The ARCA Menards Series may seem far away for a 38-year-old woman such as Rita Thomason. With a police sergeant’s salary primarily funding the dream, that distance to NASCAR’s feeder series can feel as far off as being able to stand on the moon. However, Thomason knows how to beat the odds. She went from overcoming homelessness as a teen, to escaping from an abusive relationship, to first driving at age 23, to success as Mazda Miata racer, to now owning an ARCA car. Thomason proves how you start the story does not determine its subsequent chapters.
Rocky Beginnings for Rita Thomason
Rita Thomason was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, but her family eventually moved to Alaska, where she spent most of her formative years.
“My family liked to travel a lot,” said Thomason, now of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “They were convinced the next best thing was right around the corner. If we moved to this different state, things would be better. It never was.”
Both Thomason’s parents struggled with various addiction and mental health issues. Eventually, in her teen years, it came to a boiling point.
“My mom kicked me out at 16,” Thomason said. “I ended up having to go to a homeless shelter. I’m grateful there was a Covenant [House]. They open their doors to homeless teenagers. It kept me from having to sleep on the streets most of the time. I transitioned to their halfway house, when I turned 18. It’s a place for teenagers, who don’t have anyone, to learn life skills. They give you your own tiny room. It was better than nothing, but it wasn’t family.”
Off the Streets and Off to Alabama
Thomason saw a path out of her situation. She enrolled in a paramedic school that took her beyond what she expected.
“The program I was in would let you do the classwork stuff in Alaska, but you had to go to a state, with actual people, for the unpaid internship,” said Thomason. “My instructor used to work in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The people he used to work for founded the ambulance company that I wound up working at. So, me and my then-boyfriend went down there. Our plan was to go back to Alaska … that didn’t happen.”
Now in her early 20s, Thomason still had yet to drive — not race cars, but vehicles on the street.
“I put myself through paramedic school while working full-time — and having an abusive husband,” Thomason said. “At the time, he didn’t want me to learn how to drive, which is why I hadn’t learned how to drive until I was 23.”
Thomason eventually bought a 1992 Mazda Miata.
“My boyfriend at the time was like, ‘You don’t even know how to drive, much less drive a manual,’” said Thomason. “I’m like, ‘No, I’m going to get that car and I’m going to learn how to drive it.’ I learned and I fell in love with performance vehicles.”
A Spark that Ignited a Passion
Auto racing was not on Thomason’s radar as a child. The family had other pressing issues to deal with. Nevertheless, looking back at it, you could tell Thomason loved cars.
“I was worried about what we were going to eat next and if we were going to have electricity — racing wasn’t even an option,” Thomason said of her childhood. “We didn’t have a car for the longest time. When I was 11 or 12, we finally were able to get a 1983 Subaru wagon. I used to convince my dad to go as fast as he could, because I loved it, which was 70 miles an hour in that old Subaru, but it was fun.”
After learning how to drive with a 1992 Mazda Miata, Thomason bought other Miatas, which led to a thirst for speed and a need for an outlet to satisfy that desire.
“I fell into a situation where I could afford a daily driver and a fun car,” said Thomason. “I always wanted to get into racing after I started fooling around with my Miata. I’d try to pick up street races, way before I was a cop. But, I was always worried about wrecking my daily driver, because that’s how I got to work. It wasn’t until I got my second car that I started looking into autocross.”
That fun car was a 1996 Mazda Miata. She started tackling autocross with it. Later, she became interested in taking her competitive drive to the next level.
“I was watching NASCAR Radioactive videos on YouTube,” Thomason said. “I was like, ‘That’s real racing. I wish I could do it.’ All the kids that [raced NASCAR], they started like when they were nine or 10 years old, and came from racing families.”
Thomason started driving at 23 and came from a family far removed from the sport. However, a glimmer of hope came.
“A friend of mine was like, ‘Have you thought about ARCA?’” said Thomason. “I was like, ‘What’s ARCA?’ He was like, ‘You can buy a car for $25K.’ [That was] very optimistic.”
The Next Stage for Rita Thomason
Rita Thomason started researching the ARCA dream. She acknowledged the difficulty of achieving it.
“I started looking into this, and this is a stretch,” Thomason said of racing ARCA. “I’m going to have to work so much overtime. I have four off-duty jobs in addition to my regular job to make ends meet with racing.”
However, not one to back down from a challenge, she decided to pursue it.
“I sold the Miata [and] I sold the enclosed trailer for the Miata,” said Thomason. “I bought a roller [chassis, sans drivetrain] from Circle Track Warehouse and then Bob and Dick Rahilly [former NASCAR car owners and crew chiefs, and currently engine builders] finished it for me.”
She debuted the car during a NASA Mid South event at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee. The ARCA car took her breath away.
“That’s not a Miata,” Thomason said with a smile. “It was loud, powerful, and better than I ever thought it would have been. The Miata is very nimble, and underpowered. This car is all power, but it is fun.”
Thomason initially planned to go club racing this fall with the ARCA car, but now will take it out to track days for the time being. She hopes to enter club events next spring, with aspirations of taking it to an ARCA Menards Series road course events in the summer. However, this winter, she plans tackle a new aspect of running a race team.
“It takes money to race, and I don’t really have any,” said Thomason. “I’m trying to find some businesses to partner with me. It takes me out of my comfort zone, because I’m used to doing everything myself. But, I’ve always been very stubborn, and if I want to do it, I’ll find a way.”
A Message of Hope
Sure, Rita Thomason, a 38-year-old woman trying to enter a NASCAR feeder series provides hope for other late bloomers in the sport. However, her story goes far beyond that.
“A friend of mine said, ‘You’re the most resilient person I know,’” Thomason said. “I never thought about it that way. Awful stuff happens, and I might cry for a day, and then I make a plan and make [things] happen.”
As a police sergeant, she offers those who she interacts with a perspective that possibly resonates with what they are going through.
“I respond to a lot of domestics, between teenagers and their parents,” said Thomason. “Sometimes, I’ll talk with kids … about my life. Hopefully, it helps them realize that other people have gone through hell and it doesn’t have to limit them in what they do.”
Looking back at her life, Rita Thomason expresses her gratitude for how her life turned out, despite its rocky beginnings.
“My 18-year-old self would not believe how everything turned out,” Thomason said. “I have an amazing husband, even though it took me three tries. We live in a house that I couldn’t have dreamed of when I was homeless. We’ve got a motorcycle in the garage and a race car crammed in there. It’s better than anything I could have ever dreamed of.”
The Rock the Curb Executive Editor has covered motorsports since 2000. His many awards include the 2019 Eastern Motorsport Press Association (EMPA) Jim Hunter Writer of the Year and the 2013 Russ Catlin Award for Excellence in Motorsports Journalism.