TOLEDO, Ohio (Oct. 12, 2017) -- The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series will have a familiar ARCA face in the line-up this Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Cartersville, Ga.'s Mark Thompson is entered in the No. 15 Phoenix Air Chevrolet for Premium Motorsports.
If he's not familiar to newcomers on the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards tour, he most certainly is for those who've been hanging around a while. Thompson, who made his first ARCA start in 1991, has 99 career ARCA starts, winning twice at Michigan Int'l Speedway and Charlotte Motor Speedway. In his only full season, he finished 3rd in championship standings in '97, behind only Tim Steele and Frank Kimmel. Not bad for a part-timer.
"I'll be running the 15, which I guess is a charter car," said Thompson. "Always liked Talladega…should be interesting," added the 66-year-old driver.
Looking back, everything about Thompson's life could easily go into the 'interesting' category.
Thompson is the owner of Phoenix Air, which operates 45 jets that serve in a wide variety of capacities, including servicing the U.S. government.
"I just got back from Africa…was over there a couple weeks. We do a reasonable amount of domestic work but most of our work is overseas."
As a U.S. ARMY veteran, Thompson first learned to fly during the Vietnam War.
"Back then, the draft became the lottery. There were 365 numbers each year, one for every day of the year…they'd pull 'em out of a hat. If you had a high number, chances are you'd never be drafted. If you had a low number, you were going no matter what."
Thompson hit the "lottery", sort of. He pulled the number 1 pill in his first year in college, fresh out of high school. Next stop -- Vietnam.
"I was in college and I had a deferment but I knew the second I got a C in economics, I'd lose my deferment so I joined before I got drafted. I learned how to fly in the ARMY. It was the only way to become an officer without a four-year degree. I figured being an officer was better than being enlisted. Flying was better than walking. I wanted to learn how to fly so I took my training in the ARMY."
In fact from 1970 through 1972, Thompson was an ARMY Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam. He served a full three years before he came home at the tail-end of '72. It would be another three years before America pulled out of Vietnam altogether. In the meantime, Thompson went from the Vietnam War to a university Professor. He talked the school into his own curriculum.
"When I got out of the service I became a Professor of Skydiving at the University of Georgia. I talked the school into it, so I taught people how to skydive. I had already been jumping since '69…used to compete a little. I still jump to this day. I don't do 5-6-700 jumps a year like I used to, but I still do it. Phoenix Air started as a parachute center."
Thompson's next "jump" will land him square in the middle of the garage area this weekend at Talladega for the Alabama 500.
"I haven't run a Cup race since the 90s…I think it was Pocono, but I've done six or seven Xfinity races the last few years. The Xfinity cars have a lot of the same handling characteristics as the Cup car. Most Xfinity races are half-filled with Cup drivers, so it shouldn't be that crazy different.
"I'm realistic enough to know that the vast majority of these Cup drivers…it's what they do every week. We have a good car and I'm a reasonably competent driver. And the draft at Talladega is unbelievably strong. A 40th-place car can be a second-place car. It'll be interesting."
Thompson, who will be the oldest driver in the Cup field at Talladega, also says he's considering retiring from racing at Daytona in February.
"I'm thinking about hanging it up at Daytona next year…kinda like a retirement race…we'll see. I don't need a walker to get to the car yet. Still in reasonably good health."
It's probably not hard to believe that Thompson will be flying himself to Talladega. In a fleet of 45-plus, finding some wings won't be a problem.
"One of the things I like about Talladega…from my airport to Talladega is 20 minutes. It's kind of convenient. It's quicker to get to Talladega than it is to get to Atlanta."
It's also worth noting that if Thompson does run his last ARCA race at Daytona in 2018, it'll be his 100th career ARCA start.
But first, wishing this U.S. military veteran all the best at Talladega. #Respect
Of the 40 Cup entries at Talladega, there are 27 drivers in the field with experience in the ARCA Racing Series. Sixteen of the 40 are former ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards winners. The list of ARCA winners at Talladega include, in no particular order: Mark Thompson, Trevor Bayne, Justin Marks, Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Chase Elliott, Paul Menard, Ryan Newman, Chris Buescher, David Ragan, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Corey LaJoie and Michael McDowell.