Some drivers are destined for greatness from the first time they step into a race car. Some are destined to transcend greatness into becoming superstars of their generation.
These are the individuals who excelled on the biggest stage of them all during the heyday of the Thunder series on their way into becoming household names in the racing world.
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Perhaps Jeff Gordon would’ve made it in the sport of auto racing just fine if it hadn't been for ESPN Thunder. However, when he entered the lower ranks of NASCAR in the early 1990s, Gordon was already on the verge of becoming a household name based on the national TV exposure with his success on Thunder, as well his immediate adaptation to sprint car and midget racing, which began when he became a teenager.
Like Gordon, Tony Stewart was earmarked right from day one as the next superstar. His first career USAC National Sprint Car appearance came on Thunder and he exploded with his success as well as on the USAC National trail. His run included four championships with three coming during the 1995 season, which shot him to superstardom.
Ryan Newman, on the other hand, developed into a premier driver on Thunder, winning both his first USAC National Midget and Silver Crown main events on the big stage of National television. In the late 1990s there was boom of successful USAC drivers making the transition to NASCAR, and he was primed for a breakout year in 1999 in which he dominated the pavement. His run included a Silver Crown title as well as an immaculate performance out-dueling then-reigning NASCAR Rookie of the Year Kenny Irwin Jr. in front of the NASCAR audience at Gateway Motorsports Park.
Oregon’s Mike Bliss was a successful veteran for several years while racing midgets, sprints and super modifieds by the time he made the move to chase the USAC trail. Once he made the move, Bliss was an immediate success in the 1993-94 seasons where he ran up front regularly in all three of USAC’s National divisions. He was especially a force on the pavement of Indianapolis Raceway Park where the majority of his wins were captured on ESPN. The success helped him toward a long career in NASCAR where he eventually became a champion with the Truck Series in 2002.
Kenny Irwin Jr.
Similar to Bliss and Stewart, Irwin Jr. was part of the group from the mid-1990s that was highly-successful on the banks of Winchester and Salem in addition to IRP where many of Irwin’s top highlights were produced. He was a star on the Thunder series for five years between 1992 and 1996 when he finally hit pay dirt with the coveted 1996 USAC National Midget championship in his grasp. He got the call to go NASCAR racing shortly thereafter, and was a star in the Truck Series before becoming 1998 Winston Cup Rookie of the Year.
There aren’t–and weren’t–very many drivers of the caliber of Rich Vogler. In terms of overall USAC history, he’s first all-time with 171 wins which is a record that’s hard to match. Like MTV, when Thunder came about, it made even bigger stars out of the drivers who were already there. Vogler was a top force throughout USAC for a decade when his stardom reached new heights on Thunder where his skills were showcased and he became a household name in the early years of the series. It was fitting that his 171st and final victory came on Saturday Night Thunder at Salem (Ind.) Speedway in 1990 where he lost his life in a turn four crash with a little more than a lap to go. USAC scoring reverted to the last complete lap, which Rich had led, giving him the victory posthumously.
He wasn’t the first, and certainly not the last, but Jason Leffler was the poster child in the 1990s for California-born drivers who made the transition to the Midwest to chase the USAC National circuit. Right out of the box, he scored USAC National Midget championships in his first three tries in 1997, '98 and '99. He also had the same success in his first full-time try with the Silver Crown cars in 1998. A natural talent behind the wheel, the cameras couldn’t keep their eyes off him as he continuously won at places like Terre Haute, IRP, Pikes Peak, Bakersfield, and Phoenix among other places on Thunder before carving out a long career in NASCAR with a handful of IndyCar appearances as well.