There was something about the girl at McDonalds, a co-worker. Did Rita Thomason, then just 14, want to be this girl? Did she want to be her friend? Thomason’s navigation through her own bewilderment led to the realization that she is bisexual.
That was one defining moment of Thomason’s childhood. The other came two years later, when the then-16-year-old’s divorced mother kicked her out of their house and dropped her off at an Alaska homeless shelter.
Now 38 and working as a police sergeant in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Thomason is set to make her stock car racing debut in the ARCA Menards Series. She will race for Alex Clubb in Saturday’s Zinsser SmartCoat 200 at Michigan’s Berlin Raceway.
Including those early moments, her journey to this opportunity has been nothing short of extraordinary.
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Thomason’s upbringing was, by any objective measure, difficult. She was raised in poverty by a father who battled alcohol and gambling addictions and a mother who suffered from mental instability. Thomason estimates her family moved to either a new apartment or an entirely new city every six months. As a result of her mother’s restrictive parenting, she had few friends. After settling in Alaska when Thomason was 11, her parents divorced. Her mother soon re-married.
Thomason believes her thorny relationship with her stepfather was one of the factors that led to her homelessness as a teenager. Her mother also rejected what Thomason described as “typical teenage stuff,” like staying out late. And no, Thomason’s sexual identity did not sit well with her religious mother.
“Everything in my childhood was like walking on egg shells,” Thomason told ARCARacing.com. “You never knew what would set her off. She ended up creating a situation where I could not live there anymore, and I wound up getting dropped off at a homeless shelter.”
The resiliency Thomason employed in the months and years that followed is the same force that has her pushing for a career in racing with the ultimate goal of reaching the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
Thomason said her fellow officers in Tuscaloosa view her aspirations as crazy. Her experiences give her a different lens.
“Having to overcome the challenges of my youth, goals like NASCAR don’t seem insurmountable,” Thomason said. “This isn’t any harder than trying to make something for myself when all of my belongings were in two trash bags in a homeless shelter.”
Thomason was still living in a state of homelessness when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed her life. Her desire to assist those in helpless situations led her down the path of becoming a paramedic.
Little did she know at the time, this path would also lead her to safety from an abusive relationship.
Thomason married her first husband when she was 18, still living in Alaska. A physically, sexually and mentally abusive relationship eventually led to a divorce. And when Thomason was offered an opportunity to finish her paramedic training 4,000 miles away from her ex-husband, a move to Tuscaloosa with her new boyfriend was a welcome development.
Thomason married that boyfriend soon after the move, but both eventually realized they were better off as friends.
“It took me a while to figure out marriage,” she said with a laugh. “In my defense, I didn’t have a good role model growing up.”
Now happily married to her third husband, Thomason works as a sergeant at the same police station that employs her second husband. Her persistent desire to help others led to her career in law enforcement. A lack of job opportunities outside of Tuscaloosa led to a situation that began with awkwardness but has evolved to normalcy. Of course, her co-workers still joking claim she was simply following her ex.
Thomason works 40 hours a week as a police sergeant, but that’s only half of her employment schedule. She works as a school resource officer on Monday mornings during the school year. She works at a game-style bowling alley on the weekends at night. She serves security at an apartment complex on Monday and Tuesday nights. And on Thursday nights, she provides security at a local hospital.
She does all of this with racing in mind.
“I can’t expect people to want to join forces with me and to partner with me if I don’t have anything to show for it,” Thomason said.
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Thomason believes her itch to race cars came from a young age, when her father used to top out the family’s 1983 Subaru wagon with his daughter beaming in the passenger seat. She learned to drive at age 23, and the 1992 Mazda Miata in which she learned to operate a manual transmission became a race car.
Thomason’s only race experience to this point are dirt oval and road course events in the Miata. She also has some track-day and practice experience in her stock car. That’s part of the reason she is grateful for the opportunity Clubb is presenting.
“I happened to run into [Clubb] at Talladega in 2021,” Thomason said, explaining the encounter when she pitched the idea of racing herself. “So when Alex and David [Richmond] parted ways [as partners], he called me and was like, ‘Hey, do you still want to do this?’ I was like, ‘Yes.’ Being able to pair up with someone who already has equipment is amazing.”
Thomason will race her own car, a Chevrolet SS, at Berlin. Clubb and his team members have been preparing the car for her, converting it to the specifications required to compete on an asphalt short track. She’s also scheduled to run this year’s ARCA Menards Series races at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Lucas Oil Indianapolis Raceway Park, Watkins Glen International and the DuQuoin State Fairgrounds. If she runs well, her schedule could grow.
She can’t afford new tires or a competitive engine, so Thomason’s goal for Berlin is to simply run all of the laps and “stay out of the way of the faster drivers, and be fast enough not to be a rolling chicane.”
Ultimately, this event is only the first step in what Thomason hopes will be a journey to consistently competitive stock car racing. But the timing is important to her for reasons beyond the asphalt.
June is LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer) Pride Month. Open with and proud of her sexual identity, Thomason considers this “a happy coincidence.”
It’s an opportunity for Thomason to encourage others in the LGBTQ community to be true to themselves as they follow their passions. She is believed to be the first openly LGBTQ woman to compete on this platform.
“I’ve had people reach out to me who felt they didn’t have a place in NASCAR,” Thomason said. “I’ve had crew members, fans reach out to me. And the fact that I’m out there and I’m open about who I am, shows them that NASCAR is welcoming to everyone.”
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Thomason joked that she’s “equal parts excited and terrified” to race in the ARCA Menards Series. But she is also looking forward to the escape the rush of racing provides.
When racing, she explained, one doesn’t have time to think about that bill he or she owes, or the argument he or she had with a family member. Thomason loves that, in the car, “your life consists only of that next turn.”
And in Thomason’s case, motorsports serve as a way to exercise the resiliency that turned a homeless teenager into, as her social-media accounts display, “the racing cop.”
“Everything in my life has been hard,” she said. “So why not try for the things I really want to do?”