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Bemidji native Thorson finds success with NASCAR Truck Series

Duke Thorson, who grew up in Bemidji, owns ThorSport Racing which competes in the NASCAR Truck Series. Among his drivers is Matt Crafton who was in Bemidji Tuesday to sign autographs at the Menards grand opening. Submitted Photo

Duke Thorson has always owned a competitive spirit. That approach led to success as a Bemidji Lumberjack tennis player, success in the business world as the owner of SealMaster and success on the NASCAR Truck Series through ThorSport Racing, which formed in 1996 and is the elder statesman in the NASCAR Truck Series.

Considering that Thorson had his upbringing in Bemidji, becoming the inspiration for a fleet of NASCAR trucks appears to be a stretch. But taking an alternate path is nothing new to Thorson.

"Being a tennis player in Bemidji, and playing in the Nymore Rink, is unique in itself," he said.

Following his high school days in Bemidji Thorson studied business and finance at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas. In 1982 he began a career in pavement maintenance with his first company, Sealcoat Service.

After four years with Sealcoat Thorson decided to provide pavement maintenance contractors with materials rather than performing the actual service.

In 1990 Thorson bought Wikel Manufacturing and within three years he turned the company into a leader in the pavement maintenance industry. Now known as SealMaster, Thorson moved the corporate headquarters to Sandusky, Ohio. The company continues to operate as a manufacturing plant and storefront and the company has expanded to 41 branded locations throughout the country.

In the mid-1990s Thorson was talked into watching Richard Petty race in Atlanta and watching Petty and the other competitors planted a seed which eventually sprouted into ThorSport.

"I thought it was neat," Thorson said, "so I went to a few more races.

"I was also looking for some things (to promote) the industry and to (display) at trade shows. Many things came together and we decided to get a truck for the NASCAR Series."

In 1996 ThorSport Racing entered its first race and behind the wheel was Terry Cook. The team started the race in 24th and advanced to 12th at the finish.

On Aug. 9, 1997 ThorSport earned its first pole and on June 5, 1998 it collected its first top-10 finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

The initial victory came two months later at Flemington Speedway and on Oct. 28, 2000 Matt Crafton joined the team as the lead driver.

Crafton was in Bemidji Tuesday as part of the Menards grand opening. Menards has sponsored Crafton's truck for a decade and if the company opens a new store, Crafton likely will be on hand to help celebrate.

"Tuesday is the first time I've ever been to Bemidji," Crafton said before boarding his plane in Sandusky and taking the flight to Bemidji. "I'm not too big on cold temperatures but I'm looking forward to seeing where Duke grew up."

Thorson's NASCAR truck fleet includes about 20 vehicles but the team races only two at a time. Crafton drives one and Johnny Sauter is behind the wheel of the other.

Both racers are enjoying very successful 2011 campaigns as Sauter is first overall after four races with 150 points and Crafton is second with 145.

Crafton finished 10th in the season opener at Daytona, was seventh at Phoenix, fourth at Darlington and 11th at Martinsville.

Sauter opened 17th at Daytona and was fourth at Phoenix and ninth at Darlington. He won the race at Martinsville to take over the individual points lead.

Both racers will be at the Nashville Superspeedway race on Friday.

"We've had a great season," Crafton said of his team. "I was sixth until late in the race at Martinsville and if I could have stayed there Johnny and I would be tied for first in the points standings.

"I love my job. In my book, racing is the greatest job ever," Crafton continued. "And Duke has done a lot for this race team and for me personally."

Thorson shares Crafton's enthusiasm for his team and the sport.

"I get to most of the races now," Thorson said. "We've expanded our program the past few years and now we are 1-2 with Johnny and Matt in the points standings. Our ultimate goal is to some day join the Cup Series.

"But we want to master the NASCAR Truck Series first."

The foundation for success is in place and Thorson believes that ThorSport will continue to be a leader in the NASCAR Truck Series.

"Many of our team members have been with us since the beginning so we have a solid foundation," Thorson said. "We are the longest-running team in the series now (16 seasons, 523 starts and 300 consecutive races). It took a long time for us to get to this stage but now we are where we want to be. And our job now is to keep going."

Pat Miller

Pat Miller is the sports editor at the Pioneer.

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