By CAMDEN PROUD
If Fulton Speedway fans didn’t know who Tyler Thompson was before last Saturday night, they do now. Driving a Jason Simmons Racing 358 Modified, the 17-year old rookie put his right sides on the cushion, storming to a top five run before making a ‘thread the needle’ move past Ryan Arbuthnot and Glenn Forward with two to go, nabbing the first podium of his career. It was only his second start in the division.
Thompson is as versatile a driver as anyone in the area. He was a rookie sensation in Oswego Speedway’s Supermodified division a year ago, and the teenager was just as impressive on the ISMA tour. He has multiple wins on the dirt including at the Fulton and Charlotte Motor Speedways in the 602 Sportsman division. His karting stats are off the charts, and throughout the offseason, he has already been contending for wins on the Indoor Auto Racing Championship tour.
In February, Thompson and JSR ventured to the Volusia Speedway Park in Florida for their first big block event. It was his first time competing in the DIRTcar Nationals, but Thompson impressed in a pair of last chance qualifiers to lock into the first two Super DIRTcar Series shows of his career.
After leaving a lasting impression on Florida, Thompson made his New York State Super DIRTcar Series debut at the Can-Am Speedway last month, but unfortunately did not qualify for the main event. The following weekend, JSR ventured to Albany-Saratoga Speedway for Thompson’s first Modified laps at the Malta, NY oval. He finished second in his heat race, locking into the redraw and earning a fifth place starting spot in the ‘Bring It’ Season Opener. The feature was rescheduled for tomorrow night, Tuesday, May 14.
Approaching last Saturday’s event, Thompson had less than five Modified races under his belt. A week earlier, he kicked off his Fulton small block career with a heat race win, and was running top ten in the feature before a spin knocked him out of contention, but that was only a small bump in the road.
Week two went much better as Tyler started seventh, fell out of the top ten early, but flawlessly battled back to the top five by halfway. He looked like a seasoned veteran, but says it is all about “learning,” having paid close attention to race winner Larry Wight throughout much of the event.
“It is a huge learning experience,” offered Thompson. “Every week the main idea is to just learn, and learn, and learn. I fell back pretty early, but then I was watching Larry (Wight) and he was going to the way, way top, so then I decided to do the same. As the race went on it worked for us.”
Less than ten laps into the main event, Thompson was going backwards. He fell to eleventh, but after trial and error, found the bite he was looking for up high. By lap 15, Tyler had stormed back by some of Fulton’s finest in Dale Planck, Tim Sears, Todd Root, Jeff McGinnis, Bobby Herrington, and more to make his way to the top four.
When he cracked fourth, Thompson went to work on Glenn Forward, but that proved a bit trickier. Unlike most of the cars he had just gone by, Forward was running the exact same line. Tyler was getting a huge run off of turn two almost every lap, but there wasn’t much room to go around the No. 7c.
“The big speed I found was up high. Turns three and four wasn’t great, but in one and two, I got real good runs,” Thompson recalled. “It seemed like there weren’t a ton of guys running the top until I got to the top four or five and then it got a lot tougher. I was trying hard to squeeze by him (Forward) coming off of two, but there wasn’t much room up there. I didn’t want to catch the wall or turn him into the fence so I had to be patient.”
After a remarkable performance, ironically enough, the main focus this year for Thompson will be Supermodified action at Oswego. He has one more opportunity at Fulton next week, but will miss more or less every show after that. At first, Tyler didn’t give much thought to the 358 going on the backburner, but a confidence boosting third place run changed his tune rather quickly. Thompson says he’d love to run at the Highbanks weekly, but it definitely will not happen this year. Super racing is his priority.
“Last week I was iffy about it (Fulton), but now I’m thinking that it would be nice to run weekly after we got a third,” Thompson explained. “At the same time, we do have a lot of deals I’m looking forward to with Oswego and the Supers so that’s what we’re gonna do this year. I’ll be at Oswego weekly and when I’m not there, we’re going to spend time with the wing on our other car and that will be on both the ISMA and MSS tours. Its really going to be as much Supermodified racing as possible. Thats the plan.”
Oswego Speedway has one event scheduled in May, three in June, July, and August, plus the 200-lap International Classic on Labor Day Weekend. When Jason Simmons Racing isn’t fielding a Super, where will they be? Well, on Saturdays that is not totally clear as of now, but Fulton would seem like the logical choice. The team also intends to spend most of their Sundays at the Utica-Rome Speedway. You could say Thompson’s Friday nights are ‘open,’ but its unclear as to if he will make Brewerton appearances. His brother and sister will be spending most Fridays at the Oswego Kartway.
“We’ll just have to see how it goes,” he said. “We have a lot of different cars involved this year and its been busy. My brother and sister are going to do karting on Fridays too, so I want to support them when I can. I do want to be here at Fulton when possible, but the Super stuff will take up most of our schedule. I think on most Sundays we will probably try to hit Utica-Rome.”
So, for those hoping to see Tyler weekly on the dirt, it sounds like they will almost certainly have to look to the Utica-Rome Speedway, but that surely won’t be the only opportunity fans have to see ‘TNT’ in action. He also has confirmed his commitment to the full Super DIRTcar Series this season with the exception of the Mr. DIRTcar show at Lebanon Valley in August.
“I don’t know how much weekly big block stuff we’ll do, but the DIRTcar Series shows don’t conflict with most of the stuff we are doing,” mentioned Thompson. “The plan is to run every show other than the Lebanon race in August because that one conflicts with ISMA on Classic Weekend.”
There is no question we’d be hard pressed to find a busier driver in Central New York. Thompson referred to the early portion of his 2019 season as the “biggest learning experience he has ever had,” stating that his main goal on the Super DIRTcar Series tour is just to make every race. Facing fields of what more often than not will be 40 plus cars, that is not a bad objective for this rookie driver to aim towards. Rookie or not though, it has not taken Thompson long to make his presence known in the Modified ranks and this young talent does hope to find himself towards the front later this season, specifically at his semi-regular 358 tracks. He is already off to a good start.
“My main goal is really just to make every race, and then finish every race on the lead lap,” quipped Thompson. “If we’re doing that, that would be a really good start. There are a lot of experienced guys on the Super DIRTcar Series tour, so I think running with them will help a lot and it also will help with the small block. The only small difference I’ve noticed between the two is throttle control, but the cars drive the same, so no matter which one I’m in it will just be good to get the experience. I’d love to have a few top fives or threes at the tracks I run at more often. Contending for a win would be nice, but just to finish the races I enter would keep my crew, sponsors, and all of those guys happy so that’s the most important thing.”
I asked Tyler what the almost immediate success in Modified racing means as far as his race team itself goes. He gave all credit to Jason Simmons, chief wrench David O’Connor, and the rest of his crew, stating that “they work so hard to make all of my opportunities happen and thats why I’m able to have success.”
“I need to thank my Dad (Jason Simmons) for putting up all of the money and work for me to be able to do this,” Thompson continued. “My crew chief David O’Connor is also in the shop every day from sunrise to sundown getting everything ready. I’d also like to shoutout the rest of my sponsors and crew for their support. I wouldn’t be able to do it if it weren’t for them.”
Up next for Thompson will be Tuesday’s make-up race at Albany-Saratoga Speedway followed by the rescheduled Season Opener at Utica-Rome on Wednesday, May 15. Saturday will bring his first test session of the year in a Supermodified before the team readies for a Supermodified double header on May 25 and 26 first at Oswego, and later at Sandusky Speedway in Ohio.