Bristol Motor Speedway
Engine builder enjoys top-three WoO sweep
By Kevin KovacWorld of Outlaws Late Model Series
For an engine builder, a season can’t go much better than the one Jack Cornett just experienced. The chief of Cornett Thunder & Lightning Racing Engines had his powerplants bolted into the cars of three full-time World of Outlaws Late Model Series drivers in 2008, and the trio of superstars swept the top-three spots in the national tour’s points standings.
Thanks to WoO champion Darrell Lanigan, runner-up Josh Richards and third-place Steve Francis, the 52-year-old Cornett’s venerable shop in Somerset, Ky., was recognized as the winner of the circuit’s 2008 Crane Cams Engine Builders Challenge Award. The affable Cornett modestly directed the credit to his high-profile clients after collecting the WoO engine-builders trophy for the second time in the last three years.
“We’re always trying to make our engines more reliable and find more horsepower, but the biggest deal was the three cars we happened to have motors in (on the 2008 WoO),” said Cornett, who was honored during the WoO banquet Dec. 11 in Orlando, Fla. “Those guys had awesome years. They did the job for us.”
While 2008 marked the first time that Cornett constructed the powerplants used by a WoO champion, it’s just the latest honor on his sparkling Dirt Late Model resume. His company’s major series championships include four Hav-A-Tampa/UDTRA titles (1995 and ‘98 with Scott Bloomquist, 2001-2002 with Rick Eckert) and the 1987 UMP DIRTcar national crown (John Gill). Among his crown-jewel event wins are four Dirt Track World Championships (1990 and ‘95 with the late Jack Boggs, 2003 with Lanigan and 2004 with Eckert), three World 100s (Bloomquist in ’90, Boggs in ’95 and Jimmy Owens in 2007) and three Dream 100s (Bloomquist in ’95, Lanigan in 2003 and Steve Casebolt in ’07). All this from a man who began his racing career as a driver in the asphalt Late Model ranks.
“I drove on-and-off for about 10 years (in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s), mostly around home at tracks like Louisville Motor Speedway,” said Cornett, who also spent a couple years competing with the ARCA stock-car series. “I wanted to be a driver first. Obviously that didn’t pan out too well, but I found out I could build a pretty good engine along the way.”
Cornett learned the motor-building ropes as an understudy to his father Red, who started the engine business more than 30 years ago, and through trial-and-error assembling powerplants for his own cars. He developed a solid reputation for his workmanship, attracting the attention of local Dirt Late Model racers.
“When I started racing guys saw my personal stuff ran good and didn’t blow up, so they started coming to me and asking if I’d build them a motor,” Cornett said. “We really didn’t have too much asphalt racing around home — it was mostly dirt — so my customer base started in dirt and grew from there.
“John Gill, when he drove the old Indiana-1 car in the mid ‘80s, came through with some of our first big wins against top-notch competition. Then we started doing Bloomquist’s stuff in ’88 and everything really picked up.”
Cornett took the reins of his father’s shop in the mid ‘80s with just one employee under him. He now counts nine full-time employees at his facility, which has expanded to the point where he needs to add on to the building.
The well-known Thunder & Lightning part of his firm’s title developed over the years. “Some guy who used to work for Bloomquist and did decals on the side came up with the Thunder,” Cornett said. “When I started doing the motors for Mark (Richards, who fields the Rocket Chassis house cars driven by his son Josh), he said, ‘I don’t want to call it Thunder, so let’s call the Chevrolets Lightning. It stuck after that – our Fords are Thunder and our Chevys are Lightning.”
The 20-year-old Josh Richards has felt nothing but the power of Cornett motors under his right foot since he began driving his father’s equipment in 2004. But Francis, 41, used Cornett Chevrolets this season for the first time in his career, joining his fellow Kentuckian’s fold after parking his own team to drive for Maryland’s Dale Beitler, who already had a stockpile of Cornett engines.
“Me and Steve are both from Kentucky and just three hours apart, but it just never happened with us until this year,” said Cornett. “It was great to finally work with him.”
Lanigan, meanwhile, has been a devotee to Cornett’s Ford engines for 15 years. The 38-year-old has developed a close friendship with Cornett, who also built engines for Lanigan’s short pavement foray into ARCA and NASCAR Busch Series competition from 1998-2001. Cornett wasn’t surprised that Lanigan, who has been a WoO regular since 2004, emerged as the tour’s champion this season by the largest points margin in history.
“He’s a really good shoe,” said Cornett, whose workload is split almost evenly between Chevrolet and Ford engines. “He had all the talent to make it in NASCAR if he had met the right people at the right time, but it seemed like when he finally gave up on that dream and came back to dirt he was refocused and more determined than ever to do good on dirt.
“He’s gotten older and matured, and man, he knows his race car. Your best drivers are all that way. They have to know, ‘When I change this spring or put this tire on, this is the feel it gives me.’ If you can’t do that as a driver, you ain’t gonna continue to run up front.
“When Darrell was rolling to those 15 straight top-fives (from May 4-July 16), I thought he might be able to pull this thing off,” said Cornett, who led all engine builders with 15 WoO wins in 2008 (Owens also earned him a victory). “And with Josh and Steve both running good also, I thought, Hell, if we don’t win (the WoO title) this year, we ain’t ever gonna win it.”
There’s nothing Cornett would rather be doing than putting together race-winning engines. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had,” Cornett said. “My dad — who’s 92 and still comes to work every day — tells me all the time: ‘When you get to do something you love to do for your living, you’re one lucky individual.' "