WEST PORTSMOUTH — When looking forward, especially when the proverbial engines are idle, it’s sometimes helpful —even thoughtful —to take a look back.
And, for the four points champions from last year’s racing season at Portsmouth Raceway Park, they deserve the recognition that perhaps got lost in a shuffle.
Usually, PRP conducts its annual Banquet of Champions in December, but didn’t in 2019.
Now, the 2020 PRP racing season is on hold before it even begins — due to not only high water impacting the low-lying dirt-track facility along State Route 73 in West Portsmouth, but also because of Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s “Stay-At-Home” order remaining in place.
On April 27, DeWine announced a modification of that directive as the state attempts to “re-open” in “phases”, but mass gatherings of individuals — until further notice — are limited to 10 or fewer people.
The original opening night for this season was set for Saturday (May 9), but has since been postponed in part due to the threat of the coronavirus —and still remains pending.
However, that allows Shannon Thornsberry, Jeremy Rayburn, Zack Pendleton and Billy Staker some additional time to reflect upon last season’s division championships.
All four are regular racers at PRP, as Rayburn resides in Lucasville, Staker in Rosemount, Pendleton in Stout and Thornsberry two-and-a-half hours away in Martin, Ky.
Thornsberry — last year’s Late Model champion and who is entering his 29th racing season — enjoys racing at PRP, and thus it’s worth it to him to make the long trek every Saturday night.
“I’ve been racing at Portsmouth for the last five or six years and I feel right at home. Everybody at PRP makes you feel welcome there and it’s the best facility around. It is a first-class run facility with top-notch people,” he said. “That’s why I drive two-and-a-half hours every weekend to race.”
Thornsberry spent four years racing open-wheel modifieds, before moving on to the late models.
He has captured 10 track championships on six different tracks, including three apiece at Thunder Ridge Raceway and 201 Raceway — with two in a row coming at Thunder Ridge.
But winning the championship at PRP, he said, has been the highlight of his racing career.
As the late Dale Earnhardt took 20 tries before winning NASCAR’s Super Bowl of racing, the Daytona 500, Thornsberry had come oh so close before finally climbing that mountain in the valley.
He had finished fourth or higher for four consecutive seasons prior to last year’s title, which he actually clinched on the last lap of the last race.
“It’s been tough trying to win that points championship at Portsmouth, but we finally got it done. I’ve been in the top-4 in points for five years straight, and I feel like I had the best race car, but bad luck came up and bit me. To win at PRP is satisfying, not just because of the track but because these championships are hard to come by,” said Thornsberry. “I’m 50 years old, and I don’t know how many more seasons I will have a chance to race at this level.”
Rayburn is also a veteran of racing, and was working on his car when he was contacted this past week via telephone.
“Just staying patient. Nobody really knows when we will return to racing, but there really is no off-season. When we aren’t racing, we are working in the garage or building chassis or doing something with the cars to get them ready for the next race or the next season,” he said. “It’s been weird so far this year. Normally, we are passing out marketing material and asking anybody who wants to come on board as sponsors. We have a lot of sponsors that support us. I want to thank them all.”
The 33-year-old Rayburn is entering his 18th season of racing dirt modifieds, as he has won six track championships — including four at Southern Ohio Speedway in Wheelersburg.
He competes in the UMP Modified division, in which the car features an open-wheel front end with eight-inch tires, as he has claimed his last two track titles at PRP (2017 and 2019).
He also took home the 2012 Ohio state championship in the UMP Modifieds, which Rayburn proclaimed his career highlight.
Rayburn is ready for the racing season to begin — when and if that is — and wished to thank his family, sponsors and crew for making his career a successful reality.
Speaking of reality, Staker —a winner of four track titles in eight years including two at PRP (2017 and 2019) in the Limited Late Model series and two back-to-back at Jackson County Speedway (2014 and 2015) — said his all-time moment was winning the 25th annual and final Fred Dillow Memorial.
Racing in third-place with five laps remaining, Staker sought an unconventional opportunity on the high side off a restart — and absolutely made the most of it.
“That was one of those races where we did not run great all night, but that was because I wasn’t doing a good job on the track. My crew had been doing its job all night, so with five laps left, I decided it was time for me to do mine,” he said. “I went up on the high side with five to go off that restart, reeled the leader in, and passed him with two to go.”
Staker said he built his car, the “Rosemount Rocket”, from its bare chassis two years ago.
The Limited Late Model series is an economy class, and although it is “the same car” as the Late Model, there are restrictions upon it — such as an engine steel block and harder tires.
In addition to PRP, Staker has raced at Atomic Speedway and Jackson County Speedway in southern Ohio —plus tracks in Willard, Flemingsburg (Ky.) and Ripley (W. Va.), where he won the 80-plus car “Hillbilly 50” at the I-77 spot.
Staker said he plans to race at PRP this season, but because he began new employment with United Parcel Service on Monday, sometimes Saturday nights “could be on the back burner” this year.
Of course, starting off winning will help guide his decisions.
“The big thing about racing is when you are near the top of the points chase at a track, you become dedicated to it. Last year, we won the first three races and thus were invested in it all year long. We were married to Portsmouth last year because we were leading in points. This year, I have the new job at UPS and the coronavirus is still here so that’s going to affect travel. But when we can, we will be ready to go,” said Staker. “I’m looking at the car right now, but when they give us the go-ahead, we will dust it off and get it out there.”
Like Rayburn, Staker said he is thankful for his crew and family support.
“If it wasn’t for my crew, I wouldn’t have a fast car. If it wasn’t for my mom and dad footing the bill for 90-percent of the cost, and I’m a second generation racer, it wouldn’t happen either,” he said. “Racing is expensive no matter what, and a lot of things before and during a race has to go right, and I’m just grateful for my crew and family.”
Pendleton, the Sport Mod division champion, concurred about the cost.
“Sport Mod is supposed to be a cheaper way for people to get into racing, but there is nothing cheap about racing if you really want to win,” he said.
And win he has.
An 11-year veteran of racing and a runner of a Harris chassis, Pendleton has won four championships at PRP — three consecutive in the Bomber from 2014 thru 2016 and last year in the Sport Mod, as he said his career highlight was winning championships in two different classes.
He said he will go for a fifth title, and a second in the Sport Mod, “if we ever get to start racing again”.
“My car isn’t ready right now, because the ‘Stay-At-Home’ order slowed down a lot of things for me to get my car done. If it wasn’t for that, I probably would’ve been doing more race-related things,” he said.
So too would Rayburn, Staker and Thornsberry, but with the red flag up at PRP for the time being and immediate future, it’s always a good practice to reflect upon the recent past.
In a report which appeared in the April 11 edition of The Portsmouth Daily Times, Donna Rayburn — the 15-year PRP promoter — re-stated the importance of following Facebook and the PRP’s page for “updates on anything”, as a complete 2020 schedule of events is listed on the PRP’s website (www.portsraceway.com).
During the season, the track’s telephone number is available for information — and is (740) 354-FAST.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved