Catching Up With: Rick Thoennes, Viking Speedway LM Champion
Alexandria native Rick Thoennes got a shot to do something a lot of successful dirt-track racers dream of — racing at the next level.
After racing in the NASCAR/Wissota Late Model class for several years in the 1990s, and winning three track championships, Thoennes decided to take a shot at the ARCA series in 2001.
“The goal was to get to NASCAR,” Thoennes said.
After racing the series part-time in 2001 and 2002 — and scoring some top 10 finishes in ARCA, Thoennes stepped away from racing. The high financial cost of racing at that level, plus having a family, were factors in that decision, he said.
Thoennes is now 47 and living in Blaine, Minn. He works as a financial advisor at the headquarters for Ameriprise.
Prior to his ARCA experience, Thoennes -- nicknamed the Rocket -- was a successful late model driver in western Minnesota for several years in the 1990s. His racing roots date back to childhood.
His dad, Dave, owns a transmission business and has owned a race car for several years in the Alexandria area, including co-owning Dusty Bitzan’s current #10B modified. His mother, Elaine, is a long-time track scorekeeper at Viking Speedway. Dave Thoennes was inducted into the Viking Speedway Hall of Fame in 2017.
“Cars were around nonstop,” Rick said. “I worked at the transmission shop, and was certified to build transmissions I was at the shop since I was born. We got to be pretty close because we were around each other nonstop.”
Like many in the Alexandria region, Rick’s racing career started in go-karts.
He raced in the go-karts for seven years and won seven championships. In the early 1990s, there were no B mods, so he hopped right into the NASCAR/Wissota A Mod division, racing the mod several weeks at I-94 Speedway in Sauk Centre. He drove the car Dennis Bitzan raced at Viking Speedway. In 1992 Rick was in a modified on a regular basis at Viking.
“The next step was going to the bigger car,” Thoennes said.
He moved to the late models in 1994, where he was rookie of the year. He ran late model from 1994-2000, and won two track titles at Viking (1997 and 2000), along with a title at Madison in 1997. His biggest year was 1997 when he won two track titles and 14 features.
“1997, we had a really good year. We won 14 features,” Thoennes said. “That was the most memorable year.”
After winning the 2000 Viking Speedway late model title, Thoennes — with the ultimate goal of making it to NASCAR — decided to take the next step. That meant giving the ARCA series a shot.
Thoennes’ ARCA team focused on the intermediate tracks — 1 1/2 mile and 2 mile tracks like Michigan, Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas. He had top 10 finishes at Michigan, Atlanta and Nashville and had other finishes in the top 15.
“We were able to run in that top bunch,” Thoennes said.
In fact, Thoennes raced against Ryan Newman, who was running top-level equipment for the Penske Racing team.
But the challenge of racing ARCA, without a NASCAR team helping with funding, was the cost. In 2001, the Sept. 11 tragedy crippled much of the nation’s economy, and it meant finding sponsors became even more difficult.
“It was the worst timing to be in that situation,” Thoennes said. “ARCA racing, it’s a whole other level when it comes to expenses.”
Thoennes ran ARCA part-time in 2001 and 2002, but in the end, the cost became too much. He used the example of Kerry Earnhardt, who won an ARCA race that paid $19,000 to win — and had a tire bill of $21,000 for the weekend. Thoennes said an ARCA racing weekend could cost $50,000, and if you wanted to be a consistent top five car, the cost could be more.
“I couldn’t get the stars to lineup sponsorship wise to do that,” Thoennes said. “It was an educational experience.”
He stepped away from the ARCA after 2002, and aside from hopping in a late model owned by Tommy Thompson a few times, hasn’t raced regularly since. Thoennes got married and had kids and that became his focus.
“I knew I couldn’t be good at both (racing and family life),” Thoennes said. “I’m 100 percent, all or nothing.”
His kids are in high school now, and he said he has the urge to race more than ever and doesn’t rule out a return to driving at some point. Being at the track now is difficult because of that desire.
“I feel like part of my soul is missing,” Thoennes said. “It was difficult for me to be at the race track and not be involved. I watch races every day of the week and I’m just as engaged, I’m just not at the track.”