Ken Thwaits enjoyed a banner season in his second year of Trans Am Series presented by Pirelli competition, winning four of the eight races he contested to become the first-ever XtremeGT class champion.
The 64-year-old driver from Brentwood, Tennessee, made his Trans Am debut last year at Indianapolis, when he learned his Audi R8 GT3 Ultra was eligible to race in the SGT class. Thwaits finished the season with four podiums in five races, winning at the 2019 finale at Circuit of The Americas.
This year, Thwaits took his first pole at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course and then won races at Brainerd International Raceway, Road America, swept the Virginia International Raceway doubleheader and took the opening race at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta.
“It’s been quite a year,” said Thwaits. “From a business standpoint, it was a pretty bleak start to the season. But we finished strong. Franklin Road Apparel, which has been on the car all year, has broken sales records every month since we were able to reopen the store in May. I think that’s a great testament there.
“From a racing standpoint, it’s been a great year,” Thwaits continued. “We’ve come back to some of the same tracks we ran in the SGT trim in 2019, and we were three to five seconds a lap faster. From a personal standpoint, I was happy with my driving and the progress of my team.”
Trans Am revived a career for Thwaits, who began open-wheel racing in the mid-1980s against the likes of Johnny O’Connell, Jeff Krosnoff and Tommy Kendall.
“In those days, we all wanted to make it in IndyCar,” he said. “All of us were running 110-percent every single lap. That’s how I raced back then, and that’s how I race today.”
Thwaits won the 1985 Pro Formula Mazda championship against drivers of that caliber. Then, reality set in with the loss of his sponsor, and his career went on the back burner for more than three decades.
“After I lost my sponsor in Pro Mazda following the 1986 season, I raced a Showroom Stock Camaro for a few years in SCCA club races,” Thwaits explained. “Then I quit in 1992, got married, started a new business and started a family. I didn’t road race anything until last year.”
Thwaits had been doing Optima’s Ultimate Street Car Series (winning the championship in 2017 in a Mitsubishi Evo). Then he acquired an Audi R8 GT3 Ultra and began racing it a year ago in Sportscar Vintage Racing Association competition.
“I kept getting more and more comfortable in the car,” Thwaits said. “I was seeing Trans Am and thought it would be really nice to race with those guys. I’ve always wanted to win a Trans Am race, that was a big deal for me. So they let me race in SGT. They BOP’ed the car almost every weekend, and I was finally able to win the race at COTA. When they created XGT for this season, I made the commitment to run the whole series.
“I thought there would be more cars, but then COVID hit and changed everything. We just kept our heads down and kept figuring a way to get to every race. I didn’t have the fastest car, but winning championships means finishing races, and that’s what we did – we finished every race that we started, with four wins and four seconds. We finished 900 miles of racing Trans Am this year, which is really cool.”
Thwaits’ car is an ex-Flying Lizards Audi that appeared to win the GTD class in the 2014 Rolex 24 At Daytona. The driver line-up — including Spencer Pumpelly and Markus Winkelhock — were presented with Rolex watches in victory lane. Several hours after the event, race officials rescinded a last-lap penalty on the Level 5 Motorsports Ferrari for rough driving and gave them the victory. By that time, the Flying Lizards drivers had departed – and kept their watches.
“That’s a pretty cool story, and I don’t blame them for keeping the watches!” Thwaits said.
Fans can watch Thwaits and the rest of the production class- XGT, SGT and GT- in action on CBS Sports Network’s Trans Am Year in Review special three-part special December 27 at 1:00 p.m. Eastern. The first episode (which features the TA class) airs this Sunday (December 13) at 4:00 p.m. Eastern.