Tony Olson is Eastern Iowa Driver of the Year
Olson gets Gazette award for first time
Tony Olson doesn’t have room in his shop for all the trophies. That’ll happen when you win 75 races in three seasons.
The Cedar Rapids driver has raced IMCA Modifieds, asphalt Modifieds and IMCA Sport Mods for 16 years, but it was a decision after the 2013 season that set the tone for the success he’s had since. Olson won races in IMCA Modified, but costs — this was the pre-crate era — became the onus for change.
Olson went back to Sport Mod and won 18 races on a part-time schedule. More nights to race and more cars to race against meant more fun. His 2015 season saw 27 wins and a runner-up finish in IMCA Northern Sport Mod national points. That all led up to this season. The Cedar Rapids Jefferson grad hit paydirt on everything possible this season — 30 wins, three track championships and an IMCA national championship.
His battles with racers like Danny Dvorak, his cousin Kyle Olson, Ben Chapman and Jake Morris at Davenport Speedway, Independence Motor Speedway and Benton County Speedway (primarily), as well as the fierce, neck-and-neck race for a national title with Sherrill’s Tyler Soppe legitimized his success.
If he can find the room on his wall, Olson can add The Gazette’s Eastern Iowa Driver of the Year to his collection.
“This is pretty incredible,” Olson said. “Just everything seemed to pay off this year. There are things that have come together, things we’ve tried, that worked really well.”
Standing with pride
“I’m always proud of Tony.”
Those were the words of Tony Olson’s dad, Randy, who’s been involved with dirt racing in Eastern Iowa since 1989. No, it’s not news that a father is proud of his son. But the Olsons are a prideful family. The roots of their racing look like that of a 40-foot oak tree, and it’s still growing.
What makes Randy proud, more so than the wins, championships or honors, is how Tony handles himself.
Since his move back to IMCA Sport Mod, and especially from mid-2015 to now, Tony has dealt with the usual smattering of rumors and accusations that accompany successful racecar drivers and teams. If you ask the internet — just like the two years previous with defending Driver of the Year, IMCA Late Model racer Justin Kay — there’s no way Tony isn’t cheating somehow.
Facts remain facts, though. The Olsons had their engine impounded by IMCA in 2015. It was torn down completely, inspected and returned with no issues. This season, Independence Motor Speedway took tire samples and had them tested at Blue Ridge Laboratory in North Carolina. That test came back clean.
Some racers believe in pushing the edge, that finding the gray area is part of what makes racing what it is. Whether you believe him or not, that’s not how Tony sees it.
“We strive on being legal. There’s nothing on this car even gray-area,” Tony Olson said. “When we go out and have a good year and people call us cheaters, that’s just like complimenting us. If they think we’re doing too well to be real, I take it as a compliment. There hasn’t been a single piece on our car that hasn’t been checked the last two years. We’ll continue to do what we’re doing.”
Tony’s success this year, in particular, hasn’t been necessarily dominant.
He’s been raced hard, and maybe only a handful of his wins were the leave-no-doubt variety — his ¾-of-a-lap win at the Sport Mod Challenge in Davenport the most impressive of the bunch. Otherwise, he’s dealt with the same cast of characters he always deals with, and now one new one.
Tyler Soppe has 27 wins to date, and likely will end up third in the Northern Sport Mod national points standings. He and Olson didn’t run the same tracks weekly, but did see each other quite a bit. Most often the racing was close and hard — on one occasion, a little too hard.
Their rivalry this season has mostly played out on social media — something neither driver has really enjoyed — and it’s been hard for those closest to them to deal with. Tony said he does what he can to calm his friends and family down when there’s chatter online, and Randy said he’s gotten better at tuning it out — or at the very least, stepping away from the keyboard, saying “it’s a lot harder for me than it is for him, because I’m not as patient as him.”
Tony has never shied away from rivalry, and never will. But like anyone, he wants it settled on the racetrack.
“Every year there’s somebody new (as a rival), and (social media is) something you have to deal with,” Tony Olson said. “The night we had a run-in, it was a rough, hammer-down track and we both got into each other. But we raced a bunch of times since and both been really fast. I think when it comes down to it, we’re going to be in the same area. It’s just who can pull it off in the driver’s seat.”
Accusations and insults aren’t the only thing Tony gets from the negative side of social media.
He also gets a hard time for not moving back up to Modified. People see the success he’s had and assume the division is too easy or he’s cherry picking. Tony will politely tell you, should you bring this up in person, how wrong you are, and that if you’re the one paying for it, you get to make those decisions.
The idea that Sport Mod is a lesser class is all about perspective, Tony said. He’s raced in both, so he feels like he has a pretty solid view. The aforementioned names like Dvorak and Chapman — or central Iowa racers Carter VanDenBerg and Curtis Van Der Wal, who Tony has raced against at several specials — all have gone back and forth.
“There are three or four people who’ve asked me and of course there’s a bunch of Facebook talk,” Tony Olson said. “It’s an option, if not this year (then) within a couple years (to move to Modified). We race against people in the same situation as me. I’ve raced both and I think the driving style in Sport Mod is more fun.
“I think there’s just as much competition in Sport Mod. I don’t see a big change between the classes anymore.”
Randy said clinching the national championship "is the top” thing Tony has done, and potentially any Olson on the racetrack. No Olson had ever won a season-long national title of any kind.
So what’s left to prove? What’s left for Olson to chase?
Yes, there is a chance at going back to Modified in the next few years. But with so many wins in the bank and the highest goal (likely) achieved, fun becomes the priority.
“I don’t know if there’s much (to prove). We just go out to have fun,” Tony Olson said. “As long as we maintain that and love what we do, there’s not much else that matters.”
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