2024 Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series at Port Royal Speedway

Ricky Thornton Jr.'s Only Worry? Making Sure Victory Lane Goes Smoothly

Ricky Thornton Jr.'s Only Worry? Making Sure Victory Lane Goes Smoothly

Ricky Thornton Jr. swept Lucas Oil Late Model Dirt Series weekend at Georgetown Speedway and Port Royal Speedway.

Apr 29, 2024 by Kyle McFadden

Ricky Thornton Jr.’s weekend sweep of Georgetown (Del.) Speedway and Port Royal Speedway went so smoothly that the only moments where things weren’t as peachy happened to be in victory lane, of all places.

The moment the 33-year-old hopped off the roof of his car following his traditional, celebratory hoisting of the checkered flag on Friday at Georgetown, he handed the checkers to his 4-year-old son, Blayne, only to have his oldest, 5-year-old Asher, crash the scene and rip the prized possession from his little brother’s hands.

“They’re always fighting over the checkered flag, so I try to alternate between them … but Asher ripped it right out of Blayne’s hands (at Georgetown),” Thornton said through a laugh.

Then on Saturday at Port Royal, as Thornton climbed to the roof to celebrate atop his Anthony Burroughs-prepared No. 20RT machine that never missed a beat all weekend, he nearly slipped off the top of the car. That created an awkward moment for a long second as Thornton needed to catch himself from falling right as the confetti machines fired off.

“Right when I went to step up, I about went over the edge of the roof,” Thornton said through another laugh. “I about went over. Luckily I was able to save it. That would’ve been pretty good if I fell.”

Once Thornton stepped off the car safely, he made sure that the latest checkered flag — his seventh of the season; second to Bobby Pierce’s nine — was Blayne’s to keep.

Blayne Thornton beholds the night's checkered flag won by father Ricky. (Kyle McFadden)

As Thornton continues to flourish and create his own legacy in Dirt Late Model racing, perhaps an underrated, emerging quality about him is that he takes every moment in good fun. With two energetic sons who tour with him and wife Shae all over the country, Thornton’s patience as a father is not only displayed for the Dirt Late Model world to see, but it keeps him free-and-easy and able to enjoy the times that are off script.

There was nothing off script about Thornton’s weekend, though, and for that reason it’s very likely a glimpse into the summer months: That while Mother Nature is just warming up, Thornton is only doing the same on the racetrack, too.

Sunday’s sun-drenched evening at Port Royal had been the hottest race day to date this year with temperatures surpassing 80 degrees.

“That was the most on-the-wheel 40 laps I ran in a long time,” Thornton said. “Just kind of get up on the wheel and drive hard. I feel like my stuff never slowed down, either. Our tires looked really good. That’s good knowing for when we come back. You want to keep improving on everything. I fee like we’ve been doing that. Who knows, maybe we can go on a roll here.”

For someone who wins a lot and receives a heavy dose of publicity, Dirt Late Model onlookers at large are seemingly wanted more from Thornton. He was the last Super Late Model team to leave Port Royal’s pit area on Sunday night as Thornton’s SSI Motorsports team never appeared rushed to leave because of the steady stream of fans wanting a photo, an autograph, or simply a moment of his time.

“Once I feel like I got into the Late Model stuff from the mod stuff, a few people knew me, but not a whole lot,” Thornton said. “Running Lucas now, in my fourth season, we’ve traveled these places enough where people kind of know me now. I’m not saying I’m the most popular guy or nothing. But I feel like there’s a lot of fans now that come up and I recognize them, or each place we go to.

“I think that’s part really cool for the sport aspect of it where it doesn’t matter if I win or run in the back, there’s always people that want to stop by at each individual place. That part is really cool.”

In that same vein, when track and series officials moved back hot laps an hour on Sunday from 5 to 6 p.m., Thornton burned the extra hour by going to his merchandise trailer to meet and greet with fans.

“The merch trailer has been crazy busy the last year and this year,” Thornton said. “Have to thank all the fans for that, too. It’s nice to come and be able to feel appreciated.

“Usually Shae runs the T-shirt trailer alone with the kids and I figured to go up there and hangout for a little while,” Thornton added. “I enjoy it. I’m sure there’s going to be a day where I don’t want to go up there or something. But I still enjoy it. I still feel like I’m a local guy. It’s pretty cool. Hopefully I can do that for a long time. Really, I try to put together set times to have autograph sessions even if we’re not having a series one. The fans are all here to see us, so I think it’s pretty cool to put a face to a car also.”

Thornton’s mastered a lot of racetracks in a Dirt Late Model over these last 15 or so months, but Port Royal is one place that’s eluded him. Last August, Thornton had perhaps the best car at the track’s $50,000-to-win Rumble by the River, charging from 25th to second by lap 40 with 10 laps remaining aboard a backup car nonetheless.

He started dead last because his primary car had engine woes, but then by the time he rebounded to track down Hudson O’Neal for the win, overheating issues sidelined the impressive run. Thornton had such issues on Sunday.

“I felt really good there. That was probably the best I’ve been here early in the night,” Thornton said. “Normally I can qualify fifth to 10th or so and then have a a good heat, and put myself in a good spot. But we were really good qualifying, really good in the heat race. I felt really good in the main. I just didn’t know exactly where I needed to be on the track.

“We were actually talking about before we got ready: Do you want to be the leader? Sometimes, like here, you don’t. Fortunately tonight, (Justin) Tharp was able to let me know, ‘You need to move up. You need to move down. Second-place is doing this.’ I was able to try a lot of different lines. One time Mikey (Marlar) drove by me and the yellow came out. That really saved me.”

One weakness Thornton has tried bettering is his half-mile program. Gains were certainly made over the weekend.

“This place is so different compared to a lot of the places we go to because of how slick it is,” Thornton said of Port Royal. “And how fast we’re going. You change a lot of stuff on the car to try to get better at the big, momentum places like this. I’m just glad that the little stuff we’ve been doing we’ve gotten better and better each time we come to a big half-mile.”

That goes without saying, Thornton’s keen on taking even the littlest details from the smooth night at Port Royal and incorporating that into his Eldora Speedway package, the famed half-mile that’s momentum-oriented with a top side to usually work with.

“I think a little stuff you can. A whole lot, no,” Thornton said. “Eldora is big, but it races like a short-track. It’s different. But who knows, by the time we get to Eldora it might be a complete 180 and everyone might be doing different stuff. You just never know on that.”

For whatever reason, leveling the learning curve of Eldora’s 100-lap crown jewels has taken him longer than he hoped. In 10 combined starts across the Dream and World 100, he has one top-five — last year’s fourth at the Dream — three top-10s and five finishes of 15th or worse.

“I feel like we’ve been really good at Eldora,” Thornton said. “We’ve just never been able to put together Saturday night together. We’ve won prelims and stuff, but for some reason, Saturday night, we’re a fifth-place car. I think if we can get just a little better on that, it’d be ice to get a big win there.”