Part 2: Oli Thordarson Interview

This is the second of a two part interview with racer Oli Thordarson.  As a reminder, Oli is the man with 40,000 track miles in a Corvette and extensive experience in club racing and pro race series.  If you haven’t already done so, please read part 1 of Oli’s interview here.  Not only is it a great read, but it gives a much better intro into Oli Thordarson.  There is some serious gold in the following Q&A about why people like Oli race and what it is like.

What is it about racing that keeps you coming back year after year?

A lot of people not familiar with racing ask me how fast I go. Going 170 MPH on a long straight-away is not what keeps me coming back. That is not even the exciting part, although the first few times I did it was interesting. It is not the glamour, wine, women and money because I never had the first three and racing deprives me of the fourth.

What got me racing was my compulsion for competition. I love to compete. When I got married I told my wife when I do stuff I do it to the extreme and don’t expect that to change. Racing cars for me is no different. So what brought me to racing was the ability to fulfill my need for competition to see how far I can develop, it was for that euphoric feeling when threshold braking into a turn, getting the car to rotate and then driving the car out of the corner on line at the perfect slip angle while steering with the right foot. That perfection does not happen very often, it is elusive, and it is the addiction to track, that special natural drug that feeds the brain. When it is done perfect it is hard to explain the joy.

When off the track it is the sense of community with my fellow racers. We can talk smack, jab and poke at each other, tell friendly lies over dinner after a day of racing, we can climb under each other’s cars and loan parts to each other to make sure everyone makes the race. It is a unique brotherhood of trust, admiration and respect that competitors get when nearly rubbing tires in a turn at 100 MPH. All the guys I know work hard and play hard to get their cars to the track and race. Club racers are a special breed.

Oli Thordarson ThorVette Corvette racing autoxandtrack featured driver
“Once I am half-way around the warm-up lap scrubbing the tires a change hits me. I am no longer nervous at all. I am super-focused. Focused in a way I am never ever focused in other realms of my life.”

Oli Thordarson’s description of what it’s like to strap into the drivers seat and start a race.

When I get in the car and go to pre-grid I always have a low level of nervousness, excitement if you will. When they blow the three minute whistle I start the car, close my eyes and do an imaginary lap around the track at speed. I then look at the grid spots for each driver and I imagine different likely ways we all will head into Turn One and Turn Two and how will I respond to each move by other drivers. By then the one minute whistle has sounded and we are sent out to track. Once I am half-way around the warm-up lap scrubbing the tires a change hits me. I am no longer nervous at all. I am super-focused. Focused in a way I am never ever focused in other realms of my life. All I am thinking about is driving. I feel and hear every sound and vibration in the car. I hear every other car and I feel I can sense other cars next to mine even if I don’t look there and see them. My sense of smell gets keener. I can smell who sprayed brake or carb cleaner on their car that is now burning off. I can smell who put on new brake pads or is burning a bit of oil. I can tell if it is engine oil or from the tranny. I feel like my sense of vision gets sharper as I look to the start tower and I watch for a twitch of the shoulder of the starter.

At that point and to the end of the race I don’t think about a customer who owes me money and how I will deal with cash flow, I don’t think about the kids and what they are doing in school, if I have any aches or pains or other distractions they are all gone. All I think about is driving, racing and how am I going to gain positions and protect the one I have. I watch other drivers to see where they are strong and where they are weak relative to my position and I strategize. That is why I keep coming back to wheel to wheel racing.

Check out a Video of an NASA 2016 ST2 Championship race.  Be sure to read the description for some of the action highlights if you don’t want to watch the whole thing.

Any advice or tips to aspiring race car drivers who might be interested in taking the plunge from track days to wheel to wheel racing?

Wheel to wheel is not for everyone. I have recruited countless new drivers into racing, most of them from the ranks of track days or time attack. Half the people who start wheel to wheel do a few races and drop out by the end of the first year. It just is not for everyone and not for everyone does it turn out to be what they expected.

If you are a track day junkie and you feel you need more, that next level, then wheel to wheel is for you. Remember though that nothing is cheap about racing. Even the inexpensive classes are expensive. The expensive classes are bankrupting to pursue. Even if you get sponsors, which is tough, expect to shell out a lot of money. There is a reason car racing is not the sport of supermarket baggers.

If you decide to go racing, get a mentor. I still remember my first club race. I was told by another Corvette race veteran to look up John Norris and park my rig next to his. I love John Norris. He taught and mentored me in more ways than he can comprehend. He fielded more questions from me in the form of my casual conversation as I was somewhat embarrassed asking him all those questions.

Oli Thordarson Corvette racing tech impound autoxandtrack featured driver
“Find a Mentor at the race track.” “Most racers are super cool and if you find one who is a jerk just move on because the cool guys outnumber them 10 to one”

I got waivered into my race license based upon my ample track day experience and lap times. So I never went to the SCCA Super School. That Saturday I qualified on pole for our race group. That is when it hit me. I did not know how I was going to lead 30 plus cars around the track on warm-up and into the start formation. How fast should I go? When should I slow to start the formation? How do I make sure all the cars behind me are properly organized? What else do I need to know and do that I don’t even know to ask. John Norris was a patient, forgiving and encouraging mentor. He took pity on me and coached me on what to do. I still can’t thank him enough.

Find a mentor at the race track. Ask who would be a good mentor. Go introduce yourself. Most racers are super cool and if you find one who is a jerk just move on because the cool guys outnumber them 10 to one and they are usually faster and smarter, too.

Do you compete in other events such as autocross, time trials, drag racing, etc.?

I have only autocrossed once. It is a fantastic driving endeavor. When I did it I was horrible. Like always, I thought I would be good. I thought my years of trials motorcycle riding would help me read the cones. I found once on the autocross my T1 Corvette was way beyond my skills as an autocrosser and things like the brake balance that worked on a road course were horrible in autocross.

I killed a lot of cones overdriving my car with ambition that exceeded my skill and experience. A driving sport that I had approached with excessive confidence and complacency quickly humbled me. My driving coach, Beverlee Larsen, a SCCA autocross champion multiple times over wowed me when I let her drive my car. RESPECT! I learned that day that in a single 60 second autocross run done right is a whole 30 minute road race of action.

Oli Thordarson Corvette Racing on the podium autoxandtrack featured driver
“I love driving schools.”

Have you attended any driving schools?  If so, how significant were they in helping you develop as a driver?

I love driving schools.  I probably have more to report that I don’t remember [but here are a few:]

  • Beginner driving course at Spring Mountain.
  • Coached by Lou Gigliotti.
  • Ford Racing School at Miller Motorsports Park.
  • Hired Rene’ Villeneuve who for years ran the Skip Barber Racing School for years at Laguna Seca to coach me two separate weekends in 2014.
  • October 2016 I hired Ross Bentley to coach me. I will do so again.
  • Recently wrote to Randy Pobst to seek his services as a driving coach.
  • I watch other drivers intently and ask competitors all the questions they will answer.

Please give us your top driving tips for the road course.

Wow! That is a loaded question. There is so much…  It really depends on the level and experience of the driver. My top tips are going to be fairly high-level:

  • Decide what you want to do and what you want to achieve
  • Find a coach or mentor that can help get you there
  • Focus without relent on achieving your goals
  • Only do it if you are having fun
  • Watch your budget
  • Get as much seat time as you can
  • get a mentor/coach, yes, I know I said this twice… for a reason.
  • Repeat.

Oli Thordarson Corvette Racing in car autoxandtrack featured driver

Have you only competed in Corvettes?  If not what other makes and models have you driven in competition?  

All the cars I have owned and raced have been Corvettes. I have driven other cars, mostly for other teams as part of an endurance series. Those cars have mostly been Miatas and BMWs. I just remembered winning a Chumpcar race at Sonoma this past February in a Miata in the rain. It was a blast.

Is there anyone you would like to acknowledge for their help along the way?

There are so many I need to mention and acknowledge, in no special order below, who have supported me. I just hope I don’t leave anyone out as they have all been so instrumental:

CalClub and all the workers in southern California General Motors
John Nguyen of Trackspec Motorsports Hoosier
Aaron Bitterman at Speed Ventures Trans Am
aFe Power The team at SCCA headquarters in Topeka, KS
AP/Essex Racing Brakes NASA
Wilwood Brakes Chris Beliovsky of Attracktion
Hawk Performance Brakes RPM Motorsports
Porterfield Brakes Seven’s Only
Porsche Owners Club

 

Crew guys:
John, “J-Rocket” Simon Scott Van Winkle
Dustin Vanvugt Logan Hinesly
Chuck Knox Ron Gomez
Matt Geier

 

John Schertzer Joe Aquilante/Phoenix Performance
Bob and Kyle Kelley Exposite/Steve “Goog” Kramer
Gary Hoffman Ross Bentley
Ceci and Mark Smith Rene‘ Villeneuve
Sean Reis/OC Corvette Lou Gigliotti

So many racers I can’t even list them all, some don’t even know…

John Norris Chuck Matthews
John Heinricy Ryan Cashin (My first driving coach my first day at BRP)
William Brinkop Steve Schmidt
Jim Tway
  • My wife and family, with particular mention of my two sons who have crewed for me at crucial times
  • Alvaka Networks, IT services, managed services and network security provider extraordinaire – my main sponsor

[Editors note: Whew!  What a read!  Thank you Oli Thordarson for giving everyone such an in depth and inspiring look into your racing life.]

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