Feature Article, Oregon, Stock Cars — May 22, 2011 at 4:47 pm

Austin Thom (Issue 96)

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By Steve Heeb

Even at a young age, Austin “Hoss” Thom of Dundee, Ore., had plenty of time around a race track as part of a racing family. Dad Willy Thom is a veteran Street Stock and Late Model driver and mom Cindy “CJ” Thom competed in the Street Stock division at South Sound Speedway. The family also has plenty of lap time at nearby Douglas County Speedway and Yakima Speedway.

South Sound Speedway’s Nick Behn, who raced against Willy in the track’s Super Stocks division, recalls an example of Austin’s enthusiasm of being part of the family racing team.

“Austin came up to me after a qualifying session in 2003, when his father had set fast time and I had been second, and asked me how I did,” Nick laughs. “He said to me: ‘That’s pretty good,’ and just walked away. He knew darn well how me and his dad had done before he came over.”

Competition between Nick and Willy was always friendly.

“The Behns are like family,” Willy says. “Nick and his dad Butch are just that way. They make you want to come here to race at South Sound.”

“I raced with Willy quite a while,” Nick says. “We always threw ideas back and forth.”

Austin remembers the transition from just being around racing to actually participating in the Quartermidget’s novice division when he was 7.

“Racing was a little different,” he says recalls. “When you’re used to helping work on a car, driving is a whole different experience.”

Austin would compete two seasons in the Quartermidgets before getting a Minicup car to race in 2004.

His mom retired from racing to take over as his crew chief and Austin would record his first win in July that year.

“His number 93 car was black, wildberry and silver,” Willy says of the Minicup. “Painted up like Jeff Burton’s Exide car.”

Austin recalls the move to Minicups came with big difference in power-to-weight ratio. Quartermidgets typically go 35-40 mph, while a Minicup can double that to 80 mph.

The change wouldn’t slow him down as he finished second in points and reeled in the Rookie of the Year award for South Sound’s Minicups division.

“A lot of the kids at school didn’t believe me,” Austin says of the skeptical reaction of other students to his success at racing. “Everyone has their own thing they like to do. Racing is my passion.”

Austin would also race Minicups the following season, while also helping crew for Willy’s No. 99 Late Model.

“He was only able to be in the pits on the days he was actually racing because of his age,” Willy says of Austin being 11 at the time. “When the Minicups and Late Models ran on the same nights, Hoss would crew for me on the Late Model and I would help his mom crew for him.”

In 2006, Austin hung up the helmet and focused on learning the mechanical part of being on a race team.

“We took him out of racing so he could focus on how the races work before he got in the seat of a full-size car,” Willy explains, noting that their strategy was counter to what many families do. “Most parents believe in seat time, seat time, seat time. We wanted Austin to really know what it is like on the other side of the radio.”

Austin took on a variety of tasks for the team.

“He was responsible for weekly maintenance items as well as being my full time spotter,” Willy says. “Other teams were a little leery of seeing a 12-year-old kid up there.”

Willy says Austin did get some seat time with 100 laps of testing at Yakima Speedway that August.

In 2007, Austin expanded his role on his father’s crew and continued learning set-up procedures.

“We purchased a Baby Grand car in 2008 and tested it that summer before racing it the next year,” Austin says. “Dad was running for points in Late Models back then.”

He would race a limited schedule in the Baby Grand division while continuing to test the Late Model at South Sound Speedway and closer to home at Douglas County Speedway in Roseburg, Ore.

“Adam Nelson was really good to Hoss,” Willy says of the former Douglas County Speedway promoter who is now with Meridian Speedway. “He gave us a lot of time at the Roseburg track and never made Austin feel like a kid.”

Even at 14, Austin was permitted to drive a Late Model with a license specifically for NASCAR-sanctioned Douglas County Speedway.

The Baby Grands cars he had previously been driving ran a 1300cc motor with a 5-speed similar to the setup in a Legends car.

“The Late Models weigh a lot more,” Willy says of the 2900-pound race cars his son was starting in. “They turn 14-second laps which are a second faster and average about 100 miles per hour.”

“You have to respond to situations a lot faster,” Austin says of driving a Late Model. “This is a very demanding sport. Both mentally and physically.”

When Willy broke his back in a racing accident in California that April, 14-year-old Austin got even more seat time.

“Sherwin-Williams was my sponsor so I was committed to be at the track,” Willy says of his sponsorship deal. “Austin would get the car dialed in and run practice. I was only in the car for qualifying and the race.”

And even that sometimes proved too painful.

“Hoss actually ran a couple races for me,” Willy smiles. “Fortunately we both had the same flat black helmets and black driver’s suits.”

After gaining much needed experience testing Willy’s Late Model and getting approval from NASCAR and the Douglas County Speedway promoter, Austin ran his first Late Model races late in the season at the  Roseburg track.

“When you are racing with adults it’s a great feeling,” Austin says of being amongst the Late Model mix.

At the end of the 2008 season, Nick and Butch Behn gave permission for Austin to participate in a two-day non-points event at South Sound Speedway. Austin finished second in Saturday’s race and then won the feature on Sunday.

Going into 2009, Austin, 15 at the time, had not run any races longer than 35 laps.

“He raced in the Miller 200 at South Sound Speedway where he was sixth at the 100-lap break,” Willy says of Austin’s first longer competition. “He had moved up to fourth on lap 135 before being caught up in a backstretch crash with a lap car.”

Due to tough economic times and the lack of sponsorship, the family took the balance of the 2009 season off to heal and focus on the business.

This season Austin, now 17, has returned to South Sound Speedway to make a run at the Late Model Rookie of the Year title.

He says it will be a challenge with a field of talented rookies that include John Lathrup Jr., Kyle Markstrom and karting-phenom Jessica Dana.

He also says he has great respect for the racers in the Obrist family.

“If you make a mistake they’ll be right on you,” he says. “They don’t give me any slack at all.”

He hopes to earn that type of reputation himself.

“My goal for 2011 is to complete all the races and earn respect,” Austin says. “I want to get a top-5 in at least one of the two twin-50s we run at each event.”

He points out that the track has been repaved during the time they left racing.

“I had to know where to put the car,” Austin says of adjusting what had learned years earlier.

“Nick helped him learn the track and that helped big,” Willy says.

“He’s been doing fantastic,” Nick says of the early season. “But he was hot and cold at first, either really fast or having an off day. He came to a play day and won.”

Austin has experienced some mechanical issues but Willy notes that the car has sat idle for two years.

Under the 2011 Chevy Impala black body, the No. 93 car sports the same 350-cid small block that produced 655 hp when it was parked at the end of the 2008 campaign.

Austin rallied for a runner-up effort in first 2011 race at South Sound Speedway, his best finish in Late Models since he was 14 and notched a win at Douglas County Speedway during the 2007 season.

The experience as a spotter already has proven beneficial.

“Now he can really tell me what’s happening with the car,” Willy says of analyzing the situation over the radio during a race.

“It’s easy to talk to my spotter,” Austin says with a laugh at the role reversal.

“Racing has taught Austin to be focused both in a car and at school,” Willy says.

Austin just finished his junior year at Newberg High School and has been playing drums in the school’s band and jazz band programs. With nine year’s experience in percussion, Austin says he’d like to play on the drum line at the University of Oregon where his older sister Samantha already attends.

“And getting a drivers license was easier for me than for the other kids my age,” he says of having racing experience. “I knew how to handle a car. Driving is second nature.”

Drums and racing are not the only priorities on Austin’s schedule that includes precision powder coating, painting and hydrographics at Finish Line Industries, as well as school work.

“I had to take time off during finals week,” he says. “Study, work, study. My work days are really packed.”

So are his race weekends.

“We wake up at 6:30 on Saturdays to pack up the tools and equipment,” he explains of loading the car and supplies into their 40-foot KW cub-style trailer. “We’re on the road at 8 and to South Sound Speedway between 10 and 11.”

The Thoms join other racers waiting for the gates to open at 1 so they can move into the pits and prepare for the night’s racing program that starts at 7.

“We get home Saturday night around 1 a.m.,” Austin continues. “It’s a pretty long day.

The long hours and effort are just part of the deal for this up-and-coming racer.

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