Thunderbird in Manahawkin Makes the Switch to Synthetic Lanes

By David Biggy | Aug 28, 2019
Photo by: Supplied photo Thunderbird Lanes co-owner Matt Davis shows off the new synthetic lanes at the Manahawkin bowling center on East Bay Avenue.

Stafford Township — When Matt Davis and his brothers, Jim and Joe, were considering purchasing the old Sunshine Lanes in Manahawkin’s downtown business district in 1995, they almost walked away.

“There was no automatic scoring, and the ball returns were awful,” Matt Davis said. “The place was so run down, we almost turned around in the parking lot and left. The alley had no heat or air conditioning. It was a mess. But we walked in here and the place was packed. We knew it had a lot of potential if we put some money into it.”

During the summer of 1995, Sunshine Lanes not only closed for the season, but when it reopened months later, it had a new name – Thunderbird Lanes. The brothers changed a lot of the equipment inside the bowling house, resurfaced the lanes, tossed the old beat-up ball returns and installed new ones, added a scoring system, and even had new carpeting and furniture put in.

“We put a lot of money into it, so we were a bit nervous about how it would turn out,” Matt said. “When you put in that kind of money to make so many changes, it’s serious stuff.”

In 2008, the family made another big change, adding eight lanes to create a 24-lane bowling center, in addition to renovations to the exterior and interior as well as extra parking.

“That was a lot of work because we weren’t expecting to have to add parking,” Davis said. “But we had to be up to code and do things according to what the town required, so we did what needed to be done.”

But as the past 10 years have progressed – the sport itself going through some big changes, particularly with the evolution of more-scientific bowling balls – Thunderbird still held out on one more big change.

“We were thinking about putting in synthetic lanes when we added the eight lanes in 2008,” Davis said. “But we couldn’t really do that. We had 16 other lanes that were wood, and that wouldn’t have been a good idea to have some lanes that were synthetic and the rest still made of wood.”

This year, he finally pulled the trigger.

“We’ve teetered on this for about five years, and I finally said we had to get it done,” he said. “The discussion was, more or less, ‘Do we make this big change and keep going?’ It’s feast or famine in this business, and we had three choices – get new lanes, sell the place or close it down. I was always replacing boards, patching stuff, fixing foul lines. Eventually, I said, ‘I’m tired of this.’ We were starting to have serious problems with the old lanes, and it was time.”

Last month, Thunderbird underwent the makeover. Brunswick Pro synthetic lanes were installed, the old wooden lanes finally torn out, and a new oil machine soon will make its debut as well.

“These are top-of-the-line Brunswick lanes,” Davis said. “It was a little more money compared to another brand, but Brunswick makes great products, and it made sense to go with them.”

Made of various materials – similar to the way composite decking is constructed – synthetic lanes at Thunderbird mean bowlers who’ve spent any significant amount of time playing there should notice an immediate difference compared to the old lanes. Extremely solid at nearly a half-inch thick, the Brunswick Pro synthetic surface reduces friction so a ball travels farther down the lane without extensive friction to cause interference with its path toward the pins.

With synthetic material, less oil or lane conditioner is used, and it holds up better compared to wood, which absorbed the lane oils used on it, constantly changing the lane conditions, often to the detriment of bowlers trying to be consistent with their games.

“Synthetic lanes hold the oil better, and the oil pattern stays consistent for a longer period of time,” Davis said. “That means they use less oil, and we won’t have to oil the lanes as much. Right there, the cost associated with the lanes will drop.”

A new, computerized oiling machine – which can use a blend of different oils for unique lane conditioning – may be the most difficult challenge for Davis, he said.

“I’m very excited about this,” he said. “And so far, all our customers are ecstatic. This is for them, and some are saying it’s about time, and I know that. But now that we’ve made this change, the expectation now is that scores will start to go up a bit. The lane reaction and pin action will be much better. Everybody’s balls will last longer since they’re not getting torn up by wood. The alley’s not for me. It’s for our bowlers, and I’ve seen a lot more smiles the past few weeks.”

Longtime Thunderbird bowler Erika Oh is just one among many who are happy about the switch to synthetic.

“I love my wood lanes, but not so much during the past half a year,” said the 76-year-old Barnegat resident, who competes in three leagues throughout much of the year, including two on Tuesdays. “The lanes were getting bad. My average went down about nine pins before they were changed.

“The lanes hold the ball better, and everything is smooth and the ball goes where it’s supposed to go. Before, you’d throw the ball, turn around and then look back to see the ball moved because it hit an indentation in the wood. Now I expect my scores to go back up.”

Of course, the change to synthetic was made just in time. Fall leagues soon will be starting at Thunderbird – those for seniors and youth, men and women, beginners and experienced bowlers. For more information, visit or find Thunderbird Lanes on Facebook.

— David Biggy

(Photo by: Supplied photo)
Thunderbird Lanes co-owner Matt Davis says goodbye to the old wood lanes at the Manahawkin bowling center on East Bay Avenue. (Photo by: Supplied photo)
Jack Jamieson throws some practice shots on the new synthetic lanes at Thunderbird Lanes in Manahawkin. (Photo by: David Biggy)
Thunderbird Lanes co-owner Matt Davis and longtime Thunderbird bowler Erika Oh gather in front of the new synthetic lanes at the Manahawkin bowling center on East Bay Avenue. (Photo by: David Biggy)
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