In 2008, Mark Thomas was one of the most high-profile drag racers on the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) circuit. The popular Top Alcohol Funny Car driver was a seven-time IHRA champion, had not missed an event in 20 years, and had won IHRA’s prestigious Don Carlton Memorial Award.
Behind the wheel of a 100-percent ethanol-powered Funny Car, Thomas became IHRA’s leader in career world championships—and a spokesperson for ethanol. Thomas and his cars even made trips to Washington D.C. to tout the merits of ethanol to lawmakers.
Then he simply walked away.
Today, Thomas spends his time on corn fields instead of drag strips, and you’ll find him piloting his trusty farm tractor instead of those famous ethanol-fed Funny Cars.
And he couldn’t be happier.
Thomas ultimately left the sport he loved to spend more time with the only things he loved more than racing—his family and his farming business. We caught up with Thomas and asked him about that decision and to see what he’s been doing lately.
OnAllCylinders: What have you been up to since you last raced?
Mark Thomas: Working—if you want to call it that. I quit racing four years ago. Since then, I’ve put all my time into work—seven days a week. We have a large dairy farm. We have a thousand head of dairy cattle and we farm 2,000 acres. It’s not really work to me; it’s my life. I’m with my wife and kids every day, so when I say working—some people go “oh man that sucks”—but I love to do what I do every day. You’ve heard the old saying, “I wish I could work when I’m old and play when I’m young?” That’s kind of the route I went. Now I’m doing the work, but it’s the coolest thing in the world.
OAC: What was the most difficult part about leaving drag racing?
M.T.: One of the ex-Summit drivers, Fred Hahn, who drove the Pro Mod Car, quit about six years before me. He summed it up as good as anybody. He said, “I don’t know what it will be like to just be Fred Hahn.” The same thing for me—I didn’t know what it would be like to just be Mark Thomas. I had never missed a race on the tour for 20 years. I drove Funny Cars for 25 years. And all the friends and people you meet—besides the competition—all the people you meet and travel you do, it becomes what you do. And I did it for 20 years? Holy mackerel! So that was the hardest part—how am I going to adjust to life without being “somebody?”
OAC: Do you miss the competition part of it?
M.T.: I’ve always missed the racing part. I get asked the question all the time. I think about it every day—mostly when I go to bed at night. When you’re working, your mind doesn’t have time to go there. You go to bed; you think about that. But at the same time, I look at what I’ve gained. My daughter—she has an antique pulling tractor, and we’ve been travelling to county fairs now for four years. If I was racing, it would never happen. My son is an incredible runner and he runs track and cross country. If I was racing, I would have missed that. They show animals at the fair, and I would have missed that. The family part is the part you don’t realize is slipping by you, and I wanted to grasp a hold of that before the kids didn’t know who dad was—or they move away. I hated the thought of coming home and they were gone.
OAC: You said in a 2008 interview with CompetitionPlus that a year after quitting racing you will either say, ‘I need to go racing,’ or ‘why didn’t I quit sooner?’ Which has it been?
M.T.: I had wanted to quit for years. We won a championship in ‘01, ‘06, ’07, and we were really rolling along there. If we go back to that statement, the business sense of me says I wish I would have quit 20 years ago. That’s the business sense—now that I work seven days a week , because I realize I would probably have $2 million more at this point. But I don’t think I would change anything in my life. I know I said that (in the Competition Plus) article, but I’m glad we didn’t quit sooner. OK, maybe a year sooner, because we won the championship in’ 06 and’ 07, and my wife said, “Why don’t you go out on top? I know you want to quit.” I told her as long as we keep putting that number one on that car, I’m not quitting.
I’m not an overly religious person, but I really feel God watched over me because in ‘08 we had the worst year of our lives. We had two championships. We were the baddest dudes on the planet, and for the first time in our lives, we DNQ’d. We didn’t qualify like four times, and we never really got a handle on the car. After two championships, we had the same crew and the same everything, and we couldn’t do anything right. We just sucked! It was such a relief to quit at the end of that year—I was glad to quit.
OAC: How do you feel about the current state of drag racing?
M.T.: I think drag racing is such an incredibly cool thing to me and it was such a big part of my life. The sad part of drag racing is it costs so much money, and there’s so much sacrifice to do it. The cool part is it’s such a great sport—the friends you meet and what you get to do. I love the competition and the pride everyone takes in what they do. I think the state of drag racing is great. Even in a tough economy, there are so many people that come to the races. There’s a tremendous diversity of people, and it’s just incredible. There are a lot of people that just want to have fun; others are just in awe. But I think the state of drag racing is in good shape.
OAC: What about the future of drag racing?
M.T.: I raced 25 years in Funny Cars, but I realized I had just as much fun bracket racing at my local track as I did travelling the world. I would like to see people embrace that local bracket track, because it’s a lot of fun without as much sacrifice. The professional side—it has to go more corporate just because of the dollars and cents. More teams need more corporate money—that’s just the way it goes. But I still think drag racing in general is heading the right direction as long as we keep a good base of bracket racers. I like to see young people involved, because as it costs more money, it becomes harder for younger guys to go racing. When I grew up in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s—the teenage years—there were 400-500 cars at every bracket track around me. And they were everywhere. You don’t see that as much now.
OAC: Have your children expressed an interest in drag racing?
M.T.: My son is putting together a bracket car right now. He wants to race. He wishes I was still racing. I was going to put him in a fast car (but) I kind of left it up to him, and he wanted to start with a bracket car instead of just going into a really fast car to start. I have to give it to him—he’s got a really good head on his shoulders. And the more I thought about it, I didn’t want him to keep getting disrupted thinking, “we gotta go racing, we gotta go racing.” I want him to get his high school behind him… and then his college career… and then head into his profession. Once he gets that under control, he has his whole life to go drag racing. So I haven’t pushed him as hard as a lot of people would. But he wants to do it—yes.
OAC: What do you grow on your farm?
M.T.: The main thing we grow—corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa hay. Our soft bread winter wheat goes to make the dough for Oreo cookies. And we make the milk to wash it down. We sell about 9 million pounds of milk a year. That’s about 3,000 gallons a day.
OAC: Talk about your involvement in promoting ethanol—are you still involved in those efforts?
M.T.: I’m really fortunate that I enjoy being a farmer. I was really fortunate that I got to do everything I did in drag racing—the championships, the grandstands, the recognition. We used to take the car to Washington every year and display it for Congress. Now, I go to Washington to talk to Congress as an agricultural advocate in a suit and tie and brief case. It’s not near as cool as it was with a race car!
Our sponsors forever were the Ohio Corn Marketing Program to promote Ethanol. When I retired, they put me on the Board of Directors. It’s not to promote just ethanol, but everything related to corn products. It also promotes the rights to farm, the freedom to farm—and all those things. So yes, I still promote all the agricultural products and ethanol is one of them.
OAC: What is your assessment of ethanol use at this point?
M.T.: It’s as high as it’s ever been when you go back to the renewable fuel standards that President Bush put into effect. We’re staying right along with the parameters set then. There is talk sometimes of more of a higher percentage—we use 10 percent; they’re trying to get to 15 percent. There’s a lot of opposition, but coming off a year like last year with the drought, the crop prices were high. That might have got a lot of people upset with food-for-fuel. But I really believe the state of ethanol is on track to where it should be.
OAC: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
M.T.: My wife and kids. Aside from wife and kids, I’ve got so many segments to my life. I’m super proud to be a farmer, because it’s such a dying breed. We produce the highest quality milk in Ohio. That to me is a big deal. If you look at drag racing, the championships were incredible because I was just another guy. I got the Don Carlton Memorial Award. Don Carlton was a Pro Stock racer years ago that everybody thought was just a nice a guy and really good competitor. When I got that award, it meant that people liked us. There are so many segments to my life though. If you have to pick out anything, it’s got to be your wife and kids. They’re your legacy and your life. They might not pick me, but they’re stuck with me!