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IHRA’s Most Decorated Pro Champion Mark Thomas Inducted into IHRA Hall of Fame

Thursday, 10 June 2021

When a bright-eyed, impressionable young man by the name of Mark Thomas was asked to write a school paper in the sixth grade about what constituted a perfect day, his response probably wouldn’t surprise many who know him today.

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“I said it was farming in the morning and going to the drag races in the afternoon,” Thomas said with a laugh. “Watch out what you wish for.”

Based on that definition, Thomas has spent the better part of the past 40 years living the perfect life. As an internationally recognized farmer and one of the greatest drag racers in International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) history, Thomas was honored for his contributions to the sport by being selected to the inaugural IHRA Hall of Fame class as the IHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021.

“When I raced IHRA I realize now we got to race at the best time with the best people,” Thomas said. “I made so many great friends that were racers in every class. Also, I met so many fans, officials, media people, and track owners. I really miss all those people. But, at the end of the day, I am happy to be home with my wife, kids and grandkids.”

To say Thomas made a lasting impression on the sport of drag racing would be an understatement.

Thomas is a seven-time IHRA world champion in Alcohol Funny Car and one of the five winningest professional drivers in IHRA history, joining a list that includes names such as Clay Millican, Rickie Smith, Scotty Cannon, and Don Garlits. In fact, Thomas specifically recalls it was the legendary Top Fuel racer himself who presented him with his first major piece of IHRA hardware.

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“When I won that first championship, Don Garlits presented me the championship trophy,” Thomas said. “At that time, I didn’t feel that I belonged on the same stage as 'Big', but we were able to do some pretty incredible things over the years.”

In addition to his series-leading championship tally, Thomas also had an impressive streak of consecutive starts which he became known for; having never missed an IHRA national event from 1989 until his sudden retirement from the sport in 2008. During that 20-year span, Thomas dominated the IHRA’s Alcohol Funny Car class, racking up 27 national event victories and seven championships.

His career bracket racing began at the age of 16 driving a 1970 Nova SS that ran a career-best 13.20 on the quarter-mile, until a few modifications pushed the car into the upper 11s. Thomas also ran a 1969 Camaro and he ran in the Mid-America Super Comp circuit where he was Rookie of the Year and then, one year later, won his first championship. But it was his success in Funny Car that put Thomas on the map.

And that success all began at his very first IHRA national event in a Funny Car.

“I built my first Funny Car in 1984 and started learning the ropes by match racing UDRA and NORA points races, as well as AHRA,” Thomas said. “By 1989 we went to Darlington and won our first national event at the Winter Nationals. I never missed an IHRA national event from that day until the end of 2008.”

While that first year in the IHRA was filled with plenty of ups, including that Darlington win, it was also marred with even more downs. And, by the end of the year, Thomas was ready to call it quits until an unlikely call brought him back for another season.

And then another. And another.

“Winning the first race at Darlington was incredible. We had a ten-year-old truck and a twelve-year-old trailer and two spare pistons. Oh, and a pregnant wife. We blew everything up by the end of the year and I was broke and done,” Thomas recalls. “I got a call from Mike Wagner from the Ohio Corn Marketing Program and he said that they wanted to sponsor our car. Ethanol Performs was born! Soon the wins started to come and by winning, so many great companies came on board. They were with me until I retired from racing.”

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From that call berthed one of the longest lasting partnerships in the history of the IHRA. Thomas competed in his 100-percent ethanol-powered Alcohol Funny Car for the remainder of his career and he even became a spokesperson for ethanol, making trips to Washington, D.C. to tout the merits of ethanol to lawyers.

Famous for his wild hair and brightly colored race machines, Thomas instantly became a fan favorite on the IHRA tour as he locked horns with rivals such as Todd Paton, Jimmy Rector and Rob Atchison. In fact, many of those individuals appear just behind Thomas on the all-time win list. But none could match his consistency and grit, leaving Thomas as the most decorated professional driver in the history of the IHRA at seven championships.

And, as quickly as he came into the sport, Thomas left just as suddenly, retiring from drag racing in 2008 to spend time with his family and farming business.

So, after all those years, was there one win that stood out above the rest?

“Every win was such a big deal to me,” Thomas said. “I was just so happy to have made so many friends along the way. Even today, when I watch (former IHRA drivers) Bobby and Dom Lagana on television when Steve Torrence wins and you see their extreme enthusiasm. I think yeah, they get it.”

For a kid that grew up in the late 60s and 70s with pictures of the latest muscle cars, Funny Cars, and Top Fuel machines on his walls, to one of the most decorated racers in IHRA history, Thomas says that it has been an amazing journey that has shaped his life in ways that he never imagined.

Oh, and as for that farming part of his perfect day paper from grade school?

“Since I retired from racing in 2008, we were recognized for producing the highest quality of milk in the state of Ohio until we sold our over 1,000 cows in June of 2018,” Thomas said. “Now we farm more than 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay.”

It is safe to say, Thomas is still living that perfect day every day of his life.

Last modified on Thursday, 10 June 2021

 

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