Being one of the most successful weekly summer racing programs in the country, Thursday Thunder boasts a long list of alumni who have tackled the “Thunder Ring” and moved on to higher levels of motorsports competition. On any given summer Thursday night, fans can find local youth and adults mixing it up with those who aspire to make racing a career.

And often those drivers may find themselves battling alongside the newest generation of NASCAR families, like this past week at AMS.Jared Irvan, son of Daytona 500 champion Ernie Irvan, made his debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway this past week in the Shane’s Rib Shack Young Lions division, recording a sixth-place finish. While not as high of a finish as the younger Irvan hoped for, father Ernie was impressed considering that it was only the fifth time Jared has wheeled a Legends car.

“He did good as far as a new track and his first time at Atlanta,” said Ernie, who won at Atlanta in NASCAR competition in 1994. “I can see things we could have done better. Sometimes you are your own worst enemy, in bumping someone or getting bumped. He got bumped and had to go to the rear, got the position back, then making the choice of what lane to go in on the restart and sometimes that may be the right or wrong lane. Then he got into someone and had to go to the back. But I think he did well. Hopefully, next time we come down to Atlanta we’ll be better.”

While it takes drive, determination and a strong work ethic to succeed at any level of racing, natural skill is certainly a plus. One trait young Jared has displayed thus far in his budding career is the ability to go fast right out of the gate.

“He seems to adapt pretty quickly,” said Ernie. “The first time he ever drove a Legends car he ran well. He was very competitive. I feel confident that if we get him in something, he’s able to adapt pretty quick.”

Ernie notes that more than being the crew chief for his son or a teacher, he’s simply Dad most of the time.

“Most sons don’t listen to Dad very well, especially when taking advice,” said Ernie. “But they do listen. I’m sure because he’s 14, he thinks Dad is dumb. I think that’s a general thing that most 14-year olds think. But I think he’s listening. We have someone else that has a part in the car and they can talk to him and tell him the same thing I do and it seems to sink in even better. He has to learn for himself. I’m glad I’m able to throw something out there.”

Ernie uses Jared’s racing to bring awareness to his foundation, Race2Safety, which promotes awareness and prevention of head injuries, which Irvan suffered during his time in NASCAR. Despite his past with racing-related health incidents, the elder Irvan had no reservations when Jared wanted to get behind the wheel.

“I was all in, if he was all in,” said Irvan. “I didn’t push him. I was able to help with that. I couldn’t help him with soccer. He’s got interest in soccer and things like that, but he seems to have more interest in racing and I’m trying to give him the opportunity if he wants it. He seems to want to keep doing it. We are trying to do as much as we can.”

For Ernie, who retired from NASCAR in 1999, his time is now spent helping Jared get his racing career off the ground, as well as watching daughter Jordan compete in equestrian events.

“I’m doing all the racing I can with Jared,” said Ernie. “While in Atlanta, we went to the horse show down there. My daughter was showing in it, and she did well. She’s still in Atlanta at the equestrian park. Hopefully she does well again this week. It’s exciting to be there and be a part of their lives. When I was racing, you had to concentrate on that so much, you didn’t have much time to spare. They were always doing something on the weekends and I was too. I was very fortune to be able to do what I did. Don’t get me wrong, I’d still be doing what I was doing if I could. But I enjoy being able to be a part of their lives.”

With NASCAR legends coming out to Atlanta Motor Speedway each summer, fans never know what future racing star or past champion they may see at Thursday Thunder, making the “Thunder Ring” must-see racing action each week.

A family can take in an evening of racing action at Atlanta Motor Speedway for less than what it would cost to see a matinée movie. Tickets for the affordable, family-friendly racing series costs just $6 for adults, $2 for children ages six through 11 and is free for children ages five and younger. All grandstand seating is smoke-free in 2012. Gates open each night at 6:00 p.m. and feature races begin at 7:30 p.m. For more information, contact the Atlanta Motor Speedway Ticket Office at (770) 946-4211, (877) 9-AMS-TIX or visit www.atlantamotorspeedway.com.