Persistence, it’s a hallmark trait of any successful big league race car driver. For Rita Thomason, who is slated to make her ARCA Menards Series debut this weekend at Berlin Raceway in Alex Clubb’s No. 03 entry, she’s faced more adversity on her path to her first start, than just about any driver will face over the course of their entire career.
While most professional race car drivers these days have lengthy on-track resumes by the age of eight, the now 38-year old Patrol Sergeant for the Tuscaloosa Police Department didn’t have that luxury.
Rita Thomason’s Rough Beginnings
“When I was homeless at 16, I never could have imagined this kind of life,” Thomason told TobyChristie.com in an interview.
Thomason grew up in a poverty-stricken and abusive home in Alaska and it wasn’t until the age of 11, when her family purchased their first car, that her love for speed was spawned.
“When my dad bought our first car, I was like 11 years old, and it was this 1983 Subaru that was more rust than car at this point,” Thomason explained. “But one day, when he and I were alone in the car I was like, ‘Come on, let’s see how fast it’ll go,’ and it went up to a whopping 70 (miles per hour), but I never forgot that in my head. How fun that was. And it’s always stayed with me.”
At the age of 14, Thomason came to the realization that she was bisexual, as she formed a crush on a coworker. This didn’t sit well with her heavily Christian family, which saw her sexual orientation as a sin. As a result, Thomason was kicked out of her house and took up residency in a homeless shelter.
An Abusive Relationship
While homeless, Thomason met her first husband. While she would gain a roof over her head, it would come at a massive price.
“My first ex-husband back in Alaska, I met him when I was 17. Pretty much I had been kicked out of my house, I was living in a homeless shelter. I also had a fairly abusive childhood, and he kind of took advantage of my naivety,” Thomason recalled. “I wound up marrying him at 19 and I didn’t know anything. He was sexually abusive, physically abusive and financially abusive. He would control my friends, he would control what I did. He wouldn’t let me learn to drive.
“It was pretty rare that he would put his hands on me. Most of the time, he would throw things at me and punch the wall next to me. Stuff like that.”
Thomason knew she needed to break herself free of the toxic environment, and she was receiving pressure from outsiders of her relationship to leave her husband. There was just one problem, she had nowhere to go.
“At the time, I was broke. I had no real education. I had no real job skills. And I had no way to leave him and that’s what was so frustrating,” Thomason said. “I remember people would be like, ‘Oh, you should just leave him,’ and I’m like, if it was that easy, I would do it. But if I leave him, I’m literally going to be homeless again.”
Thomason buckled down and devised an exit strategy.
She went to trade school to become a medical assistant, where she gained freedom to live independently from a financial standpoint. From there, she enrolled in paramedic school and it was while she was in the process of paramedic school that she decided to break free from her relationship.
“And he threatened to kill me — of course,” Thomason stated.
Freedom and Relocating from Alaska to Alabama
From there, Thomason made the move from Alaska to Alabama in an effort to distance herself from her ex-husband and to further her own life.
With her newfound freedom, it was time to do something she had always wanted to do. At the age of 23 or 24, Thomason would learn how to drive.
“I didn’t learn how to drive until I escaped that, came to Alabama to finish paramedic school and I fell in love with this little 1992 yellow Mazda Miata and it was standard,” Thomason said. “My then boyfriend at the time told me, ‘Oh my god, you can’t learn how to drive a standard,’ I was like, ‘Oh yes I can.’
“Of course, I had to find someone to test drive it for me. That poor clutch. But I learned how to drive it.”
Since moving to Alabama, Thomason moved into a career in law enforcement, and she credits her rocky past at helping her sympathize and understand the situations that victims of domestic disputes calls are going through.
It’s always about finding a silver lining.
Beginning Her Racing Career
As far as her racing career goes, Thomason was a little late to the game by today’s standards, but she finally reached a point in her life where she could mix it up on the race track in 2019.
“I started in Miatas when I was 34, so 2019,” Thomason said. “The Miatas are competitive, those guys drive crazy. It’s great preparation for ARCA stuff.”
According to Thomason, she won a couple of races in the Miata Series, which has served as a springboard to several racing careers that have intersected with NASCAR like Preston Pardus, Brad Perez and others.
In addition to the Miata road racing, Thomason would compete in ChampCar Endurance Series and the 24 Hours of Lemons Series as well.
Thomason says of the Lemons Series, “It’s interesting. It’s a great introduction to racing. It’s not very expensive. Most of the drivers are very polite on track, because they don’t want to get taped to the roof of their car. It’s a lot of fun.”
After roughly two years of driving her Miata in the Miata Series, Thomason was faced with a dilemma: She wanted to go stock car racing, but she couldn’t afford an ARCA car without selling her Miata.
So, the Miata, which served her well for 20 to 25 starts, was sold in 2021.
As she then began to forge forward with her hopeful ARCA Menards Series career, Thomason says a lot of the other officers at her Police Department began wondering how she could afford to race with her Sergeant’s salary. Well, she’s been picking up extra work to pay for it all.
“A lot of them are befuddled that I can afford it on a Sergeant’s salary, but I am not. I work four off-duty jobs, because right now, I don’t have any real business partners. I have a few that are helping me out with discounts on race suits and that kind of thing, but I don’t really have any sponsors right now. I’m paying for this out of pocket, which is terrifying and I work about 80 hours per week.
“Without the extra jobs, there is no way I’d be able to afford this on just my salary. Normal middle class people don’t race in ARCA, that’s for sure.”
Where does Thomason go From Here?
Thomason, who has been heavily leaning on the iRacing sim rig in preparation, is set for five more ARCA Menards Series starts this season, in addition to this weekend’s race at Berlin. She says anyone that is interested in sponsorship on her car can reach out to Tim Leonard of Leonard Motorsports Marketing or reach out directly to her via her website, RacingCop.com.
The driver will also compete in the ARCA events at Elko Raceway, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, IRP Raceway, DuQuoin Raceway and Watkins Glen International.
Thomason understands that at her age, she is most likely never going to make it to the NASCAR Cup Series — the zenith of American stock car racing — and she’s okay with that. However, she still has her sights on the NASCAR National Series ranks.
“I mean, realistically, at 38, I’m probably never going to make a Cup start, realistically,” Thomason said. “But I can still be involved in the sport in ARCA and maybe make a start in Trucks someday.”
While Thomason has larger aspirations, she knows it will all be determined based on the marketing dollars that she can bring in and what her talent ultimately looks like on the race track.
The budding racer is an excellent example that racing is for anybody. She started her racing career in her 30’s, she’s openly bisexual and she is a female that doesn’t come from an established family in the racing world. Yet, she is set to make her ARCA debut.
It just goes to show you, if you want something bad enough, there is always a path to get there.
“That’s pretty much been my motto in life. If you want it bad enough, you can do it,” Thomason stated with emphasis.
The ARCA Menards Series Zinsser SmartCoat 200 from Berlin Raceway is set for Saturday, June 18th at 8:00 PM ET. The race will be broadcast live on FloRacing and MAVTV.
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