Persistence & Determination: How Steve O’Blenes Became SCCA’s 2023 Solo Driver of the Year

A third consecutive SCCA® Solo® National Championship title – the eighth of his career – enhanced by his winning the prestigious 2023 SCCA Solo Driver of the Year award, promised great things ahead for 2024 for Californian Steve O’Blenes.

But this year’s Tire Rack National Solo season has opened for him with frustration. After notching his third consecutive championship last September in D Street Prepared, O’Blenes planned to upgrade his trusty DSP Mazda RX-8 for Street Modified class competition beginning this spring. But, with an unplanned engine rebuild added to an already tight budget and long list of expensive items to change, he has put that plan on hold. He’ll spend the summer accumulating the necessary upgrades, and hopes to make the leap in 2025.

O’Blenes shared Tom Exley’s X Prepared RX-7 at the late-April Tire Rack SCCA Crows Landing Solo National Tour, finishing third in class (Exley was fourth) and utilizing the opportunity to help friend Exley dial in his car a little bit better.

Indeed, O’Blenes has spent more than 20 years tinkering with Solo machinery, Mazdas primarily, though he did take a brief Subaru detour along the way. He’s competed in 20 Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championship event since 2001, trophied in all but one and, as we noted, won eight times – B Prepared in his first three appearances (2001-’03), STX in 2006 (“In a Subaru WRX belonging to a friend of mine; I just hopped in at the last minute to campaign the car with him”), BSP in 2015, and DSP 2021-’23.

His first autocross car was a 1987 Mazda RX-7 Turbo which he developed steadily through that 2013 season – the only year he hasn’t trophied at the Solo Nationals – when suspension problems were compounded by an engine going south.

The Mazda Turbo project was put on hiatus.

“I drove an FR Sport BR-Z for a year or two, then went to a Mazda Miata to help another friend develop his car for BSP. But in 2016 I was like, ‘Time to start getting serious again, but let's find a lighter chassis.’ So I bought a base model RX-8 and entered it in Street Touring® Xtreme. That first year, the car wasn't sorted. In 2017, I had some problems, but it wasn't that bad. 2018 should have been the glory year of that car, honestly. The car was dominating. But then I hit a cone in the wet …”

(O'Blenes co-drove a variety of cars early on, among which was FR Sport's Scion BRZ. Photo by Dung Nguyen.)  

In 2019, O’Blenes finished second after switching to D Street Prepared, and he has not looked back, claiming three consecutive wins against some fierce mostly RX-8 competition.

Mazda Faithful

By day, O’Blenes is a trainer, working for Mobis, the parts and accessories arm of Hyundai.

“I do accessory installation training for Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis cars. I travel around the country to different ports where they process the cars, teach 'em how to install the items and work with the development engineers.”

Though he works out of the Hyundai main offices in Southern California, he has no regular contact with the South Korean manufacturer’s successful road race teams.

“I see some of their race vehicles, but most of their racing is outsourced,” he says. “Honestly, if they were to come to me and say, 'Hey, we would like to back you for driving one of our cars,’ I would seriously consider it. The Elantra N is showing to be a very formidable car in the D Street class. Mark Scroggs has really done an excellent job. A couple other people have stepped up and driven that car and done very well, holding their own against Honda Civic Type Rs."

For O’Blenes, who competes with minimal support, any sort of financial help would be a boon, especially if it came in support of a competitive car.

“Absolutely!” he exclaims. “That’s why it's been such a great deal running a Mazda, because of the support that they give. I've raced with Mazda since day one, and they are fabulous to their racer customers. They don't discriminate [or] tell you you have to have a new car. And they're there to back you up for parts. They pay out contingency awards to every class. They are amazing and their support is one of the reasons why I've done so well over the years. A win here or there pays for this, pays for that. With more money, you can push forward and develop more.”

(O'Blenes is on a role in DSP, winning the last three SCCA National Championship titles in the class. Photo by Rupert Berrington.)

He is similarly enthusiastic about Hoosier and the tiremaker’s unceasing support.

“In Solo we have tire wars,” he says. “Unfortunately, most tire manufacturers aren't doing contingency payouts anymore, and that's a real shame. But Hoosier is still there and [they have] a fantastic tire. It's the king of the crop."

Custom Made

O’Blenes took an unusual path to SCCA Solo.

"I've always been a car buff. I love cars,” he remembers. "I would customize mine, make 'em look nice. Back when I was younger, growing up in California, you couldn't make cars go fast without having the government in your face because of all the emissions issues. So I was customizing cars instead – lowering them, installing big stereo systems, putting on big wheels and tires. I decided to customize a truck that I had at the time, and I wanted to get serious with it, take it off the road, really customize it. I needed another car for transportation, so I bought an '87 RX-7 Turbo that I came across...and I didn't know at the time what I was getting myself into,” he laughs.

“I soon found out that I could put a chip in it and make 50 to 70 more horsepower; then put a free flow exhaust on it and stuff like that. And of course, a few months later, I blew the engine.”

(O'Blenes spent some time behind the wheel of an FC Mazda RX-7. Photo courtesy Steve O'Blenes.)

A bad experience with the first mechanic he had help with an engine rebuild led him to the Canoga Park-based Mazda rotary shop, Tri-Point Engineering.

“Tri-Point was into autocrossing and they did extremely well,” he recalls. “Craig Nagler and the owner, Mark Shuler, both campaigned cars – a third generation RX-7 that ran in SP and was basically dominating. Guy Ankeny had a CSP Miata that he won Nationals in. They built a Turbo RX-7 and campaigned that for many years, and they went on to be the factory support team for Mazda when Mazda went racing its RX-3s. They built the cages for them and maintained them.

“The Tri-Point guys are the ones who said, 'Hey, you should come out to an autocross.’ So eventually I did, and I was horrible. I was really bad. And I didn't know if I was ever going to be good, but I did know I'd found what I wanted to do – it hit me that hard,” he says. "I came home and told my wife, 'I found what I've been missing. I’ve found what I've been looking for.’ [Autocrossing] was safe, it was reasonably affordable and, you know, it was, I guess the word is ‘sustainable.’”

Do it Yourself

O’Blenes continues: “So, I was horrible. But I loved it, so in ’98, I joined one of the local clubs for the autocrossing. But then I had my next setback. I did a track day at Willow Springs, overheated the motor, and spun a rotor bearing. So then the motor was down again. I was actually starting to figure things out, but I couldn’t really afford to rebuild the engine over and over again. That's when my father told me, ‘Well, you do everything else. Why don't you just rebuild the engine yourself?’ Could I?

“So I read the books, studied up on it, tore the motor out and rebuilt it myself, outsourcing for some of the machining. I rebuilt the engine myself and then got back up and started running again. And in 2000, I decided I was going to get serious with the car. It wasn’t fully competitive yet, but it was improving, and I was learning how to drive the darn thing. I won my first ProSolo in 2000 at the Alamo Naval Air Station, and that was a complete surprise. I don't know how that happened. I just kept working on the car, making it lighter and advancing it and, you know, improving things."

Tri-Point, O’Blenes says, was a huge information source. “Fantastic people. They kept me going in the right direction because, you know, they're out at all the same events I'm going to. In our Region [Cal Club], there are other unbelievable drivers and instructors who took me under their wing. I had Tom Berry, Gary Thomason – all these unbelievable drivers that I could look up to and aspire to. That was a huge, huge benefit as well.”


"I share. I'm one of the more open people – an open book when it comes to setting up cars and helping others out. I always share my setup with my competition. Which is kind of crazy, I guess. People tell me I'm nuts. But I've always been a firm believer that, you know, I'd rather win off of my talents than off of my car.

“We talk about ‘family' a lot in SCCA and I would say last year's Nationals would be one of the hugest proving points. I had a massive car failure at the [Tire Rack] ProSolo Finale – I blew apart my differential – and my number one competitor, my friend David Colletti, and several others came out of the woodwork and they're like, ‘What can we do to help? What parts do you need? If you need something, let me know.’

“And these were all my competitors who wanted to win Nationals as badly as me.

(At the 2023 Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships, disaster struck when the rear end on Steve's RX-8 exploded. With encouragement from the community, he was back up and running in no time. Photo by Danny Gross.)

“The last few years, I've actually been staying more on site [at Lincoln Airpark during the ProSolo Finale and Solo National Championships], too. There are so many activities on site – better entertainment than going out to any of the bars. Karaoke night or ice cream night or movie night – whatever is going on. There's always something. And it's a blast."

After more than 20 years of chasing trophies and navigating cones at speed, where does the hunger to continue come from?

“That's a good one. Well, I have a passion for tinkering and for making things better. So when I'm at home, my head's just spinning with different ideas. What can I change? What can make the car better that we haven't thought of? Development is what keeps me going – besides all the friends, of course; the friends and family. I like to tinker and figure out things, learn how things work – how shocks work, how transmissions work.”

Re-married, O’Blenes has four children, though so far there seems to be little interest in following in the old man’s Solo footsteps.

“My oldest son, Steven, has autocrossed and enjoyed it. But I told him he has to earn it. I'm not going to pay his way. My youngest son is also interested, but I don't know which way that'll go either.”

As for Dad? There’s no end to his pursuit of the perfect set-up, the perfect run, in sight – perseverance that was, in large part, responsible for his winning the 2023 SCCA Solo Driver of the Year award.

"You know, I never ever even thought about getting something like that [award]. Really. It was never on my radar. I was blown away when they told me about it. ‘Oh, sweet!’ And I'm still blown away by it. There are so many people out there that I consider to be way better drivers than me.

“Like I said, I was horrible when I started. I would never consider myself a natural. I just was persistent and I'm aggressive enough. And I was able to figure out things.

“You have those little epiphanies,” he concludes, "and those plateaus that you reach, and then you just keep advancing. I had a high drive to do well and I'm lucky enough to be one of those people that has excelled. But so many drivers are really more impressive as far as I'm concerned."

Lead photo by Philip Royle