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Norwich Technical High School senior Thomas Joseph "TJ" Thompson, already a professional race car driver at age 18, had the best race of his career earlier this month at Waterford Speedbowl.
Thompson, of Lisbon, came in second on May 14 in the INEX Legend Cars division, driving his No. 24 car, a blue-and-white replica of a 1934 Ford coupe with a 180 horsepower, 1250 cc engine.
Then Thompson hit the wall, literally, during the Super Saturday Showdown event at the Speedbowl on May 24. He said he was trying to pass someone on the outside when another driver lost control of his car and caught the left rear of Thompson's car.
"I went up and over his right front," Thompson said in a telephone interview Wednesday evening. "As I came down, I hit the back end of the wall."
It was no mere fender-bender. Thompson said the average lap at the Speedbowl is 80 mph, and the Legend cars hit just over 100 mph on the straightaway. He's fine, but the car is in pieces in the garage at his family's home. It needs a new chassis, which probably will cost a few thousands dollars, according to Wayne Thompson, TJ's father.
In the meantime, Thompson will be racing his other car, a dirt midget car, starting Saturday at the Bear Ridge Speedway in Bradford, Vt. His long-term goal is to race in NASCAR or another top racing organization, and those who know him say that if anyone can do it, it's Thompson.
“He's very driven, very focused," said his mother, Sandi Thompson.
Thompson, who will graduate with high honors from Norwich Tech's automotive program on June 20, has the fourth-highest grade point average in his class. He is headed to the University of Northwestern Ohio, where he has been accepted into the High Performance Motorsports Program. The school has its own racetrack, with eight or 10 others within a 1½-hour drive, Thompson said, and he plans to find work in the industry. Because Norwich Tech's automotive program is certified by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, Thompson will enter college with college credits.
"TJ is above average," said Peter Fiasconaro, head of the automotive department at Norwich Tech.
In the shop, Thompson is very independent and is able to diagnose and troubleshoot problems as well as anticipate various steps needed to carry a job through to completion, Fiasconaro said. Three other automotive students from Norwich Tech are at UNOH, and Fiasconaro said he thinks Thompson is going to the right place to continue his education.
"There's no doubt in my mind that TJ is going to be successful in whatever he does," Fiasconaro said.
His close friend and fellow senior, Robert Percy, said Thompson is the kind of guy who makes people feel good rather than put them down. "I think it's really good he's pursuing his dream," said Percy.
His parents said they never pressured their children to get good grades. TJ's brother Adam, a freshman at Norwich Tech, is ranked No. 2 in his class.
"Our only emphasis was, if you make a commitment to something, you finish. And always try to do your best," his mother said.
Thompson said he's not happy scoring an 80 or even a 90 in school.
"My biggest thing is I don't like my name being associated with bad qualities," he said.
Krystin Konow, a senior guidance counselor at Norwich Tech, said Thompson, a modest and well-mannered young man, "flies under the radar" at the high school, where only his friends and fellow automotive students know he races.
Thompson started early. His father, who raced stock cars at several regional tracks and also attended Norwich Tech, said he noticed his son had good control at an early age.
"We bought him a pedal tractor," Wayne Thompson said. "He used to ride it around the driveway. He would come within a half-inch of the bumpers of the cars without ever hitting them."
The father got Thompson his first go-kart for Christmas when he was 6. It sat in his room for four months before he climbed into it, drove 200 feet and stopped.
"My mom said I was white as a ghost," Thompson said. "It went back into the garage for a season." Later that year, he said his father took him to the Pomfret Speedway to watch go-kart races. He liked what he saw, and by the time he was 7, he was racing. He raced the go-karts for the next 10 years, winning several championships. The family purchased the Legends race car at the end of 2012, and he went right into the semi-pro division at age 17. He began this year as a pro.
Thompson's family, including his grandparents on both sides, consider themselves a team. His mother, who works as a senior financial service associate at People's United Bank, admits she doesn't always like to watch her son race. Sandi Thompson said she prays a lot and helps with the public relations and financial aspects of the sport. Racing is expensive, and Thompson is always looking for sponsors, she said.
She said her son is a hard worker who deserves the best out of life. "He puts the effort in," she said.