The #039;Stork Express#039;

Published 12:00 am Friday, November 26, 2004

Dr. Bill Thomas likes to race.

It's in his blood and in his office. When a person first walks into the Dr.'s office, they see his degrees on one wall, his phony degrees as he calls them.

But on the other wall, that's where the important stuff hangs, his racing memorabilia. While Thomas is currently a licensed OB/GYN he is also an amateur racecar driver for 41 years and has driven on multiple tracks throughout the eastern part of the United States.

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But the question has to be raised. How does a Doctor go from being a Doc to being a racer?

For Thomas, racing came second to baseball. Baseball didn't work out, so he turned his attention to filling his need for speed.

Thomas began racing when he was 16 years old.

He began doing it legally a year later.

"I got my license in '63 and was drag racing at the local strip and occasionally on the street," said Thomas. "I didn't have a very fast car, but some of the guys saw that I was good so they let me drive their cars. And that developed into something to do for fun until I went off to college."

Even before he went to college, Thomas knew exactly where he wanted to race. That answer was simple for him. He wanted to race at Watkins Glen.

"I grew up in Mobile and back in the late 50's early 60's I'd read about the races at Watkin's Glenn. They had Formula 1 races, CAN-AM races all types of sports cars raced at Watkin's Glenn," Thomas said. "I didn't know what planet it was on. I had no clue where Watkins Glenn was, but I enjoyed reading about the races and seeing pictures of the track. It would have been a wonderful thing to drive at Watkins Glenn."

Following his graduation from the University of South Alabama, Thomas was sent to Rochester, New York to do his residency in the field of dentistry.

"I was looking at a NY state map and low and behold about an hour and a half away from me was Watkins Glenn," Thomas said. "So the next weekend I had off I went to Watkins Glen. They actually had a race that weekend. It was prototype cars. Cars like they drive in the Le Manz in Europe. I was like a kid in a candystore watching those cars. But of course my next step from watching a race there was to drive there. For four years I tried to get on that track. We had Sports Car Club of America races there, which I was not a member of. Porche Club, Corvette Clubs, none of which I belonged to."

It wasn't until Thomas moved away from New York that he finally had the opportunity to drive on the track of his dreams.

"When I moved to Pennsylvania, western Pennsylvania, I started a practice there," Thomas said. "There was a track there that later became my home track. Nelson's Ledges in northern Pennsylvania was having a driving school sponsored by Bobby Reyhall, who was a Champ-Car driver. I wasn't able to get into that class. But they let me know that in two weeks, they were having another driving school at, of all places, Watkins Glenn. So you can bet that I was the first one signed up. I took my 1990 Mustang up there and I had a full-face helmet on and you can bet that I had a smile going all the way across my face. I was just so giddy driving on this track I had always wanted to get on."

That was the first of many times to compete on that track. Thomas also notes that Watkins Glen is one of the two tracks that he's raced on that he hasn't been able to post a top three finish.

Thomas, who is a 41-year native of the sport of racing can list his favorite tracks that he's competed on.

"My favorite track is I guess my home track Nelson's Ledges in Pennsylvania," Thomas said. "I also like to race at Mid-Ohio Race Course, in Manchester, Ohio. It's a Formula 1 or Champ racing course too. There is also Summit Point in Winchester, Va. That course is now owned by the FBI. They do training on it. But they still race there and I raced there last year. I have also raced at Memphis Sport Park where they have NASCAR Busch Series races and an NHRA drag course. They have three tracks there, one of which is a road course. Barbara Motor Sport Park, which is the other track I have never trophied at. But I raced there last year. It was their first race there. So I haven't trophied their yet. They have a new track there. Road-Atlanta where I raced this past weekend, it's about 30 miles northeast of Atlanta in Brazleton. Charlotte Motorspeedway, which has a road course on the oval. You do a lap around the oval and then a lap through the road course and then back onto the oval. It's a blast. I finished first there. The only race I've ever raced at Charlotte I've won. Daytona International Speedway, we raced a 24-hour road race circuit. I actually have a first place trophy from there."

Thomas and his Stork Express racing team is actually in competition this weekend on one of his favorite courses. On Wednesday, he and his son Tim were heading out and down to Sebring Race Course in Miami.

All those some of these tracks are not known by many people outside of the sport, they are not little middle of no where tracks.

"Most of these tracks are impeccable," Thomas said. "The paving is just perfect. They put dips and turns at specific places to make them difficult."

All the tracks that Thomas drives on are road courses. For him, it's more enjoyable to race on them.

"Road racing is usually on an enclosed close," said Thomas. "It's right and left-hand turns up and down hills. But road courses are set with a definite length of one mile up to 12 miles. Road racing is different from oval-track racing which is just around the circle and that's what many people are familiar with.

But the type of racing that I love to do is road racing which is on these specified tracks all over the country and matter of fact, all over the world.

It can be time-trial, laps and endurance racing. For example 24 or even 25 hours, so the person that covers the most distance in that amount of time is considered the winner. It could be 12-15 laps or 20 hours."

For Thomas, however, racing was beginning to become a chore. That is until his son Tim wanted to race.

"I get a charge out of watching him," Thomas said. "It's a joy watching him come into his own as a person."

Tim became a part of the Stork Express racing team in 2003 and has had the opportunity to race on some of his dad's favorite tracks. He's raced at Nelson's Ledges, which he and his dad share as their favorite track because it's their home track. He's also raced at Road Atlanta and Memphis Motorspeedway.

"He always went to the tracks with me when I went racing back in the late 80's and all the way through the 90's and even into 2000," Thomas said. "He never showed that much interest in racing until the spring of 2003."

"I was really winding down my racing a good bit because I had just done it so long. It was such an issue to get there by myself and with the pit crew strewn throughout the country because I had moved several times. He decided he wanted to race. You have to have two driving schools sponsored by Sports Car Club of America to obtain a license, and it's a novice license. "

"He went to school and the first day he was at school he broke the car. We had the car repaired and he didn't finish the racing school. Went back a few months later with the same car and something else broke."

" It was just really bad luck. He showed enough promise those two weekends, that they gave him his license. He didn't fulfill either weekend but they still gave him his license. He was very good from the start, still very good. He's an excellent driver."

Two weekends ago, Thomas and his son did an endurance race at Road-Atlanta.

"I don't go racing without him anymore," said Thomas. "There have been a few occasions where my car wouldn't be ready to go but his would and we'd go. I'd be part of the pit crew and part of the family would go with us. But he doesn't want to go unless I go. And I won't go unless he does. We haven't raced against each other yet, but he has the potential. We've been on the track together but been in different groups competing."

The way some road races are set up, there are several different races going on. There could 50 or 60 cars on the course but nine or 10 different classes racing within them.

The Thomas's have been on the track before but have never directly competed against each other.

But, for the elder Thomas, he realizes that he will be surpassed by youth within the next couple of years.

"We are both very competitive and we do have the potential because I have two cars that run in the same class," Thomas said. "If that happened that would put me head-to-head with him. And frankly, if that happened he would beat me. But when you get into the high horsepower cars, I'd beat him. It's only a matter of a year or two before he will be able to step up to the racing that I am doing. And within a year of that happening, he will beat me."

"We don't compete against each other," said Tim Thomas. "We are in different classes. Dad drives a V8 and I drive a four cylinder. But, one day I'm going to step up, soon."

But, with that in mind, Tim doesn't see it happening.

"He doesn't think he's better than I am," Thomas said. "But I know he is. I know my limit and can feel my limit. He doesn't know that yet. I watch him and he's excellent. He's very competitive and very great. I see me in him years ago. Now I do it very much for the enjoyment. All of my old racing buddies that's I've raced with for 20 years, Tim beats them."

Another benefit from racing for Tim was that it helped him choose a major in college.

"Interestingly, that direction and getting him to race has helped him find a major in college," said Thomas. "When he was in college before he started racing he was an undeclared. Now, his major is declared and it's mechanical engineering and that's a bi-product of his racing."

But, no matter where his racing career takes him, the first step according to his dad is for him to get his degree from South Alabama.

"I don't know if he will become a professional racer," said Thomas. "But I feel he will have a career in the auto industry. And I know wherever he goes, I'll help him as much as I can."

Racing for as many years as Thomas has also enabled him to develop friendships and friend circles throughout the country.

"If you have a region where there are three or four different tracks, on the weekends when there is a race, they'll all be there. It's kind of interesting because everyone seems to help each other on these tracks. I'm still in contact with my buddies from Watkins Glen, NY, Buffalo NY, Columbus, Ohio. It's just a number of friends around the country. If it's a race we are going to, we'll all meet up and be each other's pit crew. It's just like a family reunion."

One of the big issues with any sports is safety.

Wrecks are a big part of racing. For Thomas, his worst race didn't come until this August.

"Worst crash I ever had was this year coming out of a curve," Thomas said. "I absolutely lost control of the car and ran into a wall. I took down two walls, a light post and had five people running for their lives. This was at Nelson's Ledges, the track where I had had thousands and thousands of laps. I've been airborne twice racing. I've been off the track many times. We call it 'agricultural driving' when you are off the pavement and onto the dirt."

"But the worse crash I have ever had was in August of this year. When you road race, it's very intense racing. You are going from turn to the next as quickly as you can get there. When you get to next turn you are trying to put on the brakes but not before the other guy so you can come out of quicker than he can. But sometimes you wait a little too long and end up going straight and going through the grass."

Racing is a balance of keeping traction and keeping speed. But when that balance shifts to one side or the other, wrecks happens. Like the one Thomas had at Nelson's Ledges.

But, all to repair the care, all Thomas had to do was bring it home and work on it in his fully functional garage. It also comes complete with an auto-lift.

"We do a good bit of the repair ourselves," said Thomas. "Because we have a fully functional garage at home with a lift and everything. But locally my wrench is Jimmy Till, at Till's Auto. He does a good bit of my work. I have to have someone like him to pitch in and help."

The race at Sebring will wind up the season for the Thomas's. This was their tenth race of the season.