By Jeff Olson
Last month at Sebring, Oliver Gavin stepped aside from his full-time role with Corvette Racing, leaving as one of the legends of sports-car racing. This is the second installment of a two-part look at Gavin’s career. The first part can be found HERE.
When he arrived at Sebring International Raceway last month, Oliver Gavin sat in a line of cars outside Turn 17, waiting to pass through security. His wife, Helen, noticed the banner first.
Stretched across the side of the bridge over Turn 17, in large black letters, was a tribute:
OLIVER. THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES.
"Is that for you?" Helen asked.
Stunned, Gavin replied. "I don’t know," he said. "I suppose it could be."
Teammate Antonio Garcia sat in the back seat, trying his best to hold back laughter.
"He says, ‘Of course it’s for you. Who else would it be for?!’" Gavin said. "Both Helen and I were sitting there speechless. … We couldn’t believe it. (We were) just so touched that the track had done something like that."
Fitting, though. Sebring, the host of Gavin’s first test for Corvette Racing in 2001 and a circuit at which he has logged more racing and testing miles than any other racetrack — "by far," he says – was honoring him in his final race as a full-time participant.
It was the first of a weekend of honors. Competitors greeted Gavin in the paddock and on pit lane. Past and present teammates pulled him aside to express gratitude. Nineteen years with one team and 30 years as a professional racer have a way of adding up in friendship and respect and tributes on bridges.
"You feel very humbled," Gavin said. "You want to thank them for their time and all those moments that you’ve had on track together. As a driver, you’re out there competing hard against all of these people. You want to do well, you want to win and you want to have success, but also you want there to be that respect from all of the guys you’re competing against."
To the point, Gavin explains, it’s about trust.
"We’re all racing around the track absolutely to the limit," he said. "There’s all kinds of decisions that are being taken out there. You’re putting yourself at risk. You have to trust these guys. You’re wheel to wheel, and there are points where literally one wrong move and you could end up having a huge accident. You’re putting someone’s life at risk. You have to have this respect."
The banner on the bridge spoke of respect. Sebring was a jumble of reminiscence, joy and sadness, most notably for people who worked directly with Gavin for years.
"It’s hard, but it’s also racing," said Brian Hoye, Gavin’s longtime car chief. "We all know that. You put your heart into it, but it’s not a perfect world. People move on. People get older. Things change in racing. It’s a moving target. You try not to get too attached because you know that nothing lasts forever. It was difficult, and it’s still difficult."
Hoye and Gavin shared a racetrack brotherhood. They joked and taunted each other, but they also turned serious when the circumstances demanded it.
"He had my back, both on the track and off it," Gavin said. "We’ve got this great relationship where we can make fun of one another and pick on one another but then also have these very serious, deep conversations about what’s happening – not just at the racetrack, but away from the racetrack. I’ll miss Brian a lot."
Ask Gavin about his most memorable accomplishments as a racer and you’ll get a list of dates, tracks and details of remarkable clarity. Brands Hatch in British Formula 3 in 1995. Lime Rock in 2016. All five victories at Sebring. Five more at Petit Le Mans.
But it is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, in which Corvette Racing has eight victories and Gavin five, that carries the weight of his pride and the fondest of his recollections. Specifically, the 2015 race.
That’s when the team was left with just one car. A mechanical failure in qualifying caused a heavy crash by Jan Magnussen in the team’s No. 63 car. The entry had to be withdrawn, leaving just the No. 64 C7.R co-driven by Gavin, Tommy Milner and Jordan Taylor. It was starting ninth in the LMGTE Pro class, a bleak prospect from even the most optimistic perspective.
What could have been a strenuous, ceaseless 24 hours instead became a fleeting, magical moment, passing quickly and ending triumphantly.
"It was one of those moments where time was standing still a little bit," Gavin said. "Everything that happened in the week leading up to it, with the accident with the sister car and them not being in the race and us being the only car, the focus all sort of shifted onto our car and somewhat the expectation and pressure shifting onto Tommy, Jordan and I."
Hour by hour, lap by lap, an entire team – drivers, engineers, strategists and mechanics – fused together, moving steadily through the field and gaining confidence with each pass. When the checkered flag flew, Gavin was behind the wheel, five laps ahead of the nearest competitor.
"Even though that extra pressure was there, we seemed to function and work in this clockwork-like way," Gavin recalled. "We were just slowly working our way up the order and getting ourselves to the front. The team just did this amazing job sharing the engineers. Some of the crew were sharing duties together. There was slightly less fatigue, I would say. There was time to rest and see things clearly and in a sharp way. To be in the car and cross the line was one of the highlights of my career."
One of the highlights of Milner’s career also involved Gavin. In 2012 at Long Beach, Gavin helped Milner score his first victory with Corvette Racing. After Gavin crossed the finish line, Milner ran to victory lane to greet him.
"He got in the car in second or third when I handed it over to him," Milner said. "He had to work his way to the front. The celebration is a moment that I remember very well. I was there when he got out of the car, and I remember in vivid detail standing in pit lane and watching the timing screen and the TV and watching it all unfold. It’s one of the moments in my career that stands out as a moment that Olly was a huge part of."
As things were quieting down at Sebring last month, Gavin spotted a familiar if somewhat unlikely fellow traveler. On his way to the British F3 championship in 1995 as a 23-year-old, Gavin battled repeatedly with Helio Castroneves, then 20. The champion went on to a legendary career in sports cars, the runner-up found fame in open-wheel racing.
Here they were, 25 years later, in a similar space and circumstance, both easing out of the full-time aspect of their careers. They greeted each other with immense regard and a touch of disbelief.
"I said, ‘Can you imagine us two being here now back in 1995?’" Gavin said. "How much has happened and what we’ve both done and him being with Penske for 20 years and me being with Corvette Racing for 19 years. The way our paths have crossed over those periods – it’s almost surreal."
Gavin paused, the memories of a career and its twists and turns still reaching him.
"It’s such a strange sort of way how all of that, from 1995 to today, has all come full circle," he said.
And what a journey it has been.