Didier Theys, one of the most successful and popular endurance sportscar drivers on either side of the Atlantic, has announced his retirement as a professional race car driver at the age of 52.
The Belgian, an unwitting victim of the global credit crisis, will continue to be involved in the sport as a consultant and driving coach, both for individual drivers and teams and for World Class Driving, where he is the driving director.
Theys came from modest means and a family with no connections in the sport, forcing him to take out a bank loan for his first Formula Ford championship in 1978, but his driving talent, set-up expertise, tenacity, perseverance and friendly personality enabled him to build a career as a professional driver, and remain at the top of the sport for more than 30 years.
A long-time resident of Scottsdale, Arizona, he finished on the podium 61 times in races all over the world, with 18 victories. He was the Grand-Am Rolex Series champion in 2002 - having finished third in 2001 and runner-up in 2000 - and is a two-time winner of the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, succeeding in 1998 in the MOMO Ferrari and again in 2002 in the Doran Lista Dallara-Judd. The ALMS' biggest race, the Sebring 12 Hours, also went Theys' way in 1998, again with the MOMO Ferrari, as did the Six Hours of Watkins Glen. His success on the other side of the Atlantic was such that it led to him being nominated as Belgium's driver of the year in 2002.
Theys also made his mark on the 24 Hours of Le Mans. His first appearance there came in 1982 and his last 20 years later. He finished third in 1999 with Audi Sport Team Joest, and started from the pole in 1996 driving a Joest TWR Porsche LMP1. Theys also won the 24 Hours of Spa in 1987 in a factory BMW.
Even though moving into his fifties, Theys last year claimed fifth in the LMP2 class at Sebring, on the debut of Horag Racing's Porsche RS Spyder, before campaigning the car in the Le Mans Series in Europe, placing third in the tough LMP2 category with co-drivers Fredy Lienhard and Jan Lammers.
"I enjoyed working with friends like Fredy Lienhard and Markus Hotz in the last few years," Theys said, "I was planning on retiring in 2009 anyway, but I was hoping to do it at the end of the season, not in March. Unfortunately, due to the downturn in the global economy, we weren't able to put together a programme for 2009.
"But I'm certainly thankful for everything Fredy has done for me in my career. He became a true friend, not just a co-driver and sponsor. I was also happy when our team won the Michelin Energy Challenge last year."
Before focusing on endurance racing, Theys had a very successful career in formula cars in the 1980s and early '90s. He competed in 47 CART Indycar events, and started the Indianapolis 500 three times - in 1989, 1990 and 1993. His best finish in CART was third at the Miami Grand Prix.