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When the crew from ThorSport Racing would order crispy fried chicken and buttery biscuits, the restaurant’s employees would talk excitedly to them about NASCAR Truck series races.
Up until recently, however, the food workers would always forget their names, even though they served them every week.
This bizarre memory loss was apparent in others the ThorSport team would run into around town, whether it was neighbors at the grocery store, friends at hardware stores, or other associates out and about.
“No one in the community knew who we were,” ThorSport Racing team manager David Pepper said.
Less than two years ago, this all changed.
ThorSport Racing owners Duke and Rhonda Thorson instituted a company-wide dress code, requiring anyone affiliated with the organization to wear the team’s logo while working. Now sporting button-down shirts embroidered with checkered-flag designs, ThorSport workers now seem to have become as recognizable as LeBron James or Peyton Manning.
This simple wardrobe change made all the difference. When people in the community see ThorSport workers in the new jerseys, they’re instantly reminded that a first-class racing organization calls Erie County its home.
And these days, the local interest in ThorSport Racing has peaked to levels never seen before.
Just a few years ago, many people in this area weren’t even interested in the race results of a ThorSport car or truck, Pepper said.
The general attitude has completely reversed course, as a large chunk of residents live and die by pole-position placement, lap times and each driver’s finish.
“The questions transitioned from ‘How did the race team do?’ to ‘How did we do?’” Pepper said. “The community has started to take ownership in the team.”
One possible reason for ThorSport’s rising popularity stems from a major area investment the Thorsons made.
The couple debuted a cutting-edge racing headquarters in August 2011 on Neilsen Avenue, behind the Wendy’s fast-food joint. Pepper estimated the total investment is anywhere from $2.5 million to $5 million.
The resulting 100,000-square-foot facility houses about 50 ThorSport trucks and cars, all of them well known for being sponsored by Menards. Some of the vehicles sport neon-yellow shades.
For general mechanic Lynn Nyler, the organization has changed radically since 1996 — ThorSport’s first year of operation and Nyler’s first year with the company.
Back then, Nyler helped the Thorsons cultivate a corporation that began in a quaint Campbell Street warehouse.
“I love working here, and the new facility is much nicer,” said Nyler, who inspects engines. “Duke and Rhonda have always treated me really good.”
Ten years ago, ThorSport employed fewer than 10 people.
The expansion brought a major spike in employment, with about 75 full-time workers — mechanics, fabricators and welders, among others — on staff to piece together world-class racing cars.
Nyler and the other employees collaborate to build 3,400-pound Toyotas capable of producing 800 horsepower through pushrod V8 engines topping out at 200 mph.
“The driver is the star on TV, but this is truly a team sport,” Pepper said. “There is a commitment here to build a winning racing team here.”
A pair of ThorSport NASCAR Camping World Truck Series drivers currently claim the Top 2 spots, besting about 35 other drivers, in the standings as of Saturday. In total, ThorSport oversees three drivers in the truck series and one in the Auto Racing Club of America tour.
ThorSport has never had any of its drivers simultaneously occupy the Top 2 spots in the standings, let alone a championship alluding the company.
Workers definitely want to bring ThorSport’s first NASCAR championship to Erie County.
But it won’t be their championship alone.
It’s for the Thorsons, yes, but it’s also for the guys at Lee’s, and the neighbors and associates who now greet racing workers on a first-name basis.
It’s for an entire community that has watched ThorSport Racing become a major contender in this game.
“Our mission from Day 1 is to win every single race and a championship,” Pepper said. “The best day I will probably ever have is when I see a (highway sign) in Sandusky or Perkins Township that says ‘Home of the NASCAR World Champions, ThorSport Racing.’ That would validate everything we have done here for the better part of the past two decades.”