Jimmy Thomas, the patriarch of the Thomas family, began it all back in the 1940’s with his fascination for tinkering with automobiles. During his service in World War II he requested a transfer to the motor pool which furthered his interests as a mechanic. After his military time Jimmy returned home and was found hanging around the old Columbus, Georgia Speedway, eventually catching the racing bug and building a car which he drove himself. An early accident and serious injuries convinced Jimmy to make the change from driver to car owner and he saw fit to put Walt Kruger, known as the “Muscogee Flyer”, behind the wheel of his racer. Together the team earned the Auburn-Opelika Speedway championship and won more than anyone else that season on the Georgia dirt racing circuit. To put icing on the cake Jimmy would gain great respect around the ovals for being named Mechanic of the Year in Georgia – the first award of its kind presented to a local mechanic.
In 1955 a group of car owners took over the failing Columbus Speedway and named Jimmy Thomas Race Director. The appointment would serve as Jimmy’s first promotional duties. During this period Thomas would also continue to mechanic and tune race cars – a couple belonging to Harvey Jones and Eddie McDonald, both Florida and Georgia State Champs who collected a number of big wins in the southeast.
Early in the 1960’s Thomas went into business opening the Good and Bad Furniture Store in Columbus, but more importantly, next door Jimmy’s Speed Shop, originally founded in 1954, became a full-time operation offering services for racers of all types.
In 1965 Thomas turned his mechanical efforts toward NASCAR and the Big Leagues building and fielding a Grand National car for local hotshoe Sam McQuagg – who would become NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year in 1965 driving for Thomas. In 1966 the combination of Leroy Yarbrough driver – Jimmy Thomas car owner/mechanic produced a number of pole awards, track records and an upset win in the National 500 at the Charlotte, North Carolina Speedway. Thomas, like so very few before proved that a small independent team could knock off the big factory teams on the Grand National circuit.
Following his NASCAR exploits Jimmy returned home to his family and the world of dirt late model racing. His dream of building and promoting a race facility came to be when, in 1973, he built from the ground up the East Alabama Motor Speedway, one of the south’s most famous and longest running motor racing attractions. East Alabama quickly became a weekly gathering place for much of the Southeast’s top dirt late model talent with its well run programs and ripe purses. The track would also receive a NASCAR sanction in 1978, hold Robert Smawley’s inaugural NDRA event in 1978 and become home to one of dirt late models racing’s biggest annual events – the National 100 held there each season since 1975. Jimmy also became active in promoter’s workshops and in 1974 received the Southern Auto Racing News “Promoter of the Year Award”.
In 1974 oldest son Billy began racing late models, so father and son set out to develop a lighter weight more competitive chassis for Billy to tackle America’s dirt ovals. An extremely fast, jig framed car, with front strut suspension was produced by the family duo and thus the “Jig-A-Lo” Chassis was created. With Billy becoming an instant hit on the ovals, their new design revolutionized the business and dirt racers everywhere began lining up to purchase one of the Thomas’s new inventions. One of the their earliest customers, Hall of Fame Georgian Charlie Hughes, drove a Jig-A-Lo to 42 wins in 1976, along with victories in the World 100, the U.S. Dirt Track Championship and the National 100. Also among the Thomas’ hundreds of Jig-A-Lo customers were Hall of Famers such as Jerry Inmon, Ronnie Johnson, Larry Moore, Jim Dunn, Tom Helfrich, Buck Simmons, Billy Teegarden, Don Hester, Bob Wearing, Billy Moyer, Mike Head and Roger Long. The car would eventually be the most copied of all chassis in the history of the industry.
In October of 1980, the racing world was saddened by the loss of Jimmy Thomas, who passed away following a battle with brain cancer. With a huge void to fill the family moved on, continuing Jimmy’s dream. Son Billy stepped up to take over the day to day operations of the speedway while Jimmy’s wife Shirley remained as book keeper and office manager. She also became mentor, teaching the kids the promoting aspects and business end of the sport. Younger sons Bobby and Ben both helped with track maintenance and preparation while daughter Beverly worked the concessions and eventually became involved with scoring, registration and all other facets of track operation.
Today, Mom Shirley has retired, but Billy continues to handle speedway operations, and promoting. A high quality lighting and sound system, an enlarged pit area to accommodate at least 400 race teams, and box seating and VIP suites have been added to the speedway in recent years. The track’s show place like atmosphere and the smoothness of its operation brought Billy the RPM Regional Race Promoter of the year award in 2009. Bobby builds race engines and spec carburetors for the track and Ben stays busy building his Scorpion Race Chassis, which he founded in 2000 and has become one of the area’s top chassis distributors.
Jimmy’s memory has been celebrated with spectacular stock car racing at his historic racing facility. Each year the Jimmy Thomas Memorial is dedicated to him.