ThorSport Racing GM on fire: ‘I have to laugh about it, otherwise I’ll cry’

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David Pepper tries to laugh, tries to make sense of the fire that damaged about a third of ThorSport Racing’s shop on Monday, decimated its fab department and destroyed three of its Camping World Series trucks.

What other damage is uncertain, the team’s general manager told NBC Sports in an exclusive interview Tuesday. The basement is under about 5 feet of water, and the shop floor is under about a foot of water. Nineteen fire units from four Ohio communities converged on the Sandusky shop Monday. The last crew didn’t leave until more than 16 hours after the initial call. No one was injured.

Water flooded part of the ThorSport Racing shop after firefighters battled a blaze at the shop Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)
Water flooded part of the ThorSport Racing shop after firefighters battled a blaze at the shop Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)

Despite the angst and uncertainty of what will happen next, Pepper tries to smile.

“Nobody will want to be around us,’’ he said. “We smell like we’ve been at a campfire the whole weekend.’’

And then he adds: “I have to laugh about it, otherwise I’ll cry.’’

Pepper admits the four-truck team faces many challenges in the coming days and months, but they will be at Iowa Speedway this weekend planning to win with either two-time series champ and current points leader Matt Crafton, Cameron Hayley, Rico Abreu or Ben Rhodes.

When they arrive at Iowa, they’ll be greeted by fellow competitors offering assistance. Pepper said about five teams will bring equipment to help the team get through the weekend and beyond.

“Multiple different race teams, not only our Toyota partners, have reached out offering trucks and transporters and shop space and pull-down (rig) time,’’ Pepper said. “The outpouring of concern for us as competitors, it is nothing less than overwhelming. I want to tell everyone thank you.’’

What the team lost was devastating:

  • Fire destroyed the fab shop and suspension room — where Pepper said the fire originated. All their suspension, driveline and brake components in that area were destroyed.
  • The three trucks they lost were a speedway truck that ran at Daytona International Speedway, a new intermediate truck and a new road course chassis.
  • Pepper estimated that 35-40 percent of the 100,000-square foot shop was lost.

The Ohio State Fire Marshall’s office is investigating the cause of the fire. Bill Krugh, public information officer for the Ohio State Fire Marshall’s office, said that there is no timetable for when that will be finished.

The team cannot work in the building because of the damage.

“We are a race team without a home,’’ Pepper said.

Each of ThorSport Racing's four teams worked in the parking lot of a grocery store after Monday's fire at the race shop. (Photo by Rico Abreu)
Each of ThorSport Racing’s four teams worked in the parking lot of a grocery store after Monday’s fire at the race shop. (Photo by Rico Abreu)

Their home Tuesday was the parking lot of a nearby Kroger grocery store. All four teams were there with their haulers and the trucks they’ll race this weekend.

Pepper said local restaurants have helped, bringing the team food and drinks. He noted one woman no one knew brought the team cookies.

For all that was lost, some items were rescued.

Firefighters helped save the four haulers by allowing the team to drive those out. Three of those haulers had a truck in it. Firefighters also pushed 12 trucks out of the shop to ThorSport Racing employees. The employees then pushed the trucks into the grass near the shop, leading Pepper to joke the scene looked like a “ThorSport yard sale.’’

Those trucks will not return to the shop anytime soon.

Pepper said the team is looking for a place to work. The plan is to stay in Sandusky. Although teams in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area offered space in their shop for the team to work, Pepper said team officials didn’t want to uproot their employees from their homes. One option for the team is to relocate to the old Kroger location the grocery store recently left for its current spot near the shop.

Pepper said he hopes that in six months they can be working in about half the race shop but there’s much that must be done. Smoke damage, along with the water and fire damage will take time to repair. Some walls buckled after an excavator ripped a side of the building down so firefighters could combat the blaze, which had gone through the wall to the roof.

“If I wouldn’t have done that, we would have probably lost the entire building,” Capt. Jim Johnson of the Perkins Township Fire Department in Sandusky, Ohio, told NBC Sports.

Even more difficult than rebuilding will be for the organization to work through the coming weeks.

“The shock of it hasn’t set in,’’ Pepper said. “We’re working over in a parking lot. It’s not going to be so dissimilar when we go to Iowa and we work out of the back of the haulers.

Shop floor at ThorSport Racing after a fire there on Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)
Shop floor at ThorSport Racing after a fire there on Monday. (Photo by ThorSport Racing)

“What’s going to be difficult is next week. We’re done with the race. We’re supposed to come back home and park our transporters in the hauler bay and we unload and … we go to work in the shop and get our next trucks. That’s not going to be the case. We’re currently trying to find a home and we hope to have one in the next five days, a building to go to, but now we’ve got to basically turn the world upside down.’’

That can wear on emotions for all.

“It’s our job as the leaders of this team to say, “Hey guys, this is just a challenge,’’ Pepper said, adding the message for each team  is that “we plan on going to win every one of these races.’’

Yet, as they do that, Pepper and the rest of the organization can’t escape the realty of their situation.

“I was just over with the restoration company looking at the offices … it looks like a bomb went off,’’ Pepper said. “It’s devastating. We got all of our trophies out front that have to be cleaned. Some of the stuff, like victory lane flags. I don’t know if we can ever save those. You can never replace them.’’

The scene became more poignant for Pepper when he pulled around the back of the building.

“I’m looking at a bulldozer throwing stuff into a 53-foot dumpster,’’ he said. “I just watched a little while ago them lift a pile of rubble up and it’s got a bunch of pictures that were in the back hallway. All going into a dumpster. They’re all half burned up.

“It sucks. It doesn’t seem real. This can’t be happening. I’m still processing it.’’

Stephen Nasse DQ’d, Travis Braden declared Snowball Derby winner

Photo courtesy 5FlagsSpeedway.com
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What was the greatest day of Stephen Nasse’s late model racing career turned into the biggest nightmare just over two hours later.

After roaring through the field from a next-to-last starting position (36th in the 37-driver field) to win the 52nd Snowball Derby at Five Flags Speedway in Pensacola, Florida, Nasse and his car were disqualified due to an illegal equipment violation found in post-race inspection.

As a result, original race runner-up Travis Braden was ruled the winner, while 14-year-old Jake Garcia, making his first career Snowball Derby start, moved up from third-place to runner-up.

This marks the third time since 2013 that the Snowball Derby winner has been disqualified for violations: Chase Elliott was DQ’d in 2013, giving the win to Erik Jones; and then in 2015, Christopher Bell was DQ’d, giving the win to Elliott.

Nasse was DQ’d for a titanium violation in the brake system of his car, apparently the first time such equipment has been found in Derby cars. Here’s an interview with chief technical inspector Ricky Brooks, courtesy of AutoWeek.com’s Matt Weaver, explaining Nasse’s disqualification:

Braden, a West Virginia native, told Speed51.com about his victory, “It feels very special. But I know it’s going to feel more special with a little bit of time. It stinks we couldn’t have won the race outright, but I know these guys won the Snowball Derby. We brought a car here capable of winning this race outright.”

Nasse took to Twitter to express his feelings about being disqualified:

Nasse’s car was the only one to fail post-race inspection.

Had Garcia won, he would have been the youngest winner in Derby history (Chase Elliott holds that record at 16 years, 6 days old, in 2011).

Rounding out the top five were Canadian native Cole Butcher in third, Jesse Dutilly in fourth and Preston Peltier in fifth. The race was originally scheduled to be run Sunday, but persistent rain pushed the event to Monday afternoon/evening.

Braden adds his name to a long list of Derby winners including Kyle Busch (2009, 2017), Erik Jones (2012, 2013), John Hunter Nemecheck (2014), Chase Elliott (2011, 2015), Christian Eckes (2016) and Noah Gragson (2018).

Several other notables and their finishing positions included veteran Cup driver David Gilliland (27th), JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry (29th), and NASCAR Cup driver Corey LaJoie, who suffered early problems and finished 31st. Former Roush Fenway Racing Xfinity Series driver Ty Majeski finished 13th, and ARCA Menards Pro Series West (formerly K&N Pro Series West) driver Derek Kraus finished 18th.

Majeski appeared headed to the win with less than two laps to go when he was involved in a multi-car wreck on Lap 317, bringing out a red flag race stoppage.

That opened the door for Nasse, Braden and Garcia — before Nasse was disqualified.

As a result, instead of earning what would have been the 100th late model win of his career, the 25-year-old Majeski, a native of Seymour, Wisconsin, was left with a wrecked race car and finished 13th.

“I’m just extremely frustrated,” Majeski told Speed51.com. “We had a real good car, a car plenty capable of winning. This is a tough one. Man, it sucks.”

Here are the updated results:

52nd Annual Snowball Derby Official Results

Pos. # Driver
1 26b Travis Braden
2 35 Jake Garcia
3 53b Cole Butcher
4 30 Jesse Dutilly
5 48 Preston Peltier
6 51s Chandler Smith
7 22 Casey Roderick
8 18 Hunter Robbins
9 36 Dan Fredrickson
10 53j Boris Jurkovic
11 119 Dalton Zehr
12 12G Derek Griffith
13 91 Ty Majeski
14 9C Jeff Choquette
15 43 Derek Thorn
16 81 Giovanni Bromante
17 7d John DeAngelis
18 2 Derek Kraus
19 54c Matt Craig
20 9m Brad May
21 51a Michael Altwell
22 20m Cole Moore
23 75 Jeremy Doss
24 16 Lucas Jones
25 26p Bubba Pollard
26 10 Kaden Honeycutt
27 54g David Gilliland
28 112 Augie Grill
29 57 Josh Berry
30 14c Connor Okrzesik
31 7 Corey LaJoie
32 21p Jeremy Pate
33 11 David Rogers
34 15 Rodrigo Rejon
35 4 Kyle Plott
36 78 Corey Heim
37 51n Stephen Nasse DQ

 

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Oh baby: Austin Dillon and wife Whitney expecting their first child

Photo courtesy Austin and Whitney Dillon
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The NASCAR baby boom continues.

Austin Dillon and wife Whitney announced Monday on Instagram that they are expecting their first child. Baby Dillon is due in June 2020, the couple revealed.

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DILLON PARTY OF 3 ❤️ Coming June 2020

A post shared by Whitney Dillon (@whitneydillon) on

 

 

As part of a photo shoot at Charlotte Motor Speedway, site of Austin’s first career Cup win, Austin and Whitney Dillon made the baby news reveal on the same day as their second wedding anniversary.

They were married Dec. 9, 2017, at Childress Vineyards in Lexington, North Carolina.

Baby Dillon will be the second great-grandchild for team owner Richard Childress and wife Judy. Austin’s brother, Ty, and wife Haley welcomed daughter Oakley Ray Dillon on Nov. 22, 2017.

News of Austin and Whitney’s forthcoming bundle of joy comes on the heels of Corey LaJoie and wife Kelly are expecting their first child around Easter 2020, as well as the last week’s birth of the second child, daughter Autumn, to driver Brad Keselowski and wife Paige.

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NASCAR shocker: Cole Pearn resigns as Martin Truex Jr.’s crew chief

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In what is one of the biggest surprises of the NASCAR offseason, Cole Pearn has resigned as crew chief of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, the team announced Monday afternoon.

Pearn has decided to leave the organization to pursue other opportunities, the team said in a media release.

“This was an incredibly difficult decision,” Pearn said in a statement. “At the end of the day, I really want to spend time with my family and actually see my kids grow up.

“Being on the road, you are away from home so much and miss a lot of time with your family. I don’t want to miss that time anymore. I want to be there for all the things that my kids are going to experience while they are still young.

“I love racing and there isn’t a better place to be than Joe Gibbs Racing, but I don’t want to look back in 20 years and think about everything I missed with my wife and kids while I was gone. They are what is most important to me.”

Added Truex in a statement, “I cannot say enough good things about Cole and what he has meant for my career. I appreciate his hard work and dedication to our race team over the past six years going back to when he was my engineer at Furniture Row. Our friendship is what matters most to me and I’m happy that he’s doing what’s best for him and his family.”

About an hour after the blockbuster news was made public by JGR, Pearn appeared on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s SiriusXM Speedway with Dave Moody and further expounded on his reasons for stepping down, saying:

“Everybody in the sport understands the grind of what the schedule is. To do it at the top level, you have to be all the way in. I was somehow making it work with my family until my kids got in school and once they’re in school and you have a day off on a Thursday, it really doesn’t matter. You pretty much go all week and you barely see ’em.

“I didn’t want to look back at my life and miss those moments. For me to get the opportunity to work in racing has been just a dream come true and then to have the success we’ve had just blows my mind. When you’ve achieved more than you’ve ever dreamt, you look at the other things in life you’ve been missing and I just felt like it was time.”

What’s next for Pearn?

“We’re working on that and going to let the dust settle a bit,” Pearn told Moody. “I’m must looking forward to being around the family. I’m going to keep myself busy. I’m definitely too young not to do anything so I’m definitely going to keep working, that’s for sure.”

Pearn conceded that both Truex and team owner Joe Gibbs were shocked when he revealed his plans to step away.

“Yeah, I definitely don’t think anybody saw that coming,” Pearn told Moody. “There’s no easy way to deliver that news, especially to people you respect and care about. I’ve been losing a lot of sleep trying to figure out the best way to do it, but at the end of the day, just being honest and speaking from the heart was the way to do it. They’re both amazing people and I think they took it about as best as anybody could.”

Truex joined Furniture Row Racing in 2014 and Pearn, who had already been with the team as an engineer, moved to the crew chief role for the 2015 season. In 179 races together, Pearn and Truex combined to reach the season- and championship-deciding Championship 4 race four different times, achieving one championship (2017), two runner-up titles (2018 and 2019), 24 wins, 70 top fives, 110 top 10s and 12 poles.

Of note, their 23 wins together from 2016 through 2019 are the most of any driver-crew chief combination currently active. During the most recent playoffs, the team claimed three wins, a pair of runner-up finishes and only finished outside the top seven once in 10 races.

The pair moved to JGR for the 2019 season from the now-defunct Furniture Row Racing. They compiled a NASCAR Cup series-best seven wins, 15 top-five finishes and 24 top-10s in 2019. During the playoffs alone, the Pearn-led No. 19 team claimed three wins, a pair of runner-up finishes and only finished outside the top seven once in 10 races.

JGR said in its statement that a replacement for Pearn as crew chief for the No. 19 will be announced at a later date.

Fellow crew chief Rodney Childers, of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing team, along with others took to Twitter to express their feelings on Pearn’s departure:

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North Wilkesboro Speedway gets makeover for ‘date’ with iRacing

Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s Twitter
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North Wilkesboro Speedway in North Carolina hasn’t hosted a NASCAR national series event since September 1996 and it’s not about to anytime soon.

But, thanks to the efforts of Dale Earnhardt Jr., the historic short track may soon have a second digital-based life on the iRacing simulator.

Earnhardt posted images on social media Monday showing the track’s aging surface cleared of debris that had grown up on it over the years.

With the images, Earnhardt said the track is “getting a trim for an important date with @iRacing.”

This comes a few months after Earnhardt discussed the subject of cleaning the racing surface and scanning it for use on iRacing with Speedway Motorsports CEO Marcus Smith on an episode of “The Dale Jr. Download.”