By Jeff Olson
Oliver Gavin stepped aside from his full-time role with Corvette Racing following last month’s IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season finale, leaving as one of the legends of sports car racing. IMSA.com’s Jeff Olson looks at Gavin’s long career and the effect he had on motorsports in the first of a two-part feature.
Soon after an 11-year-old boy in England drove a go-kart for the first time in the early 1980s, school became a series of lessons in daydreaming. His notebooks quickly filled with diagrams of imaginary racetracks and designs of karts. The obsession with racing may have interrupted his overall education, but it led to another, more specific, form of training.
Oliver Gavin reminisces about his childhood and smiles. It started when a neighbor in North Bedfordshire bought a kart and asked the Gavin family – father Mike and sons Marcus and Oliver – to join them for a day of racing at a nearby track.
From that point, racing became Oliver’s preoccupation. School could wait.
"After that very first time in the kart, I started drawing racetracks on my exercise books in school – drawing lines of how to get around a corner, or the layouts and certain things, or the look of the karts," Gavin recalled. "That’s all I could think about. I was terrible at school after that. It was a big distraction."
Unbeknownst to him at the time, young Oliver had discovered his calling. The daydreaming and doodling in schoolbooks, borne of weekend adventures with a kart strapped to the roof rack of the family car, eventually developed into a professional career filled with trophies and fame and the respect of fellow competitors.
"I absolutely loved it," Gavin said, recalling those early karting days. "Through the love and support of my parents, they gave me an absolute once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chase the dream I had as an 11-year-old boy."
The full-time portion of that decades-long career ended last month at Sebring International Raceway, where Gavin’s weeklong farewell at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts included dinners, awards, speeches – even a banner of thanks placed on the Turn 17 bridge. The outpouring brought to life Gavin’s 19 years with Corvette Racing in the U.S., a run that included 51 victories and five championships.
When he was asked to say a few words at a team dinner the night before the race – after everyone else had praised him, of course – Gavin struggled to maintain his emotions.
"I managed to just about hold it together, but by the end of it, I was a bit of a mess emotionally," he said. "I was a bit overwhelmed by it all. I was sort of rocked back on my heels a bit by everything. It was just really touching, very nice."
It’s an unusual animal, sports car racing. Cars are shared by multiple drivers, and drivers can be selfish, egotistical, competitive folk. In sports cars, though, drivers must check their egos as much as possible and instead focus on assisting people who might otherwise be competitors.
If Gavin’s many skills could be melded into one, it was his ability to team with others to accomplish a goal. Tommy Milner, who shared the No. 4 Corvette Racing entry the past nine years in IMSA, saw it at close range.
"At every step of the way, he was always competitive and always wanted to be fast," Milner said. "But it was never at the detriment of me or the team. … He just has a knack to always see it in the short term but the long term as well. At no point did it ever feel like I was competing against Olly. I always felt like we were working as a team together to make the car faster to win races."
Brian Hoye, their crew chief, saw it, too. He also saw Gavin’s ability to see the entire picture while keenly aware of the minutiae, to remain calm in the face of mayhem.
"Everything is as serious as a heart attack constantly," Hoye said. "You don’t know what day it is. All you know is how long until the next session. You completely unplug yourself from stuff you’ve got going on at home. All you zero in on is that task at hand. It has to be that way to run at the level we run at. That’s what Olly does."
The start of Gavin’s two-decade run with Corvette Racing came by way of Ron Fellows. During a race weekend at Watkins Glen in 2001, Fellows found Gavin, then the top driver at Saleen, and mentioned that the team might have an opening the next season. Fellows wrote a phone number on a piece of paper, and Gavin put it in the pocket of his firesuit.
When he got home, Gavin called the number, which belonged to Doug Fehan, Corvette Racing’s program manager.
"Doug said, ‘I’d like to offer you a contract right now, but I can’t do that until Gary Pratt has actually seen you drive this car,’" Gavin said. "They organized a test in November 2001 at Sebring. That was the very first time I drove a Corvette."
Pratt, vice president of Pratt Miller, which designs and builds the Corvettes for Corvette Racing, was impressed. "It went well," Gavin said. "They offered me a contract there and then. That’s how my Corvette Racing journey started."
The journey left Gavin as the most decorated participant in Corvette Racing history, including five victories in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, five in the Twelve Hours of Sebring and five in the Motul Petit Le Mans at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
Several weeks in the rearview now, the end of the full-time portion of his career still hasn’t caught up with Gavin.
"I think over time – the next weeks and months – it will sort of sink in a little bit, what has happened and what I’ve achieved, what we’ve achieved as a team at Corvette Racing over the 19 years that I’ve been there. … It’s still a little bit too fresh," he said. "The (Sebring) weekend is still a little bit too fresh. I’ve tried to take a little bit of time to decompress from the weekend and rationalize everything that happened."
It isn’t completely over, either. Along with the possibility to join the team for select endurance races, he intends to remain associated with the Corvette brand, which will offer the 2020 Corvette C8 for sale in Europe in mid-2021, with plans for a right-hand drive version available in the United Kingdom.
"I feel there’s a future for me with the brand," Gavin said. "I’ve got 19 years with them, and I feel like there’s so much more. The passion I have for the car, I want to share that with the owners and I want to share that with the enthusiasts of the brand and push that out across the UK and Europe and maybe further.
"It’s one of those things that’s sort of ‘stay tuned.’ There are many things that could happen here. I’m excited about the future and excited about my time and what’s coming down the pike."
In Part 2: Gavin looks back at his most significant accomplishments, the people who helped him accomplish them, his connection to Sebring, and the unusual parallels between his career and that of Helio Castroneves.