'I Wanted to Retire on My Terms'
I admit was pretty stunned when I heard the news that long-time Garfield, Minn., modified driver Jason Thoennes was retiring from driving after Saturday’s races at Viking Speedway in Alexandria. I was walking around the pit area when Ron Krog said that.
I sent a Facebook message to my best friend that relaying that news – he and I have spent dozens of nights watching him at Viking over the years – and this was his response:
“Wow! That’ll be a big loss.”
I totally agree.
Along those lines, it’s been reported on Sheyenne Speedway’s Facebook page that Jerry Lamb of Lisbon, 69, plans to retire after this season as well after a 50-year driving career. He’s spent the last couple of years in the street stocks but raced a modified for many years. Shaun Peterson, a good long-time late model/modified competitor from Alexandria, is also stepping away from racing, it was announced on Saturday by Ron Krog at Viking.
That’s some very prominent names in racing that are walking away. And some big losses for the tracks they’ve raced at.
While he has raced for 21 years, Thoennes is only 45, and still a strong runner in the very competitive modified class at Viking and I-94. He is a respected veteran who has raced clean and honestly, was a joy to watch. This season alone, he had one win and finished in the top five 12 times. So why would a driver who is in his 40s who is still very competitive walk away?
“I’ve raced a long time,” Thoennes said. “I want to help my brother (Josh) and nephews. I wanted to retire on my terms. I’ve never been injured in a car, I’m still competitive and I could still afford it – I want to walk away with my head held high.”
Drivers retire or quit for a lot of legit reasons – age, health, finances, family commitments, jobs, etc. Not all get to walk away on their own terms. In fact, many drivers don't -- in fact some drivers who were highly successful sometimes fade into the middle or back of the pack in their careers. Thoennes certainly isn't one of them.
Thoennes has had a very accomplished racing career, winning nine track championships (eight in the modified, one in the late model) and 99 career wins. Thoennes has also won plenty of big races – he won the 2002 Jamestown Stampede, the Mod Nationals ($7,000 to win) at Viking in 2005, Winter Nationals (2006 in late model, 2007 in modified), the 2007 Wissota Western 100 in Aberdeen, a pair of Advantage RV Tour races and the 2010 Fall Classic to name a few.
To be clear, Thoennes is just walking away from driving, but not racing. He plans to help his brother Josh with his modified and his nephews, who are currently racing karts but will hop into cars of their own once they are old enough. Plus, his cousins, Matt Thoennes and Blake Anderson, have raced Midwest modifieds at Viking.
I talked briefly with Thoennes at Viking on Saturday, and he seemed at peace with the decision. He didn’t sound like he was fed up with racing, as some are when they give up racing behind the wheel. But after racing 2-3 nights a week for several years – and running towards the front – he felt it was time and I respect that.
Lamb – affectionately known as Old Man – was still a formidable foe at age 69. He had 13 top five finishes this season and three runner-up finishes. He is very well known in the Lisbon and Jamestown racing communities. If he does indeed retire, it wouldn’t be the same without the familiar #27 on the track. You don’t race 50 years without being good at it.
Many fellow drivers have posted messages about Thoennes since hearing the retirement news. All that I have read were very complimentary, and that is a tribute to the way he raced and conducted himself for 21 years.
“It means a ton,” Thoennes said. “I got way more out of driving race cars than I could have ever imagined -- so many friends were made and good times were had. We were extremely fortunate to win some races and even some big ones, but gaining new fans and making a young kid’s day was just as fun.”
One thing is for sure – I, like many fans at Viking and I-94, will miss watching the 52 modified I’ve become so accustomed to watching for more than 20 years.