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.’’

Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson to pursue $100K bounty in Truck Series

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The $100,000 bounty on Kyle Busch has its first contenders.

Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson each confirmed Thursday evening on Twitter that they’ll take a shot at the bounty placed by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis last week.

Elliott will compete in the March 14 Truck Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the May 30 race at Kansas Speedway with GMS Racing. Larson will compete with GMS Racing in the March 20 event at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Elliott will be sponsored by Hooters for the Atlanta race.

The declarations by the two drivers came the same day that Busch said he didn’t believe any full-time Cup Series drivers would go after the bounty.

Elliott has 12 career Truck Series starts. His last two, at Atlanta and Martinsville in 2017, came with GMS Racing. Elliott won the Martinsville race. Busch was not in that race.

“Once the word got out about the challenge, we were able to put this together with Mike Beam at GMS in just a couple of days,” Elliott said in a press release. “Atlanta is one of my favorite tracks, so I’m really looking forward to getting back into a GMS truck there with Hooters on the truck and make a run for a win.”

Larson has 13 career starts and his last three, including a win at Eldora and top five at Homestead in 2016, came with GMS Racing.

“When I heard about the $100,000 bounty I wanted in!” Larson said in a press release. “I’m thankful for GMS and Chevy giving me this opportunity, Homestead is one of my favorite tracks so looking for to the challenge!”

There’s a potential third bounty hunter waiting in the wings.

Not long after Larson’s announcement, Denny Hamlin, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, tweeted that he’s acquired the funding to field a ride. There’s just one hangup, and it’s Kyle Busch Motorsports:

The $100,000 bounty against Busch was proposed by Harvick and Lemonis, CEO of Gander RV & Outdoors, last week. It will go to any full-time Cup Series driver who beats Busch in any of his remaining four Truck Series starts this year. Busch has won the last seven Truck Series races he’s entered.

If Elliott or no other Cup driver beats Busch in those four races, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

“We are blessed with this opportunity. To have an owner that is up for the challenge and a manufacturer that will support the extra effort necessary is really special,” said Mike Beam, President of GMS Racing, in a press release. “It’s great to have these two talented young men back behind the wheel for us and to have the extra attention on the Truck series is great.”

Kyle Busch: $100K Truck Series bounty is a losing proposition

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Kyle Busch doesn’t believe any full-time Cup Series driver will attempt to claim the $100,000 bounty placed on him last week by Kevin Harvick and Marcus Lemonis.

Harvick and Lemonis, the CEO of Truck Series sponsor Gander RV & Outdoors, said they’d award that bounty to any full-time Cup Series driver who is able to beat Busch in any of his four remaining Truck Series starts this year.

Busch, who has won the last seven Truck races he’s entered, sees the challenge as a losing investment, especially if someone attempted it in one of Kyle Busch Motorsports’ Toyotas.

Thursday on the Barstool Sports’ “Rubbin’ is Racing” podcast, Busch said it costs $140,000 to rent one of his Trucks for a race.

“Right off the bat (it’s a losing proposition),” Busch said. “It’s not going to happen. Nobody is going to pay the 140 grand to rent a truck, whether it’s from me or from somebody else. (Show co-host Clint) Bowyer didn’t tell you the fact he can’t even rent a truck from me because I’m a Toyota team and he drives for a Ford team. So he has to go find a Ford truck in order to drive. So there’s those complications that fit into all of this, too.”

Denny Hamlin, Busch’s teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, expressed his interest in the bounty, as well Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon, who said he was “working on” a deal.

After his win last Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Busch’s four remaining Truck Series starts are:

March 14 at Atlanta Motor Speedway

March 20 at Homestead-Miami Speedway

March 27 at Texas Motor Speedway

May 30 at Kansas Speedway.

If no one beats Busch, the bounty will go to the Bundle of Joy Fund, the organization founded by Kyle and Samantha Busch that helps couples who require fertility treatments to conceive.

NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America’s MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Marty Snider hosts and is joined by Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan.

James Hinchliffe will call into the show to discuss his new role as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of IndyCar, Indy Lights, IMSA and NASCAR.

You can call into the show via 844-NASCAR-NBC or submit your questions/comments via Twitter using #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Auto Club Speedway’s old surface provides ‘moving target’ for drivers

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Auto Club Speedway has a lot of character.

It’s a character that comes from the 2-mile track’s racing surface being among the oldest on the NASCAR circuit.

The surface hasn’t been repaved since the track first opened in 1997. That’s the same year that the surface for Atlanta Motor Speedway was last resurfaced (a planned repave was put on hold indefinitely in 2017 after outcry from drivers).

In the 23 years since, races at the track in Fontana, California, have turned into producers of multi-groove spectacles (especially on restarts) that come at the cost of high levels of tire wear.

The aged surface provides a “moving target” to drivers throughout the race weekend, according to Tyler Reddick.

“During the start of the weekend, you have to watch for the seams since it’s so slick out there,” the rookie Cup driver said in a media release. “Normally, the Xfinity cars are the first ones on the track, so I’m normally very careful. Now that I’m in the Cup Series, it may be a little different. I think this weekend will be fairly similar to Las Vegas where we started out running wide open, and I’ll have to run like that until the handling starts to go away in our No. 8 I Am Second Chevrolet (and) you have to start lifting. Then it’ll be important to assess why the handling is changing and how to adjust our car correctly to battle that.”

Cup and Xfinity teams only visit Auto Club Speedway once a year and this will be the second year they’ll do so with the high downforce aero package.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones believes Sunday’s Auto Club 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox) will be a “different race” from the one seen last year.

“Going into Fontana last year, no one really knew what we needed car-wise, balance-wise and this year we have a whole notebook to look back on to try to get better,” Jones, who finished 19th in last year’s race, said in a media release.

“I think there will be a lot more lifting, the cars will be faster. Everybody has just gotten their cars better and more efficient and faster on the straightaways and that makes for more lifting in the corners. It will probably be a little different race, but Fontana is always a good show.”

But that show depends on where a driver chooses to run around the track.

Racing along the top of the track compared to running in the bottom lane proves for “two completely different types of racing” according to defending race winner Kyle Busch.

“You can run from the top to the bottom but, when you run the bottom, you really feel like you’re puttering around the racetrack,” Busch said in a media release. “You feel like you aren’t making up any time on the bottom. But when you are running the top groove, you feel like you’re getting the job done. The guys who run the bottom have a little bit more patience and handle it better than the guys who are on the gas on top.”

When it comes to how rough the track is, Matt DiBenedetto cites how bumpy Turns 3 and 4 are, but said in a media release that traversing the “back straightaway is like going over jumps.”

But just like with the old surface at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there are those who never want to see Auto Club’s surface actually improve.

“I did an appearance at Auto Club Speedway not too long ago and I told the track officials, ‘Whatever you do, don’t repave it!'” Austin Dillon said in a media release. “Or, wait to repave it until you can figure out how to make an asphalt that is very similar to what is on the track now.”

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