An Interview with Didier Theys
51. It’s an age that is too old for professional Baseball, Basketball, Football and even Soccer. But that’s because those sports only require one ball. Didier Theys is still racing professionally. He is a young, older gentleman with experience and a great heart. I talked to the legend himself extensively the other week, and it’s quite obvious, and nothing short of amazing, that after 31 seasons, he still has the same passion and motivation that he had when he wanted to start driving race cars when he was 12 years old.
If you were to take a look at Didier Theys’ career, you would realize that this man has six driver championships won between five different racing series’. He has the speech of a northern American, fast and whole heartedly. Except that he’s from Belgium. At one point he could hear me typing over the phone and asked if I needed him to slow down. I didn’t even have to ask that many questions, and all I could really say was “Thank you for being so honest and upfront”, to which he replied one time, “There are no secrets in this sport.” I loved every second of it.
He was born and raised in Nivelles, Belgium and started racing go-karts when he was 16 years old. Whereby today’s standards, you need to start karting when you are 8 and have a full team and move up from there. By the time he was 20 he had moved up into the racing car world. Even more so, he was a one man show, like many dedicated drivers of his day. He did it all himself. He was his own mechanic, engineer, pit crew, driver, water boy, and what else you can think of. What takes tons of support crew these days; he was able to do without. Theys told me that he had to take out a bank loan when he was 20 to be able to finance his first season in Formula Ford. Quite amazing by today’s standards.
Today drivers are picked and thrown away as many times as possible. Didier has proven to be an incredible force in racing, and for so many years. He has raced in cars from BMW, Ferrari, Maserati, Porsche, Formula Ford, Audi and plenty of others.
Remember the old Ferrari 333 SP Le Mans racer? Yeah? Well, Didier holds the record for the most starts at 75 for six years. He also won 12 times, took 13 second place finishes and 7 third place finishes. That means that he was on one of the podium steps 30 times with the Ferrari 333 SP… He drove the Ferrari in both ALMS and European LMS for three different teams, Doran Racing, Scandia and Horag Racing.
I was able to talk to him about the good ole’ Scuderia. He said that it was an incredible experience to drive that car every time, and that even though the factory was not “officially” involved, they were still incredibly supportive and sent him to their Fiorano test track many times to test his race car. At 12 wins in the Ferrari 333 SP, he has the most race wins of any 333 driver.
Didier also enjoyed piloting the BMW E30 M3, the winningest touring car ever, in 1987, the first year of the M3 program. He said that “BMW’s approach was a pioneer in factory sports car racing.” They used three private teams that they supported, and “That was the best, for a factory to use private teams” he said. Of course I had to ask how good the old M3 was. I’m a BMW fanboy, what can I say?
I remember watching Mr. Theys rock the 12 hours of Sebring this year. I had no idea that I would be talking to him a few months after. He was driving the Horag Racing Porsche RS Spyder, the same one he is piloting over in Europe in the LMS. I made a statement about how I believe that the RS Spyder is the most beautiful race car in the sports car world, and he literally jumped on that comment and agreed 100%, even for driving it is the best he said. There is no doubt that his love of Porsche is as great as his career stats. He, along with myself, loves the red and white design of his number 27 Porsche. He told me that David Hotz, who is the son of Markus Hotz, the race team owner and manager, did the design, and did it amazingly we both agreed.
Theys went on to tell me his true respect for Markus Hotz, he said that the relationship between the drivers and the owner is so great since Mark is an ex-driver himself. So he understands and can relate to his drivers a lot better than most team managers. Horag Racing is a Swiss team.
Currently you can see the Swiss team battling in the European LMS. They are in 3rd place right now, in their LMP2 class, and quickly moving up to 2nd, with only 5 points to go and 11 points to go into first. The RS Spyder had a tire puncture and body damage this past race in Barcelona, Spain, but he and his team still managed a 5th place finish. Didier went on to say that it was much more difficult to win overall on the European tracks because they are so much longer and higher speed. He said that in America, especially at Mid-Ohio, Houston and tracks with smaller corners, it is much easier to win overall against the fastest class LMP1 because of the shorter length of the circuits.
Didier Theys these days resides in Arizona. Just in case you didn’t know, that’s in the United States, not his native Belgium. I asked why? He simply told me that he loves it over here.
I asked Didier whether he liked American or European racing better. He simply replied with that he liked both a lot, and that the Euro LMS is the exact same as the American LMS, except over in Europe they have to tack on about 50 lbs more to the cars and use 10L less of fuel. Although, he went on to say “I miss American racing. I love the atmosphere and love doing Sebring.” He did say that the European cars are similar to the American scene for the quality of the teams. But, it is much friendlier over here he said. He told me that even though the international racing language is English, there are so many barriers over in Europe because of the cultural differences and the different languages from country to country, but that over here everyone speaks the same language.
Horag Racing’s next race is the Grand Prix circuit of the Nürburgring. I asked Didier, being from Belgium, how he liked the race. And he said “The Grand Prix circuit is not the most challenging, but still nice.” He continued to say “The crowd is good with enthusiasts, and brings a lot of Belgians, since it’s only about a two hour drive.” I had to ask, seeing as I am a ‘Ring enthusiast.
We started to get on the topic of technology in race cars. I asked what he preferred better, manual transmissions or paddle shifters, I barely got the question out before he answered “Paddle shifters!” “They have been using them in Formula 1 for 15 years and sports cars for 12.” “The Audi R8 was one of the first to use them. And I drove it in 1999, but had no issues for the new technology” Didier said. He went on to say “Paddle shift is the best improvement in the past 12 years… No driver can over-rev and engine when downshifting.” He continued with “You can’t miss a shift. You can’t really blow an engine up. You control the wear of the gearbox much better when being able to upshift and downshift.” We also talked about the Carbon brakes that are equipped on the race cars these days, and he was quick to tell me the that the Carbon brakes that his Porsche RS Spyder started the season with, will be ending the season with the same set! That is amazing.
One of the funnier things, and something that shocked me a little, while at the same time not really surprising to me, was the fact that the race cars in the 80’s were so hard to drive, he said. He told me that Le Mans in 1985 with his Porsche; it had no power steering, low downforce, and made you so physically exhausted after three laps or so. He made a joke that even Arnold Schwarzenegger would not be able to do it for much longer than a racer could.
As the conversation pushed on, it was obvious that this man has the type of love for racing that an enthusiast does. He is a driving instructor and enjoys it as much as he does racing. So not only is Didier Theys an accomplished race car driver, he is training people how to drive better and helping to bring up more talent. What a man.
I asked Didier how he feels about being paid to be a professional driver, and he told me how lucky he is to have been paid to be a driver for 25 years. He knows that it isn’t easy to make a living off of racing, and he appreciates every day that he drives and every accomplishment he has in his trophy case.
I asked Mr. Theys quite possibly the hardest question that he has ever been asked, what is his favorite race track? Easy he says, “The one I win at.” He said that it didn’t matter whether the car was pink or purple, but that if he won races in it, he loved it.
We finished up talking a little bit about his current love for teaching and being a driving instructor at World Class Driving. He said that it is so passionate there. That each person that comes there already loves driving, he does the briefing and there is already a great connection between each person. He especially loves the Bentley Continental GT Speed more than most. He said that for its weight and size that it was so poised and amazingly comfortable. I told him that I was going up to VIR (Virginia International Raceway) at the end of this month with some friends, and he immediately gave me excellent tips on how to be faster in the corners and more accurate on the track.
Didier Theys is an honorable man. He is an incredibly modest, telling me probably the best reason why he’s been so successful and so determined to be better was his better than most drivers’ understanding of engineering. He has an engineering degree and a mechanical background; this makes him better able to tell his crew what the car is doing right and wrong. The biggest reason though why he has been so great is as simply put as his best quote “determination is the key to competition.” He has the determination that you don’t see in many people these days. He tells me that he doesn’t currently have a contract after next season and will probably retire. The racing world will lose one of its best. But Didier will go on to inspire generations more with his love and true skill in the sport that has provided him such great love and admiration.
I loved it when I asked Didier if he really drove a BMW off the track, he said “It’s just an X5. Nothing too special. I just need something that gets me from point a, to point b safely with my family aboard.” Spoken like the true lively character he is.
Thank you to Didier Theys for taking the time out of his morning to speak to me. If you have any inquiries for Didier, you can check out Restart Communications, his representation company, or you can check out Horag-Racing for more info about his great team and him.
Remember, Auto Sport Blog is the only place to find all the information and interviews done one on one with myself and other racing drivers. Stay tuned to ASB for more great interviews like this one.
Photos provided by Restart Communications