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|Stephanie Thompson Public Relations|
|Project engineer, Solar Turbines Inc.|
|Chinese at the Dumpling Inn, San Diego|
Favorite TV Show:
|“Game of Thrones”|
|“Grosse Pointe Blank”|
|“Dark Voyage” by Alan Furst|
As competitive as NASA race classes are, it can take a couple of seasons of racing before someone who comes up through the HPDE ladder can get on the podium. Apparently, no one told that to SoCal’s Steffen Thompson, who has notched second place and one win within his first year of racing in Spec E30.
After his win, he texted the news to his wife, Stephanie, who let their two daughters stay up late — the drive from Willow Springs Raceway to San Diego takes several hours — to welcome their father home after his first win. While they were waiting, they hatched a plan to make the victory that much more memorable.
“They made banners, sort of bunting flags, that said, ‘Congratulations Daddy!” and “Winner!” and they hung them up on the side of our garage and across the front door,” Stephanie Thompson said. “When he called to say he was coming up the block, we all took little flags and we were waving them, saying ‘Yay, Daddy!’”
Thompson first read about NASA in Grassroots Motorsports. At the time, he was building a Lotus 7 in his garage — without any formal plans, mind you — using parts from an old Miata and a few Toyota bits thrown in for good measure. When he looked at what it would take to finish the project and get it on track, he experienced a moment of clarity. He knew how long projects like this can drag on and on.
“I thought, ‘Gosh, I could buy a Miata or an E30 and probably in a month have it track ready and do a NASA event. So that’s what I did,” said Thompson, 45. “It took me, I think, three months of scheduling and then calling at the last minute and canceling, and rescheduling for the next month. I knew the NASA scheduling people by name.”
The Lotus 7 project, by the way, is still in storage, only about 25 percent complete.
His progression to racing was fairly natural, as it likely is for many NASA members. Thompson was always into “anything that went fast” as a kid, had a subscription to Road & Track magazine and he had become familiar with hand tools from years of working on his bicycles. His first car “real car,” as he calls it, was a total-fixer 240Z. After that, he owned two MGBs, one of which caught fire and one MG Midget. He drove a 1967 Mini Cooper S while he was in college, then bought a Miata, then a tricked-out Range Rover and finally his E30 BMW, the car he races today.
When he finally made it to HPDE, Thompson took about five years to climb the ladder before he got his competition license and began racing wheel to wheel. He rose through HPDE 1 and 2, then spent a couple of years in HPDE 3. He skipped HPDE 4, attended Driving Concepts school, got his license, and hasn’t looked back.
While he was learning in NASA’s HPDE system, he also was building his car slowly over time. A project engineer for Solar Turbines Inc. in San Diego, Thompson holds a bachelor’s degree in industrial technology. So you could say he’s fairly handy. In fact, he fabricated and installed his own roll cage and did all the rest of the prep work at home in his garage. By the time he was ready to race, his car was, too.
“It’s nice to have a car that matches up with one of the classes as you’re going through HPDE,” Thompson said, adding that series leader Shawn Meze’s hard work and support from Midnight Oil Motors have been instrumental in growing the class. “I had a Spec E30 and there were people racing when I was finishing. You could compare your lap times. You can talk to them about what they’re doing with their cars. It makes it easy that way, especially in Spec E30. The group is really open and there’s probably three or four people in HPDE right now who are hanging out with the race group and socializing and learning. They’ve got people to talk to, so it works out really well.”
His first win was especially sweet, because it didn’t come easily. After struggling with his setup on Saturday, he changed tire pressures for Sunday, which helped. Then he moved some ballast around, which gave it a bit more oversteer and eventually sneaked up on a winning combination and the win.
“I’m really proud of him,” said his wife, whose company Stephanie Thompson Public Relations, sponsors the car. “Not so much because of the winning, which is great, but because he’s stuck to it and actually is making it happen after wanting to do it for so long.”
In conversations with Thompson, the subjects of mentoring, friendships and camaraderie surface often. Sure, he was drawn to NASA for the racing, but the overall experience ended up being so much richer than he originally thought, and he’d like to do more. When budget allows and time permits, he’d like to step up for some endurance racing.
“I’m probably the poster child for how to go through NASA,” he said. “NASA’s been great. All the instruction you get, and as you go through HPDE 1 and 2, I know I met a lot of people who kind of mentored me. You see them in the paddock, and they’re willing to go for a ride with you, or they ask you how things are going, and you talk racing with them. It’s like a little family, kind of.”