boxes, he doesn't stand on transporters," Pepper added. He likes it in the stands because he can see everything -- perhaps appropriate for someone who's built a championship-winning Truck Series team by taking the wider view.
"Our story is kind of perseverance," Thorson said. "We've adjusted every year, we'll adjust this year into next year … and hopefully we make the right calls and next year is an even better year. From a guy who started this thing kind of with a show truck and as a fan, to where we are -- if anybody wants to look at it, it's perseverance and living within your means."