Mark Thomas - He Is Who He Is

By Jim Luikens

Mark Thomas is the winningest Pro Funny Car Driver in IHRA history with more than 50 final-round appearances and five World Championships. He is also the hottest driver in the class currently with back-to-back wins in the only two IHRA events that have been contested so far this season. Despite all of his accomplishments Mark has remained humble and plainspoken, never letting success go to his head. This is the story of Mark Thomas, farmer and racer.

Mark has the distinct privilege of working with his father on the family farm every day. Mark loves to farm and comes from a family that has generations of farmers preceding him. Currently his family farms more than 2200 acres with corn and soybeans as their principle crops. They also milk more than 500 cows. Mark loves being a farmer and thinks that farming is a great way to make a living. He hopes that he’ll never have to choose between farming and racing because it would be a very tough choice for him.

Mark is quick to say that not only was he born with a plastic spoon instead of a silver spoon in his mouth, it was probably broken. In spite of that, there’s a very good reason why you’ll never see Mark Thomas without a smile. In addition to being nice people, both his father and his mother were each recognized as having the nicest smile in their respective classes at school. When they eventually married and produced an offspring it was natural that their child would have to have a great smile too.

As a youngster Mark loved to read car magazines when he wasn’t working on the farm. Through these magazines he fell in love with racing and discovered an emerging class, funny car, that was particularly appealing to him. In the sixth grade Mark was given the assignment to write a paper describing his perfect day. He wrote that his perfect day would include farming, racing and eating. He got his first taste of real racing with northwestern Ohio funny car pioneers Stan Bowman and Al Vander Woude.

The reality of racing was not quite as much fun as he imagined. Like a typical aspiring racer he experienced the ups and downs of racing first hand. Some days were better than others and he finally earned his first national event victory at Darlington, South Carolina. This win was particularly memorable to him because his car number was 315 and the Darlington win came on March 15, also known as 3/15.

When it comes to remembering events few can compete with his 1989 fall race at Bristol. Due to the nearby presence of Hurricane Hugo it took three attempts to complete the race. Because he was fighting for the world championship Mark faithfully returned each weekend. When he finally got a chance to make his pass it was the third weekend and both axles broke in high gear during the run. The resultant stratospheric engine RPM literally destroyed every moving part in his drive line and left him disgusted but OK.

Done for the weekend and the year, he towed home dejectedly as the second place finisher in the championship. During the long drive he decided to sell what was salvageable and retire with a runner-up points position being the high water mark of his drag racing career. Upon reaching home he discovered a message on his answering machine from Mike Wagner that said Mike wanted to sponsor a race car.

His first reaction was to think what a cruel and sick joke this was. His second reaction was to return the call. Luckily for Mark it wasn’t a sick joke but the break of a lifetime. It turned out that Mike Wagner was head of the Ohio Corn Marketing Program and he, indeed, was looking for a race car to sponsor. All Mark had to do was get a presentation ready to present to the Corn Marketing board of directors in three weeks.

During the 1989 season Mark had carried the Real Dairy logo and signage on his car without expecting or receiving any assistance from the dairy farmers. As president of the Ohio Farm Bureau, Bill Swank was aware of Mark’s farming background and racing career. Thus when Mike Wagner casually mentioned to Bill one evening at dinner his desire to locate a race car to promote corn usage, Bill already knew a worthy candidate.

The rest, as they say, is history. After his runner-up finish of 1989 Mark came back in 1990 to win the first of his five championships. His car was completely corn-powered and lubricated as he utilized not just Ethanol for fuel but corn-based oil for his engine, transmission and differential. In fact he’s able to get eight runs out of his corn-based oil compared to the one run that conventional oil users get before they require a change.

Mark has since won four other championships with his 15-year corn sponsorship and, based on his strong start, has to be considered a threat to win the championship again this year. But Ethanol is more than just a feel good story on the track. It also has some very pronounced real-world benefits.

Each gallon of ethanol replaces two gallons of imported crude oil. A 10% blend of Ethanol raises gasoline octane by three points and also results in a 25% pollution reduction. In addition to all of the above, Ethanol also acts as a natural deicer. What’s not widely known is that Chuck Yeager used pure ethanol for fuel when he broke the sound barrier in the X-1 plane.

Mark Thomas is many things to many people. To his parents he is a loving son. To his wife and three children he is a great husband and dad. To his seven farm employees he is an inspirational leader. To his many fans he is a racer that always has time for them. Mark uses one motto to guide his interaction with all of these people. Life’s too short to be grumpy. Although he’s had his share of life’s lemons he’s also enjoyed many lemonades.