Having grown up around a dad who was into open-wheel and late-model stock cars, Doug Thompson spent a lot of time at tracks near their home in Indiana watching him race.
As the years went by, he discovered that he, too, was interested in racing, but even more interested in making race cars run faster.
He went on to work at automotive machine shops where he bored blocks, assembled engines and more, and that led to a position on John Menard’s IndyCar team, where he built and maintained cars for drivers like Gary Bettenhausen, Eddie Cheever, Arie Luyendyk, Buddy Lazier, Nigel Mansell, Scott Brayton and Geoff Brabham.
But he left that behind to pursue a job at Steel Dynamics in Indiana in 1995, and that’s where he formed a friendship — and then a race team — with Glenn Pushis, who has since won championships in NMCA Chevrolet Performance Stock presented by Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center and Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series Chevrolet Performance Stock.
“Doug and I are both very competitive in nature and sometimes we argue like brothers over the car,” `said Pushis. “He has taught me how to race others like I want to be raced, and to be humble in everything we do. I couldn’t race at the level we do with two cars without his passion and dedication to the team and the sport of drag racing.”
Read on for more about Thompson, who lives in Auburn, Indiana with his wife, Cindy, and enjoys spending down-time with her as well as his daughter and son-in-law, Rebecca and Adam Parkinson, and grandson, Max.
Because you helped your dad, Byrl Thompson, with his open-wheel and late-model stock cars as a child, you had so much experience with cars before you even got your first one.
Yes, but I did get my first one when I was in high school. It was a 1967 GTO with a 400ci Pontiac engine. Then, a short time later, I got a 1968 Camaro with a big-block and tunnel ram, but it wasn’t very reliable. Dad would have to remind me that I was I supposed to have the car for transportation, not for hot-rodding. From there, I had a revolving door of cars during high school that I would get from friends and from the junkyard. One of them was a 1937 Chevy coupe in which I put a straight front axle, like a Gasser, and a small-block Chevy. We would go to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to watch Indy 500 racers practice, and I thought that was about the coolest thing anyone could do with their life at that level. Of course, I skipped school a lot to do that, so I didn’t have a good attendance record. One morning, we blasted off and went to the speedway and hurried home, and when dad got home from work, he walked by the car, asked if I went to school that day, and when I said I did, he asked how I had dust from the speedway all over the car. I was caught, and he was not at all sympathetic. What that taught me was that next time, I should clean the car before I get home.
You mentioned earlier that it was during that time that you developed an interest in the technology behind building engines and discovering how to optimize combinations.
Yes, and it was while working at local automotive machine shops after high school that I decided to build an open-wheel car, and then I began racing it, and from there, I got involved with a chassis builder and I helped build cars and campaign cars. In the early 1990s, I got an offer to join an upstart team with John Menard, so I built the IndyCars for drivers like Gary Bettenhausen, Eddie Cheever, Arie Luyendyk, Buddy Lazier, Nigel Mansell, Scott Brayton and Geoff Babham. I did that for a few years, and I’ll tell you, IndyCar racing is a lot of fun, but there’s a lot of getting ready and not a lot of racing. When I met my wife in 1995, I didn’t see her very much because there were 12 guys in the shop and we were building engines, doing chassis work and working seven days a week. She thought it would slow down, but it didn’t. In once instance, we had made a commitment to take the Monday after the race off, but as it happened, we set a record and sat on the pole with Scott Brayton, so we had photo and press responsibilities on Monday. She had taken the day off work, and all I could do was say “Sorry, sweetheart” and to that, she said “I think you need a different job.” The IndyCar thing was changing at the time and going to more spec engines, so I made the decision to go work in the steel mill, Steel Dynamics, in northern Indiana, in 1995, and we moved from Indianapolis to Auburn, Indiana.
What position did you accept at Steel Dynamics?
I accepted a position in the machine shops, fixing whatever was broken in the steel mill. It was a huge change, and at first, I missed the IndyCar deal, because it was an opportunity to work in racing, with all the resources to do well, with someone else writing the checks. But on the other hand, with IndyCar, I was also in the hot sun all day working at tracks, and the grass is greener on the other side, especially when the racing weekend wasn’t going well. That’s when I decided I would give working at the steel mill a shot. Then in 1997, I found out that Glenn Pushis, who also works at Steel Dynamics, had an Olds 442, and he found out that I had come from an IndyCar team, and one day he said to me, “Hey, OSCA has a heads-up deal at a few tracks around here. Would you help me?” I, of course, said I would. We ran his Olds 442 and traveled around and hit all of the OSCA races and had a good time, but we decided to back off of the racing a little bit.
To what did you turn your focus when you throttled back on racing?
Well, family for sure, but also, I had always wanted to fly, and I thought, I really don’t have the patience to drive anywhere, and an airplane would make going places much easier, so, I learned to fly. I started taking lessons in 1996 at the local airport, with a small Cessna trainer plane. I took six lessons and came home and told my wife that we needed an airplane. You can ask for race cars and motorcycles, but asking for an airplane was taking things to a whole new level, right? She looked at me like I was crazy, but I bought an airplane, a Piper Cherokee, in 1997, and I still have it. Also, Glenn and I had muscle cars that we fooled with, and I was helping John Hart in NHRA Top Alcohol Funny Car in around 2011 and 2012, but we were still putting family first. Then, when our kids matured and didn’t want to be around us anymore, Glenn said he had entered the lottery and got called for a new 2013 COPO Camaro and I asked him what he was going to do with it, and he said that he didn’t know, but that it was cool. So, we decided to go racing with the COPO Camaro, which had a 427ci engine and a 4-speed transmission. We went to a couple tracks near our house, not really knowing what we were doing.
We’re glad you came to the NMCA. What brought you to us?
We saw that NMCA was going to have its last race of the season at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indiana in the fall of 2014, and we went and entered 5th Gen Camaro. It was cold and it rained a lot, but we managed to get a couple passes in, and we discovered we liked NMCA and wanted to run NMCA. We just didn’t know which class we would fit in. Then, Glenn got a Fastest Street Car magazine with a crate engine on the front, and read about the new Chevrolet Performance Stock class, so we bought Rodney Massengale’s 2013 CRC Camaro, put a DR525 engine in it, put the car in the trailer and drove 22 hours to the first race of the season in Florida in 2015 to enter Chevrolet Performance Stock to see how many mistakes we could make, and let me tell you, we made a lot, while running 10.80s and 10.90s. We came home with our tails between our legs and completely disassembled the car to figure things out before going to the second race of the season in Georgia, where we won after running10.50s and 10.60s It evolved from there, and we earned the 2015 NMCA Chevrolet Performance Stock championship.
It could be said that 2016 was twice as successful, as Pushis earned championships in Chevrolet Performance Stock presented by Scoggin-Dickey Parts Center and in Chevrolet Performance Challenge Series Chevrolet Performance Stock that year.
Yes. We brought out the black 2014 COPO Camaro to compete in the new Holley EFI Factory Super Cars category, in addition to running the 2013 CRC Camaro in Chevrolet Performance Stock. It was a lot of work, and quite a bit to manage both cars and keep track of which car was doing what, but it was fun, and we had a good time. There were a lot of highs and lows along the way. We weren’t sure if we were going to have a good day or a bad day when we’d get to the track. We’d just unload the cars, and sometimes it would work well and sometimes it wouldn’t. Sometimes our changes were good, and sometimes we’d ruin a set-up. Last year, we ran 10.239 in Chevrolet Performance Stock at the LS Fest in Kentucky in the fall, and we brought the car home, made a few changes then went to this year’s season opener in Florida. Out of the trailer, we could only get the car to run 10.51, and I thought to myself, “My God. We’ve managed to ruin a pretty good race car, but by the end of qualifying, we set a record with a 10.15 and we were the first Chevrolet Performance Stock car to run in the teens, and also the first Chevrolet Performance Stock car to run over 130 mph. Then, we won.
That’s a fine start to the 2017 race season.
I think so, too. Camaraderie and competitiveness are what I grew up on, and they’re what I want to be around. It just so happens that we have both camaraderie and competitiveness in the NMCA, and I enjoy it very much. Of course, I couldn’t do any of this without Glenn and Kathy Pushis, Steve Hilterbrad and most of all, my wife, Cindy.
Photos by Steve Baur and Kevin DiOssi. Interview from the June 2017 issue of Fastest Street Car.