One of the hottest drivers in Dirt Late Model racing during the early part of the 2023 season has, without question, been Chandler, Arizona native Ricky Thornton Jr. He and his SSI Motorsports team began the year with a string of six top-5 finishes, including five podiums, in races held under the sanctions of both the World of Outlaws CASE Construction Late Model Series and the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series. That run of great results, including a win in the LOLMDS feature on Sunday at Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park, only ended on Monday night at that same track when the No. 20RT Longhorn Chassis was spun coming to the white flag while running within the top-5.
Does the rising star who finished third in last year’s Lucas Oil Series standings feel confident that the momentum he has built so far will lead to another good season?
“I think so,” Thornton told InsideDirtRacing.com. “In the second half of last year we were really good and we’ve started off this year pretty good so far. Overall, we’ve got a really crew and a really good team. Honestly I don’t know why we shouldn’t run well as long as we all do our part, we should be a top-5 team.”
Thornton’s strong beginning to 2023 actually dates back to the end of the 2022 season. The current resident of Martinsville, Indiana capped last year with a $53,053 victory in the Castrol FloRacing Night in America-sanctioned Peach State Classic at Georgia’s Senoia Raceway.
The Todd and Vickie Burns-owned team is led by veteran crew chief Anthony Burroughs. The driver who was the 2021 Lucas Oil ‘Rookie of the Year’ has raced Late Models for a relatively short amount of time and is still in the process of building his level of experience in that form of motorsports.
“It’s still tough for me because I feel like I make mistakes,” he pointed out. “I have ran Late Models off and on for five or six years total now. But the first couple of years I ran them they were nothing like they are now. A lot of the places we go to, I feel like I’ve gotten better the more we keep going but at times you almost put yourself in a rut when you go a place a bunch of times.”
While having some knowledge of the tracks where the 32-year-old will be racing on can certainly be beneficial, Thornton believes such does not guarantee success.
“I don’t think it’s so much a bad thing not knowing exactly what the track is going to do,” the former winner of the Dirt Track World Championship declared. “I mean some places you go to you’ve really got to know but sometimes when you think outside the box it can be better than the guys who think they know what the track is going to do. I think overall we just do the best we can and hopefully at the end of the year we are in the top-4 and we have a shot to win the championship.”
Perhaps the biggest thing Thornton and his team will have to contend with is the high number of Longhorn cars on the track. That brand has won every major Dirt Late Model feature held so far in 2023. The SSI crew has more experience than the teams of drivers such as Brandon Sheppard and Bobby Pierce who are in their first seasons with those racing machines.
The team Thornton now drives for initially began using Longhorns when Hudson O’Neal was their pilot.
“There’s definitely a lot of Longhorns but that’s pretty cool though,” Thornton said. “Hud got one in 2019, I think that was the first year, so we’ve had one for a while. The nice part of that is that we’ve got some of the kinks worked out. These new guys, they’ve still got to learn the cars a little bit. Kevin(Rumley) and Steve(Arpin), and everybody there are awesome to work with. I think last night(Thursday at Golden Isles) the top-5 or top-6 were all Longhorns and you don’t see that very much anymore. I sure Mark(Richards) and everybody at Rocket will get their stuff better.”
Thornton’s talents, though, aren’t limited to the Late Model division. Earlier this year he entered the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals for the second consecutive year. The driver who has won scores of Modified races showed he can also steer a Midget as he finished 9th in the B-Feature while attempting to work his way through the ‘alphabet soup’ during the final day of that week-long event.
“I bought a micro last year and went to the Tulsa Shootout and ran second in the A class car so I was pumped for that then I went and did the Chili Bowl again. It’s so different for me, I get to go and have a good time. I get to go have fun where the Late Model is all business, I mean, we still have a fun time doing it but it’s way more serious for this where there you kind of just get to hang out and have a good time(at the Chili Bowl). We ran well. It sucks barely missing the show, but at the same time, I was in like the F and the G last year but this year to be in the B and be close. I feel like I was in good enough equipment to be in the show, but with me not having much experience, it kind of hurt. But like I said with the tracks, I really don’t know what I’m supposed to do and not do.”
Thornton and the rest of the Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series will be back in action this weekend at All-Tech Raceway in Ellisville, Florida.
Please consider also reading:
Moran shoulders blame for Thornton’s late-race spin at Bubba
Respond to this post on Twitter by following @RichardAllenIDR and @MichaelRMoats or by liking the InsideDirtRacing.com Facebook page.
Also, NASCAR and pavement racing fans can check out InsideCircleTrack.