Towson grad Thormann is now the brains behind Andretti racing

When he was growing up in Towson, JF Thormann could not, in his wildest fantasies, have imagined a day when downtown Baltimore would be turned into a IndyCar racetrack.

He did, however, frequently spend his afternoons and evenings pretending there was a Grand Prix racetrack in the parking lot of Goucher College, where his father was a professor.

"I'm not sure my father knows that," Thormann said with a sheepish chuckle. "But I used to practice there a lot. I also burned up a lot of road around the Loch Raven Reservoir."

Those memories made this past weekend a little surreal for Thormann, executive vice president and COO for Andretti Autosport. IndyCar racing in downtown Baltimore? Forgive Thormann if he couldn't stop grinning Sunday.

"I never could have imagined this," Thormann said.

"It was just awesome. Everywhere I went, stuff was packed, the restaurants, the parking lots. I just thought everything was wonderful. I thought the whole town was really into it. The track was challenging, and the drivers were into it. And it can only get better. I think the first time was great, and I can only imagine how good it will be when the kinks get worked out."

As a teenager, Thormann didn't know anyone who obsessed over racing the way he did. He wasn't interested in other sports. His lifelong love affair with fast cars began in France, where he family would spend its summers because his parents grew up there.

"I had a couple uncles with a lead foot," Thormann said. "When we would go places, they would squeal the wheels an awful lot. Plus there were no speed limits, so you can imagine how wide-eyed I was as a young boy. ... Racing is pretty big all over Europe, but when we'd come home, it wasn't like you could get on the Internet to read about it, so I spent a lot of time looking at racing magazines in my room."

It made him a bit of an outsider in high school, the fact that he was a self-described "French racing geek." Even his parents — a pair of academics who spoke only French in their home — weren't sure what to think about his passion.

"They were supportive, but they weren't too excited," Thormann said. "They were pretty concerned at the time that it was much too dangerous."

His parents insisted he get an education first, and so he graduated from Towson with a degree in business. Eventually, though, he set out to take his shot at becoming a open-wheel racecar driver. He went to a racing school in Canada and performed well, and some connections (and his degree) helped him get a job at the marketing department at Pocono International Raceway driver's school. It was there he got the bold idea to invite Michael Andretti — a son of Mario Andretti, perhaps the most famous American driver of Indy cars in history, and one of Thormann's heroes — to appear at the school.

"I had read that Michael was about to begin a career driving, and I figured, 'Why not have him come to our school?'" Thormann said. "I actually waited in an autograph line to introduce myself to Mario and told him what I wanted to do. He thought it was a good idea. Michael and I became very good friends fairly quickly."

Thormann spent two years racing on one of the lower circuits as Michael Andretti's teammate, and he learned a lot, but it didn't take long for him to realize his friend possessed a talent he simply didn't have. In the first race they ran, Andretti was lapping him and Thormann almost accidentally ran him off the track.

"You need certain amount of ego to drive a racecar fast," Thormann said. "And the very first race, my teammate is lapping me and I almost drove him off the road. Had I done that, I don't think I'd be [in the position I am] today."

In 1980, Thormann decided to focus on finding success in business. He had worked throughout college pumping gas at the Crown station in Towson, and the owner, Bill McHenry, eventually gave him his big break, offering him the opportunity to manage one of his turnpike stations. Before long, Thormann worked his way up to become McHenry's general manager. When he had enough money, he bought a station of his own. One became several, and eventually, he owned gas stations from New Jersey to Connecticut.

"Whenever I had some vacation time, though, I would go and watch Michael's races," Thormann said. "He would say pretty often, 'Why don't you come work for us?' I told him I wanted to keep building my reputation in business, and I didn't want something just because we were friends. We worked together on some things, some car dealerships and some stuff in the petroleum business, but I always told him, 'If you ever get your own race team, that's where I really want to be.'"

When Andretti bought Team Green in 2002, he asked Thormann to serve on the board of directors as executive vice president. It seemed like the right fit. The team was eventually renamed Andretti Autosport, Thormann likes to joke that Andretti handles the "Go Fast" aspect of the team — the engineering, mechanics and aerodynamics — and he tries to take care of the administrative stuff.

"I think he and Michael have really done an excellent job of building the most successful team in IndyCar," said Ryan Hunter-Reay, Andretti Autosport's top driver this season. "JF is just the man. He's great to work with, and he's very professional. He's pretty low-key, but he's going to get the job done for the team, no matter what he has to do. I see him as a friend as well as a boss, so to speak. He's a huge part of Andretti Autosport."

Thormann is so important to the Andretti family, he even presided over Michael Andretti's wedding to Playboy model Jodi Patterson in 1996. He has also played a big role in managing the racing career of Marco Andretti, Michael's son, who also drives for Andretti Autosport.

"He such a hands-on guy," said Marco Andretti, who finished 25th in the Baltimore Grand Prix. "He cares a lot about what he's doing, and he'll break his back for you. You know he'll answer the phone at 3 a.m. if something comes up. He and my dad have been super tight since Day One. My dad likes to bust on him about his racing career back in the day, but I don't think my dad could make too many moves without him."

Thormann knows how lucky he was to essentially have been adopted by the royal family of racing 30 years ago. And even though he didn't fulfill his dream of becoming racecar driver, it might be even better the way his life played out. In addition to finally seeing racing in his hometown, two of his drivers — Danica Patrick (sixth) Hunter-Reay (eighth) — finished in the top 10 on Sunday.

"As the tiniest kid, I can just remember having a love of fast cars," Thormann said. "And it's almost like I got the best of all worlds. I'm able to put my business degree to use, and I'm literally in the pits during all these races. I'm involved in the team, and that's so much fun. To be able to work with the first family of motor sports, I pinch myself every day. It's a thrill."



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