By Mike Imlay
Throughout the South, In & Out Customs Owner Sage Thomas, aka, The Donkmaster, is known as the king of big-wheel racing. Born in Savannah, Georgia, and now based in Charleston, South Carolina, Thomas built his first Donk at 16 and dove headlong into the racing scene. Now he’s formed the National Donk Racing Association (NDRA), the first professional sanctioning body dedicated to Donk and big-wheel drags, which are exploding in popularity. His many fans follow him on Donkmaster TV on YouTube and @1_Donkmaster on Instagram.
SEMA News: For those unfamiliar with the concept—what’s a Donk?
Sage Thomas: A Donk is a ’71–’76 Chevrolet Caprice or Impala. It can be a two- or four-door convertable model. NDRA or other big-wheel racing platforms can have other classes like G-bodies. This would include Monte Carlos, Novas, Camaros, Cutlasses and other big-wheel cars.
SN: What first attracted you to Donk racing?
ST: Actually how big the cars were and how fast they got moving. I always liked big cars with horsepower because of my stature and how comfortable they are.
SN: Why did you start the NDRA?
ST: These big cars can weigh anywhere between 5,000–6,000 lbs. Wheels, U-joints, driveshafts, transmissions—all that stuff takes a different load level. People always wanted a good appearance, but weren’t doing it safely. I wanted to touch on the safety side to ensure they have the right kind of U-joints, axles, plus the right kind of safety equipment when they start going 150 mph in the quarter-mile.
SN: Big-wheel events are real crowd pleasers. What makes them unique? Why are they catching on?
ST: Donk racing is catching on because I make the impossible possible, and it becomes a challenge. You see a 5,000-lb. car with 26-in. wheels and real small sidewalls. This setup is extremely difficult to grip and hook on the track. Plus, all the flashy paint and chrome wheels make the sport appealing. Spectators like to see all the trash talking, the money, and who’s handing out Gapsauce. Every driver is a character.
SN: Obviously, big-wheel racing takes skill. Have you ever had one of those “uh-oh” moments where you had to call on every skill you had?
ST: Oh yeah—one particular time when my car started leaking coolant. After I went into high gear, I was feeling so much pressure in my engine that the coolant line started seeping and dripping on the track. When I did a one-two shift, I started spinning towards the wall a little bit, but I gathered it up pretty quickly and overcorrected something, but it straightened out. I went to third gear, and I just had to pedal on through it. But yeah, I’ve had a couple of “uh-oh” moments.
SN: What should the aftermarket know about the car culture surrounding big-wheel events?
ST: It’s exciting. It’s flashy. It’s loud. There’s a lot of different things to see. You might pull up to the racetrack at a car show and see a Honda Civic with 50 speakers hanging out of it. Or you might see a Donk on big wheels running 170 mph. It’s truly fun and exciting to see.
In the beginning there was little exposure to the Donk world. We were always testing parts. I had a lot of ins because I drag-raced 10 years before I actually started big-wheel racing. So some of my parts suppliers/partners, like FTI Transmissions, made different clutches, baskets and other parts like input shafts. I actually was part of the engineering process for some axle-specific big-wheel racing parts. Now TBM Brakes is making a different kind of brake just for big-wheel racing. Since being at the PRI and the SEMA Shows, the world is taking notice and starting to manufacture parts specifically for big-wheel racing.
SN: Who are your personal racing inspirations?
ST: Murff, a fellow from Florida who died recently, inspired me to do this stuff. Also Vito NoShake out of South Florida, and my Uncle Buggy, who was more of a father figure, helped me actually build all these big-horsepower cars in the very beginning. My uncle is one of the main people that pushed me in this direction.
SN: When not at the track, how do you spend your downtime?
ST: I love to play with my kids. We [also] go swimming, travel a lot to different places, and just relax, sit on the beach, kick my feet up.
SN: And finally, what’s in your shop?
ST: We have a high-end clientele that includes celebrities, football players (Za’darious Smith), rappers, comedians (Karlous Miller) and other entertainers.We just finished a car going to Canada for eBay Motors and Sneaker Con. We also have a wheel line and a top AKOO (A King of Oneself) urban clothing line that’s in 1,500 stores nationwide.