Mark Thomas has lived most of his life in the fast lane. He spent 25 years on the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) circuit, where he was a 7-time IHRA Funny Car champion.
Even though Mark didn’t miss a racing event in 20 straight years, he still was his father’s partner on their 400-cow dairy farm in Louisville, Ohio. In 2008, Mark decided to walk away from racing completely to manage the herd.
“You know, I was lucky enough to be a professional racer for 25 years,” Mark says, who now runs Thomas Farms of Stark County with his wife, Chris. “We were very successful, but through the years of doing a lot of different interviews, whether it was TV or magazine, I always said if I had to choose between racing and farming, that I am going to be a farmer.”
Chris, who has been running the farm’s calf feeding program for almost 15 years and is responsible for all of the farm’s bookkeeping, was happy to see her husband step away from racing and come back to the dairy full time.
“Having a farm and a husband that raced full time as a professional drag racer got pretty hectic,” Chris says. “I stay home with the three kids and try and come over to the farm to keep things going. When Mark would go racing, he would be gone for about four days at a time, and it seemed like my answer for everything was ‘let’s wait until Mark gets home and we’ll get this figured out and get that figured out.’ So it started to become more obvious that Mark needed to be at the farm more and racing less.”
After a close racing friend died in a crash in 2000, Mark decided he needed to start thinking about retirement more seriously. Winning the world championship in 2001, 2006 and 2007 delayed his retirement, but when the time came, he was more than willing to walk away.
“I guess it really hit me when all of a sudden I realized if something bad happened to me at the racetrack, not only would my family suffer, but also the farm and all my employees,” Mark says.
The question Mark gets asked the most since walking away from racing is what it’s like going from the fast-paced life as a drag racer to the slow-paced farm life. He says his answer shocks people every time.
“When you look at the difference, people say, you are at the racetrack, the car had 3,000 horsepower. It goes from zero to 250 miles an hour in 5.7 seconds and it was just really cool,” Mark says. “But life on a farm is a lot more fast paced and that sounds crazy, but there are always too many things to do. So, you know the difference from planting corn or spraying at 5 miles an hour day after day or harvesting to a racecar is dramatic, but there is always those 200,000, million things that could go wrong on a farm.”
Mark has taken the team atmosphere that helped him win seven IHRA championships and brought it back to the farm. When Mark took over the dairy, he began to have weekly meetings to make sure everyone was on the same page and pushing each other to ensure the herd is producing highest-quality milk possible. The meetings are open to everyone - from their bankers, employees and DFA field representative to the nutritionist, breeder and veterinarian - with a focus on how they can get better.
“We brought the whole concept together and the big difference was, my dad was one of those, ‘I don’t want anybody to know my business’, but I put my whole life out there in front of everybody,” Mark says. “This is where we are. This is where we need to go. How are we going to get there, and will you guys help?”