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Like father, like son

Like father, like son

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CHRISTIANSBURG -- If you think the official motto of NASCAR racing is "Gentlemen, start your engines," think again.

The sport that evolved as entertainment in the rural south from bootlegging boys who modified jalopies into hot rods so they could outrun the law has another time-honored motto: "Like father, like son."

Just look at the Pettys. From Lee, who won NASCAR's championship in 1954 to King Richard to Kyle to Adam, the fourth-generation Petty driver who died five years ago in a practice run crash at New Hampshire International Speedway, racing literally runs in the family.

Davey and Clifford Allison followed in father Bobby Allison's tracks as did Dale Jarrett in Ned's. And Dale Jr. continues the legacy that the beloved senior Earnhardt started with his Winston Cup debut in 1975.

But NASCAR's father-son tradition also has a local link. Jabe and Ronnie Thomas represented two generations of Christiansburg competitors who raced a combined 25 years on the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing circuit.

Jabe Thomas entered his first NASCAR race -- then the Grand National Series -- in 1965, but his racing career actually started much earlier than the 75-year-old man likes to admit.

"When I first got a car, I was wild as a buck," he confessed. "I was racin', but it was on the highway."

In 1950, the buck who grew up in Shawsville decided to let his wild streak loose on local dirt tracks. His first race, he said, was at Roanoke's Victory Stadium in a car that set him back $13.

His son, Ronnie, picked up where Jabe Thomas left off. The elder Thomas entered his last NASCAR race, the Delaware 500, in 1978.

"I run one lap and quit," he said. "I started 35th and finished 37th -- dead last. Ronnie started 16th and finished 11th."

Later that year, Ronnie Thomas was named NASCAR's Rookie of the Year, an honor Dale Earnhardt snagged the following season. Others to hold the title include Richard Petty (1959), Donnie Allison (1967) and Jeff Gordon (1993).

But like his father before him, Ronnie Thomas never won a NASCAR race, although he did win his share of spins when he retired as a professional in 1985 and returned to racing at local speedways. He still holds the record for late model stock car victories -- 60 of them -- at New River Valley Speedway, now Motor Mile Speedway, in Pulaski County.

Ronnie Thomas' biggest competitor at the local track, Floyd's Jeff Agnew who now races in the Hooter's Cup division where he's currently fourth in the points, said it was Ronnie Thomas who taught him the tricks of the trade.

"He was the man when I started late model racing at New River," Agnew said. "He's a good race car driver and it's a shame that it didn't work out for him to stay in the Winston Cup Series."

Today, however, both Ronnie and Jabe Thomas agree that the sport they loved isn't as attractive as it once was.

"It wasn't big then like it is now," Ronnie Thomas noted. "Now the fans are isolated from the drivers. Back then, everybody would be on the back of the cars, eating before the race. The women would get together and fix all the food. It's not like that now. A lot of the people now have special cooks. I don't know if I would like it or not."

"One thing I would like is the money," he quickly inserted. "These guys today, not even the big ones, are making millions. They make as much in one race as I made in my whole Nextel career."

The most Ronnie Thomas ever earned in NASCAR racing was $100,078 in 1979 when he competed in 30 of 31 races. But his father's piece of the pie was even smaller. Jabe Thomas' career high earnings came in 1971 when he netted $48,241 for 43 of 48 races.

"Ain't that somethin'?" Jabe Thomas asked as he looked back at the notebooks full of meticulous records he kept from his racing career. "I finished eighth position at Daytona in 1972 and got paid $4,365."

But the elder Thomas said he actually made enough money racing as an independent to stay afloat. Thomas, who co-owned his car with Don Robertson of Roanoke's Star City Auto and Body Shop, said the secret was to drive conservatively.

"You could do it as long as you didn't tear your car up," he noted.

"The independents had it hard," said Dale Robertson, Don Robertson's son. "You were either running in front or trying to get a sponsor. Some did and some didn't."

Jabe Thomas even made a little money off of some legendary drivers who weren't as cautious as he.

He once sold his 12th-place qualifying position to Darrell Waltrip when Waltrip couldn't make the cut.

"At that time," Jabe Thomas noted, "you could buy a position. Darrell wanted to buy my position, so I sold it to him for $1,200. When he started the race, I was headed home."

Waltrip, of course, went on to become a three-time Winston Cup champion and earn over $15 million during a career that spanned 1975 to 2000.

Jabe Thomas also loaned his car to Richard Petty back in 1971 after Petty tore his own No. 43 up at Darlington. He said Petty won with his car at Columbia and Raleigh, but he never got a chunk of the winnings.

"I did get a motor, though," he said. "A junk motor."

"I went to Michigan with that thing and qualified ninth. It was a junk motor, but by golly it had the horses."

When Jabe Thomas started his NASCAR career, the rules were a lot more lax. There were safety rules, but nothing compared to today.

At the first race he entered at North Wilkesboro, he wore a $10 helmet he bought from "a feller down in Mount Airy, N.C." and had no racing uniform. NASCAR officials made him go out and buy a solution to wash his clothes in that supposedly made them fireproof.

Fortunately, neither Jabe Thomas nor his son were seriously injured during their racing days.

"Worst accident I ever had was I knocked my teeth out, but that was on a little ol' dirt track in Floyd," Jabe Thomas said. "I probably never did run fast enough to get hurt."

But Ronnie Thomas said his father always finished first in his book.

"My dad made a living out of it. There's probably very few independent drivers who did. I guess I'm right proud of him for that."

The younger Thomas said he carries fond memories of the hardships associated with early racing to this day. It was those hardships, he believes, that really defined what the sport was all about.

"We'd sleep 10 people in a motel room sometimes," he noted. "My dad slept in the closet. One of the crew guys slept in the bathtub. I went out and slept in the race truck."

"I don't think they could get by with it now. It was just a blue collar sport back then. It was a lot easier to get into racin' back then."

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