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THE CHASE SCENE : Mark Thornton Went From One Fast Track in Pop Music to Another in a Stadium Parking Lot

If nothing more significant, it is group therapy.

The idea is to drive your car as fast as possible through a parking lot cluttered with red cones.

There are undoubtedly skeptics who would say this is one of those things you do if there’s nothing good on ESPN. It certainly isn’t tennis, or polo. So it’s not a likely candidate to become the next great sport of the aristocracy, even the yuppistocracy.

But to Mark Thornton, it is just fine. And plenty relaxing.

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“It’s a great escape,” Thornton says.

On a given Sunday, about once a month, at the parking lot of San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, nearly 200 drivers will show up to push their driving skills to the limit as members of the San Diego Asebring Assn., an organization formed approximately 30 years ago for recreational auto racing.

If it is an escape, it’s sometimes a short one. It can take Thornton as little as a minute and 44 seconds to swerve his car through one of the carefully planned courses. Of course, not all drivers have the luxury afforded Thornton, who does his escaping in an ’87 Corvette that would make a highway patrolman’s eyes bulge.

Thornton’s eyes twinkle when he climbs behind the wheel. This is the same type of look you see on the face of a high school kid who walks into the prom with the homecoming queen on his arm.

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Thornton, 32, has a little more horsepower to work with than drivers who raced in the organization’s early years. Back then, racing was done in the May Company parking lot in Mission Valley, and the most popular mode of transport was the Cobra 427.

Today, you see a wide variety of cars including Toyota MR2s, Lotus Super Sevens, Formula Fords and Datsun 240Zs. Most drivers use the cars that take them to work to run three times over a slalom course that changes each month. There are a number of different classes, ranging from showroom stock to modified and special. Drivers are given their time after each run and ranked at the end of the day.

Thornton is undoubtedly the driver to be reckoned with. After hours of practice, he has gone from a shaky novice to one of the best on the lot. Not A.J. Foyt material, but pretty darn good.

Living off investments in stocks and bonds, Thornton has the time to concentrate on improving his driving skills. His life in San Diego is positively peaceful, in stark contrast to his stint several years ago as a professional musician. Certainly, there is more to this guy than screeching turns and rubber burns.

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On the pop music charts in 1976 was a song called “Heaven Must Be Missing an Angel.” It was performed by a band called Tavares, which has now been all but forgotten. Thornton, who attended the Berklee College of music in Boston, played guitar.

After Tavares disbanded and Thornton graduated from Berklee in 1980, he moved to Las Vegas to make his living. Vegas is sort of a town you either really like or you really don’t. Thornton didn’t.

He found himself playing in 20 to 25 bands a year, and his life style was such that he ate breakfast when most people ate dinner, and dinner when most ate breakfast. And the casinos were always tempting bait and tempting fate.

One night he had a little too much to drink and, with $800 in his pocket, began playing blackjack. His $400 rent was due the next day.

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He stayed at the table long enough to lose the whole wad, so he had to either find some money or face eviction.

His solution? He borrowed $400 from a friend, high tailed it back to the casino, put the whole stack on one hand, won, paid his friend back and paid the rent. Whew.

“And starved for a week,” he says.

Vegas was not fun or even OK. It was temporarily tolerable, and far from inspiring. There was no room to put any poetry into his music.

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“It’s more just trying to make the money,” Thornton said. “It’s not like, ‘Let’s be creative and make something out of it.’ It’s more, ‘How many songs do you know and how quickly can you fit into this band?’ ”

After four years, Thornton decided he had seen enough. Eight months in San Francisco followed. Thornton played in a band called The Bridge, which specialized in rhythm and blues and jazz. Just about the time the band was to get a contract playing at the top of the Hilton, there was some dissension among the members and The Bridge collapsed.

Then, Thornton began to reflect on what he was doing with his life. He came up with a couple of answers. First, he wasn’t really making money. Second, he wasn’t getting any personal satisfaction from making music.

It was time for a change.

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Race day at the stadium.

Wearing a crumpled Pro Solo cap, Mark Thornton sits in front of this little device called a decibel meter. Each driver is required to work one shift before or after they drive. Thornton has noise detail. Simple job. He rats on the guy whose car engine is too loud.

Thornton watches several cars go by before a smirk purses his lips.

“Did you check that out?” he asks the guy sitting next to him.

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Some of the drivers have figured a way to beat the system. Here’s the secret: If you have one of those noisy cars and you’re about to pass the meter, take your foot off the accelerator. Shhhhh. Don’t tell anyone.

Yeah, they’ve had a bit of trouble ever since the Vintage car race a few months back. People with houses on the hill apparently were a bit put out having to listen to the roar of the engines all afternoon. Now they monitor this stuff very carefully.

As a kid, Thornton was never as much of a car enthusiast as his brother, Steve, who had stacks of automobile magazines in his room at the age of 10. But ever since Mark bought his Nissan 300ZX in 1985, he has enjoyed being in command of a fast car. Steve races in NASCAR events, and Mark would eventually like to go into road racing.

What racing provides Mark is a measure of peace he didn’t have playing music in Las Vegas.

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“I’m real happy doing this stuff,” he says. “It’s a lot more fun. If I was in the right music situation, maybe it could be fun. But I haven’t found it.”

These days he plays a little guitar at home and gives a few lessons (he taught Charger wide receiver Darren Flutie). But most of his time is spent with the love of his life: his Corvette.

Asked if there can be a more easy-going life style than racing cars and soaking up the San Diego sun, Thornton pauses for a moment, then smiles.

“Utah,” he says. “That’s even easier. You pump gas there first before you pay. Can you believe that?”

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If not, believe this: Thornton greets stiff competition with a wink and a chuckle. Fast cars don’t exactly intimidate him. Once each year, for example, Porsche drivers let the rest of the world take a shot at the title in an event at the stadium. One day, Thornton got a wild hair and decided to bring his Corvette.

Thornton showed up, kicked some tail and finished with the top time of the day. All the while he wasn’t too humble about it.

“Don’t mess with ‘Vettes,” he told them. “Don’t mess with ‘Vettes.”

Their reaction?

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“It was kind of ‘Go to hell.’ ”

So he pushed his luck a little and asked: “When are your fast guys going to be out here?”

He hasn’t gotten any formal invitations to come back.

Thornton isn’t really cocky, though. Other racers enjoy being around him and think highly of his driving ability.

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“Mark’s a real fun guy,” says Dave Brengle, who also races at the stadium. “He’s a real smooth driver.”

Check his record. Last year, he won 14 of 15 stock class events he entered. He has so many trophies and plaques he can barely fit them on his mantle.

So where does he go from here?

Thornton’s immediate goal is to go to Salinas, Kan., and compete in the national SOLO championship, a week and a half long slalom event held in September. A victory in Salinas would essentially classify him as the best recreational driver in the country.

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“I think I’ve got a damn good shot,” he said. “If I don’t make it, I’m going to have a good time trying.”


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