OLSEN LOOKS BACK ON PENALTY AND APPEAL By Mike Twist
Busch North Standout Takes Irwindale Incident Hard
Winter in rural New England is never an easy time. The days are short, the weather is bone-aching cold and there’s all of that snow to deal with. Race teams, drivers and fans also know that it will be months until they get back to the racetrack.
This December though has been especially tough for Busch North driver Mike Olsen. It wasn’t supposed to be that way either. Olsen took the checkered flag in the prestigious NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale Speedway (CA) last month in front of a live television audience, thousands of fans and a suite packed with guests of his sponsor, Little Trees. For the next little bit, life was good.
Then came technical inspection. That is where it was discovered that the wheels on Olsen’s car did not meet NASCAR rules. They were too light. They were too wide. They definitely weren’t what should have been on the car. Olsen doesn't deny that.
In the days after the race, Olsen would be penalized and moved into the final finishing position. He would have to make some tough choices with his race team, releasing longtime crew chief and childhood friend Harry Norcross as a reaction to what happened. He would have to face his sponsors, fans, neighbors and fellow competitors. The events have turned what was Olsen’s biggest career victory into his biggest racing headache.
“It’s been suicidal for me," said Olsen. "I’m embarrassed. We came home and there were banners all over town and businesses had it up on their boards. Then I had to go around town and tell everyone that they should probably take it down. That wasn’t the easiest thing to do.”
The #61 at Irwindale. (51 Photos)
Olsen’s #61 team took it hard too.
“As far as the team, they were pretty torn up about it.”
Torn up and torn apart. On the same day that NASCAR announced the penalty, Olsen announced that Norcross was relieved of his duties with the team.
“I know how it happened,” said Olsen of the infraction. “I guess on one hand, it wasn’t a very smart move on Harry’s part, but there’s nothing that we can do about that now.”
Letting a friend go, even when he was the one responsible for the wheels, wasn’t easy.
“I’ve had to do things that I wouldn’t want to have to do,” said Olsen. “I had to make decisions that I never thought that I would have to make. Harry and I are friends. We grew up together and he has been helping me do this the whole time that I’ve had Little Trees as a sponsor [since 1995]. But, I need to be let in on what is going on. He has led me right more than he has led me wrong.”
Things could be patched up enough for Norcross to come back to the #61 team in the future.
“We’re still going to continue to work together, I hope, in the future,” said Olsen. “We’ll see how things develop. The bottom line is that he is a friend. I care for him and racing is a small thing when it comes down to it. I value his friendship and his family’s friendship more than anything else. That will probably determined how things will turn out. But for the short term, we had to do something. I’ll leave it that way and once I decide where I’m headed, we’ll make another decision from there.”
Olsen does not dispute that the wheels were illegal. When he was told of that problem before leaving the pit area at Irwindale, he was surprised to find that the wheels in question were on his car. He expected a large fine for the infraction, but did not a disqualification. Olsen maintains that he did not have any knowledge that they were on the car. He was even surprised though that his win was taken away. There wasn’t much precedence for that. Brad Leighton was caught with an illegal carburetor at New Hampshire in 2002, but his victory stood. In NASCAR’s three top series, everything from lowered cars to oversized engines have resulted in big fines, but no reversals of victories.
Olsen made those points in his appeals hearing with NASCAR in early December where four-time defending Busch North champion Andy Santerre served as a character witness. The penalty was upheld in the hearing, but Olsen was thankful for the support from his fellow competitor.
“I appreciate Andy doing that,” said Olsen. “He has always been a good friend of mine. I’ve probably raced more races with Dave Dion, but I know Andy better off the track than I do Dave. Andy and I both came into the series about the same time, we are about the same age and we’ve done a lot of things together. I appreciate him doing that and I’d do the same thing for him.”
Olsen's #61 from earlier this season at New Hampshire.
Olsen (C) has received the support of many of his fellow competitors since Irwindale.
Santerre isn’t the only one who has stepped up to support Olsen. Several competitors have called him over the past month.
“That makes me feel good,” said Olsen. “Obviously, I’m pretty embarrassed about the whole thing so for my colleagues to show their support helps.”
Olsen is also thankful for the support that he has gotten from his sponsor for the past decade, Little Trees.
“In my opinion, they have taken it well,” said Olsen. “”But obviously, they are highly disappointed and not very pleased. They had a lot of customers there and spent a lot of time on Monday to promote the win. I didn’t find out [about the penalty] until Monday night, so I had to call them Tuesday morning and that wasn’t easy. They weren’t very happy as anyone would be. I’ve tried to do as much damage control since then.”
That damage control, and the situation as a whole, has taken a lot of joy out of racing for Olsen lately.
“You know what, I don’t really care right now as far as racing goes,” said Olsen. “I’ve kind of lost my desire and I need to get my fire back. I haven’t even been back in the shop for awhile and I don’t have any interest in it. I’m hoping that comes back. When something like this happens, it makes you look at things different. You find out that you aren’t much other than just a number out there on the racetrack. There are bigger things in life.”
Olsen doesn’t plan on hanging up his helmet though.
“I’ll more than likely be back,” said the 2001 Busch North champion.. ”I’ve got six racecars and a lot of money invested. They aren’t worth anything. As long as Little Trees is on board, I’ll be back. I’d do anything for them. As long as they want to race in the Busch North Series, so do I.”
And being back behind the wheel with the Irwindale race a distant memory might be exactly what Olsen needs.
“It’s been a tough time,” said Olsen. “I’d like to put it all behind me as soon as I can and hopefully continue racing.”