By Seth Eggert, Associate Editor
The shift from CBS Sports and Saturday night races to ESPN and Thursday nights for the Superstar Racing Experience (SRX) marks a modern take on ‘Thursday Night Thunder.’
Thursday Night Thunder was a highlight for racing fans in the 1990s and early 2000s, highlighting up-and-coming drivers. Many starts in IndyCar, NASCAR, and elsewhere were first seen on Thursday’s. Shifting from the 1990s to modern day, SRX is blending the nostalgia of the original Thursday Night Thunder with the starts of today.
That blend is a natural fit for the growth of one of the newest racing series as Andrew Montag, the vice president of the Montag Group which co-created SRX with Tony Stewart, explained.
“We are thrilled to be on ESPN in prime-time, Thursday Night Thunder, bringing that back, which I think is nostalgic for race fans around the country,” Montag stated. “We’re thrilled about that. I think the alignment with what ESPN is doing that they’re a natural fit for a property like Thursday Night Thunder.
“Grassroots racing series are in action on Saturday nights, a lot of people are at their local track. Weekends are competitive from a race availability for all fans to watch, not just at the track, but on ESPN Live.”
In the first two seasons SRX highlighted a local superstar, ‘the local hero,’ in each race. Those local heroes achieved mixed results. Among those that turned heads were Doug Coby and Luke Fenhaus. Coby won in his SRX start and parlayed that into a NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series start. Fenhaus ran well, battling with Stewart, Marco Andretti and others. He now competes in the ARCA Menards Series East as well as Late Model competition.
However, the shift from Saturday to Thursday allowed for more NASCAR drivers to compete without schedule conflicts. The increased interest from the stars of the premier stockcar racing series in the country had SRX striving for a balance. That balance has stars like Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch making their debuts in Thursday Night Thunder.
“It’s a balance for us trying to get the best drivers for the fans that watch on TV and also do our best to promote the local short tracks,” Montag admitted. “I think we’re doing that by coming to some of these local facilities that would typically not see major sanction series on their racetracks.
“So, I think for us it’s certainly a balance and it really is at this point race dependent, sometimes there’s a guy that just makes a lot of sense. Sometimes if you could get a guy like Kyle Busch or Denny Hamlin, have him race and SRX, you got to do that.”
While SRX may not be elevating and highlighting as many drivers through Thursday Night Thunder, they are elevating the tracks that they are competing at. Outside of Eldora Speedway and Knoxville Raceway, many of the tracks that have been on the schedule have not been on a national schedule recently.
Though some, like Stafford Speedway, South Boston Speedway, and others are storied venues, SRX brought them to new audiences. The diverse driver field from Hailie Deegan and Ryan Newman to Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan brings race fans new and old to watch the series, and the tracks that they’re racing on. Combined, there’s five Indianapolis 500 and seven Daytona 500 wins represented on the grid.
“I think (elevating tracks) is a part of it,” Montag explained. “Just you look at our field, it’s the most diverse driver field in my opinion that’s ever been assembled in motorsports.
“We have 12 drivers, Hailie Deegan racing full-time, who’s a rock star female driver, you’ve got some legends of the sport that are in their 50s and 60s that are going to be as competitive as anyone under the lights, and then you’ve got current NASCAR drivers, current IndyCar drivers; I believe we have seven Daytona 500 wins, five Indianapolis 500 wins, three NASCAR Hall of Famers, so that the diversity in the field is really great.
“That’s what we want to showcase on ESPN, just the legends and superstars of the sport going.”
With the diversity in racing backgrounds from IndyCar, NASCAR, dirt, and more, SRX’s modern take on Thursday Night Thunder draws parallels to IROC. While the diversity in driver backgrounds match IROC and identical cars match the spec series, the locales do not.
IROC competed at Daytona Int’l Speedway, Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and other prestigious racetracks. The tracks that SRX compete at may not be the same size, but they carry a different prestige for other divisions, whether it’s the Slinger Nationals at Slinger Speedway, Kings Royal at Eldora, or another marquee event. Each venue on the SRX schedule is an iconic local short track.
“From the moment we started this property, everyone mentioned bringing back IROC, the cars, the drivers, it’s all similar,” Montag admitted. “What’s been unique about us is the venues where we race, going to the local communities, and some of the most iconic short tracks in the country.”
The 2023 Camping World Superstar Racing Experience season is scheduled to start at Stafford Speedway on Thursday, July 13, at 9:00 p.m. ET on ESPN.