With victory at Lime Rock Park this weekend, Corvette Racing achieved a landmark 100th win in Sportscar racing. Radio Le Mans’ John Hindhaugh looks back at the making of an American icon.
The time: The last day of January 1999.
The Place: The high banks of Daytona Speedway.
The Car: Chassis C5R-001.
The Result: 18th overall and 3rd in class.
There was celebration, of course, but nothing to mark the special day.
The drivers – Canadian Ron Fellows, and his American teammates Chris Kneifel and John Paul Jr. – could not have known on what an odyssey they had set in motion.
This was the race debut for the Chevrolet Corvette C5R, and a return to competition at the highest level for GT racing for ‘America’s Sportscar’.
Corvette, of course, already had a rich racing pedigree. Privately entered cars had been winning races worldwide pretty much since the first Corvette had rolled off the production line.
However, as far back as the 1950s, General Motors management were opposed to an official ‘Works’ team. Indeed, when Zora Arkus Duntov – the man who turned Corvette from an early sales flop into the world’s longest continually produced sportscar – created the ‘Grand Sport’ version of the ‘Vette, with a view to going racing as a manufacturer team. The programme was shut down immediately.
Fortunately for fans of loud, earth shaking, fire-breathing, front-engined V8 sportscars, Duntov ‘sold’ the remaining Grand Sports to private team owners, including Roger Penske, and even found covert ways of supporting the cars in competition.
Indeed, it was a different age and a very different looking car which provided the circumstances that changed the corporate thinking of General Motors, who eventually agreed to a ‘Works’ racing programme.
‘Corvette Racing, as it is today, was formed in 1997 to exploit the then newly introduced C5 (fifth generation) Corvette, as a factory-backed racer in the GTS Category of endurance racing.
Doug Fehan was appointed as team leader and, immediately, he realised the opportunity. He quickly established close links with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO), the sanctioning body for the Le Mans 24 hours. The French were re-focusing on production-based sportscars, and Fehan identified the promotional and PR advantages that could be delivered by competing, and hopefully winning, with their new car.
But this would be no ‘overnight sensation’. Long consultations with the ACO regarding what modifications to the standard car would be allowed, and a comprehensive testing programme that saw a test ‘mule’ clock more than 4,000 miles, meant that it was early 1998 before chassis 001 was put into production. And it was not until November of that year that the car made its public debut at the SEMA Show in Las Vegas.
GM’s timing was impeccable. Dr. Don Panoz had taken his front-engined Panoz Roadster to Le Mans in 1997. He became so enamoured with the event that he decided to re-create a smaller version – Petit Le Mans – at his Road Atlanta track. That was in October, 1988. By 1999, that single race became the ‘American Le Mans Series, giving the fledgling Corvette Racing a high profile, internationally acclaimed championship to compete in, without even leaving home shores.
The C5Rs raced well throughout the 1999 season, with their best results a pair of 2nd in class finishes at the West Coast circuits of Sears Point and Laguna Seca. The 2000 season started well enough, with another 2nd place at Daytona in the Grand Am Series, and yet another ALMS runners-up spot at Mosport, Canada.
The next important date is 2nd September, 2000. I was there. But, like everyone – including drivers Ron Fellows, Andy Pilgrim and Justin Bell (who actually never drove the car in the race) – failed to appreciate the long-term significance of the chassis C5R-003, claiming the first class win for Corvette in the heat of that Autumn Texas evening.
The win at Fort Worth was backed up two weeks later with victory at Petit Le Mans. The momentum was taken into the 2001 season, with Corvette drivers on the top step of the podium 8 times in the ALMS. From then on, success for Corvette Racing became something of a habit.
Put aside that historic first win, and 2000 is significant for another reason. Spin back to June, when two C5Rs, resplendent in a new ‘Millennium Yellow’ livery, took the Corvette name back to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Yellow had been off the Corvette colour palette for road cars since 1995, so the factory decided that using it on the competition cars would help ‘sell’ the shade.
Did it ever?!
The cars, numbered 63 and 64, qualified 2nd and 3rd; and finished 4th and 3rd.
From this appearance at the turn of the Century until now, Corvette Racing have achieved an unbroken record of competition at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. In 16 races, they have won an extraordinary 8 times. In that time, a fiercely competitive but hugely respectful rivalry has developed between the Americans and Britain’s Aston Martin Racing.
This rivalry has brought us wheel-to-wheel excitement on the track and the very moving pre-race tradition in pit lane, which sees both teams of mechanics walk toward each other in single file to shake hands with every member of the opposition.
By now, you’re probably thinking, “OK, so Corvette Racing are successful… I knew that!”, and possibly wondering why I’ve been hitting the facts and figures so much.
Well, I was at Sebring this year when Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner and (Audi works LMP1 driver) Marcel Fassler won the GTLM class for Corvette Racing. In the time since that first win at Texas in 2000, the team have recorded 97 other wins, making the Florida win their 99th.
Now, in fairness, there were a couple of ALMS years where the Corvettes were actually racing against themselves. But, nonetheless, this is an astonishing record.
The 100th win might have come – indeed, some will say ‘should’ have come – at the recent Long Beach IMSA Event. That, with minutes to go, the leading Corvette was rather unceremoniously pitched into the unforgiving concrete wall of the street circuit by a Porsche, allowing his team mate to win the race, was – I’m sure – frustrating in the extreme.
And yet, that the 100th Corvette racing win has come in an IMSA race at Lime Rock Park seems fitting. IMSA is the successor to the ALMS Championship that provided the young Corvette Racing organisation the opportunity to spread their wings and prove the confidence in ‘Works’ racing teams that the higher ups at General Motors had for the project. In fact, Corvette is not alone now as a factory racing outlet. ‘GM Racing’ encompasses other group assets’ racing programmes, including Cadillac and Chevrolet.
With an impressive team behind him, the way in which Doug Fehan – still leading by tenacious, determined and enthusiastic example – has, in often difficult financial times, changed the corporate landscape to embrace racing as a legitimate way of developing, refining and publicising their day to day products, is no small feat.
So congratulations, Corvette Racing, for 100 wins… And the entertainment you have given us along the way. But, as fans, we owe you a debt of gratitude for so much more than that.