By Richie Murray
Speedway, Indiana (December 7, 2023)………”This is the most excited I’ve been for the start of a race season in a very long time.”
Those are ear-catching words for a driver like Kevin Thomas Jr., who stands not only as one of the most successful USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship drivers of his era, but of any era.
Now, the Cullman, Ala. driver has teamed up with the similarly esteemed Rock Steady Racing outfit as they plan an assault on the USAC National Sprint Car season in 2024.
Thomas, the owner of 39 career USAC National Sprint Car feature victories, ranks 11th all-time in that regard while Rock Steady, led by car owner Hank Byram, has raked in 25 series wins throughout the team’s span, most notably over the past decade with driver Kyle Cummins.
Cummins recently departed the Rock Steady team at the conclusion of the 2023 season, and for many of those years that Cummins and Rock Steady were a force, Thomas Jr. was among their primary nemesis.
“We’ve been competitors for a long, long time,” Thomas noted. “There’s always been a competitive edge that we’ve had against each other. Now we get to put them together and that makes me pretty happy.”
Funny enough, Thomas already got a bit of a head start with his new team last September at Gas City (Ind.) I-69 Speedway when he was asked to fill in as a last-minute replacement for Cummins whose wife was due to give birth to their newborn son. In fact, it was Cummins who suggested KTJ would be the man for the job that night.
Despite early obstacles such as a sparkplug issue in hot laps followed up by a lost cylinder in qualifying, Thomas recovered to win his heat race and ran as high as fourth in the feature before slotting into seventh at the finish line. Whether it wound up as an unplanned tryout for the team or not, both sides were pleased with their performance on short notice.
“It was one of those things where it was understood what our goals were and the way we wanted to do things,” Thomas explained. “There wasn’t a whole lot of back and forth and the decision (to drive for them) was quite easy for me just because of the speed that the car has in general. I was a free agent at that time, and I just ran the car a month prior, and things just started to fall into place.”
Byram found KTJ compatible to work with and cites that the number one thing right now is that his driver is extremely fired up, which is always good sign in his eyes, which in turn has him feeling likewise. Yet, like the formation of any new relationship, racing or otherwise, there’s always a bit of anxiousness that comes along with it. For Byram and his team, KTJ solidified to them that the proper pieces were in place in their equipment and in the seat.
“You always have apprehension whether he’s going to like the car like Kyle (Cummins) did or is he going to think it’s terrible,” Byram pondered. “He was just tickled to death with how the car performed, how it handled and how it drove. Any time you put a driver of his caliber in your car, and they get out and they’re happy, it just makes you feel that, as an owner and as a team, we’ve done our jobs. You can always think you have a good car but sometimes it takes more than one opinion. Now we’ve got more than one opinion.”
Crew Chief Tim Spindler echoed those sentiments and even ran down the checklist of the team’s hit list on the circuit each year and feels that they’ll have no issue hitting the ground running starting in February of 2024.
“For our team, chasing Indiana Sprint Week, Smackdown at Kokomo and the Haubstadt Hustler, those are the events we circle on the calendar, and KTJ has had a lot of success at all those events,” Spindler stated of Thomas, who owns two Indiana Sprint Week titles, a single Smackdown final night score and a record four Haubstadt Hustler triumphs himself. “He’s always been the guy we had to beat at those type of races, so when we had the opportunity to get hooked up with him, we went for it, and I believe he’ll fit our program very nicely.”
The Rock Steady group, with a crew consisting of Byram, former racers Tim Spindler and Brian Karraker, plus longtime Indiana Pacers equipment manager Josh “Country” Conder, jelled with KTJ in their first go-around at Gas City. For these past 15 years or so, the two have faced off many a time as direct competitors, yet still maintained a mutual respect.
“That’s one of the things I was very curious about,” Thomas relayed regarding the inner workings of the team’s showings with Cummins. “How does this whole deal operate over here? The majority of the time, you’re looking at their tail tank on the track. But whenever you get to hop into one of those cars, a couple things run through your head. First, you want to make sure you do well, but you also wonder, is the quarterback that good or is the team that good? I think both are good, but with the way the car handles and goes around the racetrack and the communication I had with Tim Spindler, it was easy, and it flowed. I didn’t have to pry for information, and they didn’t either.”
Thomas sang the praises of this new venture and opportunity, offering the fact that he’s been at this sport from all angles over the years as a hired gun and as a driver who doubled as the leadership of his operation at times. Thus far, he likes what he’s seen up close, first hand.
“I got to tell them what I felt, and I got to go get a hot dog while Tim made sure the thing went fast,” Thomas quipped of his partnership with the team at Gas City this year. “That makes the job super easy for a racecar driver. I’ve owned cars and I’ve set my own cars up. I’ve worked with crew chiefs, and I’ve worked without crew chiefs. I’ve kind of been all over the board and it’s nice being able to put your trust into people who have the same goals as you. I feel like I’m a bit more intense than most people, especially verbally, but other than that, they give me a calming effect because I just get to worry about driving the racecar.”
Thomas Jr. will wheel the Mach-1/Stanton Chevy, sponsored by Tim Mason ReMax, Inferno Armor, Competition Suspension, Inc., Eddie Gilstrap Ford and Lucas Oil Center starting with the 2024 USAC AMSOIL Sprint Car National Championship season opening Winter Dirt Games at Ocala, Florida’s Bubba Raceway Park on February 9-10-15-16-17, plus two nights at Barberville, Florida’s Volusia Speedway Park on February 12-13.