He have had some success as a business person and is now looking for the big success in racing. During the last years, he build his own team in Indy Lights, till the IndyCar organistaion accused him of several things. RacingInside.com spoke to Mark Olson, team owner of O2 Racing Technology, in an exclusive interview about his career as a race driver and his career as a team boss.
Hello Mark, most of our visitors will not know who Mark Olson is. Could you give a brief introduction about yourself?
Well, if I am something of an unknown person, it is probably because I did not get started in racing until later in life. I grew up in a suburb of Seattle, Washington. I have a Mechanical Engineering Degree and 20 years of experience in the U.S. Oil and Gas industry. I have also had some success as a business person in several business ventures over the past decade. I’ve been married almost 13 years, and I have 3 young daughters. I began road racing motorcycles in Texas in the early 1990’s, and began racing cars in 2004.
Some race drivers are getting involved in racing through friends or family. How did you get involved in racing and in what way?
Since I was a young child, I’ve always known that I would race. I remember growing up in Seattle, watching the Indy 500 on the “ABC Wide World of Sports”, and so it’s always been a dream. Of course, I couldn’t afford to race and no one I knew raced, so I didn’t race anything until I graduated from college, got a job, and could pay for racing myself.
In 1992, I bought a Honda 600 and I raced in the same motorcycle racing club in Texas as Kevin Schwantz, John Kocinski, Colin Edwards, Nicky Hayden, and Ben Spies. In 2004, I switched to car racing competing in the old tube-frame Star Mazda cars in the SCCA. In 2008, as a fill-in driver, I competed in Indy Lights for Michael Crawford Motorsports. Then in the off-season, I bought most of the equipment from Apex Racing and started my own Indy Lights team, O2 Racing Technology. Over the past couple of years we had great successes with Richard Philippe, Pablo Donoso, Daniel Herrington, David Martinez, Peter Dempsey, and Mikael Grenier.
Most people say that karting is an essential step in the career of a race driver. What is your point of view about that?
Coming from motorcycles, I’m very jealous of the other drivers that come from a karting background. It’s hard to compete with the amount of “seat time” and the race craft that those drivers come with. As a less experienced driver, I had to use the brake pedal, the throttle, and the steering wheel to control the attitude of the car, and it always seemed like the more experienced drivers could control the car with just the throttle. However, just karting is not good enough. Indy Lights is the top rung of the ladder before IndyCar, and to be successful, a driver really needs to have some sort of a transition from karts to Indy Lights to learn the car and the driving style required to make the Indy Lights car go fast.
You are the owner of O2 Racing Technology, a team that is competing in Indy Lights. Why did you choose to compete in Indy Lights?
I’ve always had a passion for the Indy 500. Indy Lights raced as a support class for the 2007 Formula 1 race at Indy. In watching the races, I simply said, “I can do that”. To me, IndyCar is the ultimate challenge. To win the championship, one has to have great equipment, a great team, and superior skills on every different type of track: road courses, street courses, long ovals, short ovals, and at Indy. Indy Lights appealed to me, because it was such a challenge. Besides the challenge of the championship, the greatest reward is to be able to help young drivers achieve their dreams and get promoted up to the professional ranks of IndyCar.
What are your goals for the future, personally and as a team?
Presently, I’m focused on some of my non-racing related business ventures, while keeping our racing options open. As you’ve likely read, last summer IndyCar accused me of trying to get other team owners to boycott the Milwaukee race. While the accusations were false, IndyCar has upheld a suspension of me personally as well as and the team’s racing license. So we’re considering several other racing options at this time.
Lately, you have filed a lawsuit against Indycar. Could you explain this lawsuit and what it is about?
As I mentioned above, last summer IndyCar suspended the racing license for myself personally and for the team. Additionally, they chose to broadly disseminate false accusations about me in claiming that I attempted to get other team owners to boycott the Milwaukee race and breach their contracts with IndyCar. I initially attempted to resolve this issue informally through a dialogue with the league, but in order to clear my name, was ultimately forced to file a lawsuit in an Indiana state court against IndyCar. As this is currently working its way through the courts, there’s not much more that I can say at this time, but the legal proceedings are all a matter of public record.
The life inside racing is tough physically and mentally. How do you prepare yourself for a racing weekend and what do you say to your drivers?
From my perspective, it takes an incredible amount of effort just to take care of the large number of details that must be attended to, in order for a team, successfully perform on race day. At this level, all the hard work is done away from the race track. It’s all about the preparation.
Whether I’m talking to the team or coaching drivers, car racing is just one big engineering exercise. Even though it’s “formula” racing, you have several thousands of variables to deal with. The team that can find the best combination of those variables will have the best car. So whether designing an oil refinery or racing cars, we focus on 1) eliminating as many variables as possible, 2) controlling as many remaining variables as possible, 3) minimizing the consequences of the remaining variables, and then 4) making good risk vs. reward decisions on and off the track. This applies every step along the way, whether it’s preparation back at the shop or decisions made in the cockpit at the Indy 500.
If you could change lives for a day with another race driver or team boss, who would it be and why?
Yikes! That’s a tough question. I’m not sure I would trade teams with anyone. We built the team that we all wanted to be part of for the rest of our lives, and I don’t think we’d want things any other way … even with the problems we ended up having with the League. If I had the opportunity to be another driver, I’d want to be Peter Dempsey. He’s got insane skills, but with the maturity to win championships and with the ‘nice guy’ personality and work ethic to win championships the right way.
From the outside, being involved in racing looks like a real dream. But there are also negative points, of course. If you could take people a look at the ‘inside’ of racing, what do you think is the most negative point of being involved in racing?
It’s not negative, it just is. The business side of things is the most challenging. It’s insanely expensive to compete in motorsports. It’s unfortunate that the drivers and owners have to pay out of their pockets to compete at this level, as that is the largest hurdle between most people who would like to race and those who actually do race. But the expenses have to be covered somehow. It’s very hard work to build a business around motorsport in such a way that the business covers the expenses, and it is not uncommon for it to take a while before a team even gets to the break-even point.
Further, in the new economy, simply advertising for someone isn’t enough; the business proposition has to add value to the “bottom line” for every partnership involved, and this takes a lot of creativity, ingenuity, and hard work.
Aside from the money side of things, the casual fan probably doesn’t appreciate that the show that they see on race day is normally very anti-climatic compared to the thousands of man-hours that go into getting one or two cars ready and on the starting grid.
Last season, my wife came to her first race and she was blown away. She asked me when we bought a semi-tractor-trailer, and she asked me why there were ten guys in team uniforms working on the cars all the time. She finally concluded, “My goodness! I had no idea. This is like a travelling circus”.
On the driver side of things, people don’t realize how hard they have to work to raise money and to stay in peak physical shape. At this level, drivers spend 2 or more hours per day in the gym, with racing-specific personal trainers directing their every move. When the outcome of a race can be measured in thousandths of a second, the drivers work hard to gain every advantage they can, and they train as hard as any other professional athlete.
What would you like to say to everyone that is dreaming of a career in racing?
Haha! I’d say, “Stay in school. Get a good college degree. Get a good job. And have a nice life.
Seriously, though, if you insist in a career as a race car driver, then I’d recommend that you begin now with preparation. Seat time is key … beg, borrow, and steal as much as you can get. But ensure that while you’re in the seat, you’re always learning something. Just circulating is a waste of time and resources.
Secondly, train physically and mentally like a professional athlete, and do it now. It’s one major variable that you can control to separate yourself from the pack. Finally, but probably most importantly, focus on the business side of things. No one is going to give you a free ride. Engage people in relationships, grow the relationships, and convert the relationships into your racing budget. Someday those relationships will be the relationships that you take with you to Formula 1 or to IndyCar, and you’ll even be able to pay yourself a salary.
In my experience, the key to making the best business relationships is to listen. Learn about your prospects’ businesses, how they define success, and then craft a business model that uses your racing program to add value to their bottom line. Most financially successful motorsports programs involve business-to-business sales, business-to-consumer sales, the promotion of a cause or a belief, or some combination of these three elements.