15-year-old gets head start on NASCAR career

He has the need for speed
By: Joyia Emard, Loomis News Staff Writer
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He may not have a license to drive, but Tyler Thomas, 15, can still tear it up on the racetrack. “I like to go fast. I like the feeling of speed, the adrenaline,” Tyler said about racing. The Del Oro High School sophomore races a late model car on a real NASCAR track in a new racing program called the Future Champions Developmental series, even though he only recently received a learner’s permit for street driving. Tyler, who lives in Penryn, is one of six teens selected to compete at Altamont Motorsports Park in Tracy, based on his winning record racing minicup cars and go-carts. Minicup cars are half-scale NASCAR cars with no gears, only a gas pedal and brake. The team’s crew chief is Mike Nascimento, of Modesto, who invests his time mentoring and training the driver and teaching Tyler and his family the mechanical end of the car. “This is the first time in California that they’ve ever let anyone under 16 drive a full-size NASCAR,” Nascimento said. “Tyler is very smart, learns quickly and has a lot of respect for the car. The next 12 months will tell if he has a future in racing,” he said. The Future Champions program is a training ground for talented young drivers and racing has become a family affair for team Thomas. Mom Kristin, dad Joe and brother Clay, 12, all work on the car and at races. Clay is his brother’s official photographer. The family actually built Tyler’s car from scratch using a standard late-model body. The car was painstakingly put together, piece-by-piece, at a cost of $75,000. “We’re eating a lot of mac’ and cheese these days,” Kristin Thomas said. She works as an administrative assistant at Loomis Basin Veterinary Clinic, one of Tyler’s sponsors, and Joe Thomas is a Folsom firefighter. Twice weekly, the family travels to Nascimento’s shop in Modesto to work on Tyler’s car. According to his parents, Tyler saw his first NASCAR race on television at age 5 and has been hooked since. At age 8, when many kids have just removed the training wheels from their bicycles, Tyler was racing go-carts at speeds of up to 60 miles per hour and at age 12, he was racing minicup with his top speed being 110 miles per hour. Tyler said that being a race car driver requires “concentration, quick reflexes, fast thinking, strength, endurance and a good attitude.” Tyler raced at Altamont for the first time in April. It was his first time driving his car, the first time he used a stick shift and his first time on that track. “My dad spent 15 minutes teaching me how to shift,” Tyler said. His day of firsts ended with his first NASCAR crash, which caused $10,000 damage to his car. According to his dad, it took a few months to get the car back together. Kristin Thomas said she was “unbelievably scared,” when Tyler crashed and was relieved he was uninjured. “I cried,” she said. Tyler redeemed himself when he raced again in July, and took first place. He recently placed second in a race, reaching a speed of 145 mph. The young driver said the hardest thing about racing is the heat inside the car, where temperatures can reach 120 to 130 degrees, depending on the weather. He said races last 20 to 40 minutes and there’s nothing to be done about the heat except “drink a lot.” Tyler said that when he’s racing he concentrates on the car in front of him and tries to “out-brake” them in the turns. He said he doesn’t find racing frightening but does get concerned when “there’s a car wrecking in front of you and you don’t know where to go” or when it’s his first time on a new track. “He’s a good kid. He gets great grades, and he’s a big help around the house,” Tyler’s mom said. Tyler dreams of someday racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, shown on television each week. But he will have to find more sponsors to compete at that level. Plus, he’ll need to get a driver’s license.