Doug Fehan is the man behind the Corvette Racing program whose bright yellow vision has, for twenty years, propelled the team to multiple series championships and an ever-expanding racing legacy. In an exclusive interview for Mobil 1 The Grid, John Hindhaugh sat down with the man they call ‘The Boss’ to discuss why twenty years of success with the team has been the result of a lot of hard work in the making.
What makes a winning team? Now, there’s a question. In trying to answer that, let’s take one of the most prestigious teams in the history of sportscar racing, GM’s Corvette Racing, and ask the man whose stewardship has guided the team to more than 100 race victories, ten IMSA titles, and eight in-class Le Mans victories over 20 years at the helm of the organisation.
Corvette Racing burst onto the scene in the first season of the American Le Mans Series in 1997. Since then, the team has gone on to become one of the most successful teams in any form of motorsport.
In racing, especially when flying the flag amongst international competition for a manufacturer or ‘works’ racing teams, it’s fair to say that the phrase, ‘You’re only as good as your last result’, whilst not necessarily a mission statement, must always be a consideration.
Most of us, whatever we do for a job, at some time in our working lives, will have had that feeling of doubt.
What am I doing here? Why did I want to do this job? When questions such as these pop into our psyche, they give us pause for thought.
So extraordinary is the uncompromising world of racing, that I suspect thoughts like these have never occurred – not even for a micro-second – to a man like Doug Fehan, who has been with the Corvette Racing project since, well, pretty much before there was even a project.
“I started at GM in 1988”, Doug explains. “Evaluating the Chevrolet race programmes, of which there were two, but also looking at the competition as well. I started in Trans-Am, with the Beretta. My next project was the Aurora World Sportscar, and we had success with that. And it was as that was coming to an end that the idea of racing a Corvette came up.
“Corvette Racing was conceptualised and approved in late 1996. My boss at the time was Herb Fischel [then Director of Chevrolet Special Projects], and Herb and I had always shared the dream of competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, knowing full well that the opportunity was probably never going to come.
“The advent of the C5 model Corvette street car, which was a brand new design and a dramatic change in engineering, gave us a great opportunity to put in a proposal to the GM management to race this dynamic new car.”
And so it began.
In the autumn of 1996, the General Manager of the Corvette brand, John Middlebrook, received a plan, written by Fehan, detailing the whys and wherefores of creating a factory racing programme using the new C5 Corvette. He liked what he read.
Doug’s plan called for two years of clandestine development, testing and evaluation, to ascertain whether the Corvette would be competitive. If it was, the decision could then be taken on where it should race.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Doug Fehan is an immediately recognisable figure in the paddocks of IMSA or at Le Mans. Almost always smiling, tanned, often wearing Corvette Racing tailored shorts and still fit enough to give his drivers a run for their money on a bicycle, you would be forgiven for mistaking him for a movie star. There’s a sense of Hollywood about him.
The bright yellow Corvette – with its crowd-pleasing, thundering V8 engine – combined with Doug’s infectious charisma and straight-talking attitude, are part of what provide the variety that defines the sport of endurance racing in the USA and beyond.
Doug is still hands-on. In his role overseeing the programme, his positive attitude and sunny disposition is still contributing to the oh-so-crucial Corvette Racing difference.
“I don’t remember a time that I would categorise as ‘my worst moment’. There have been challenges, of course, but nothing that made me want to walk away. I’ve never had that feeling, that sense… not for an instant. We have always used those most challenging moments as learning opportunities. I’ve always seen the upside of it. Adversity is just opportunity dressed differently.”
One of the cornerstones of the organisation’s success has been a singularity of purpose and continuity. This was an element so important that Doug managed to convince GM that, even with no competition in their class in ALMS, they should keep the team together and ‘race against themselves’.
“I had no qualms about racing ourselves as far as the team was concerned. I knew how competitive the guys were. I told GM that it made business sense and my bosses were fine with it. I explained that you can’t stop racing and pick it up a year or two later. We had great people, I wanted to keep everyone employed, I wanted to keep everyone engaged and I wanted us to keep learning, and that made sense to everyone at GM.
“If you look back to the original report I did for Chevrolet on their racing programmes, one of the three legs of the stool was continuity. That is where you reap the biggest dividend. In any area, any company we did business with, any part we bought in, I wanted the best and I wanted it to continue as long as possible. We purposely instituted that philosophy. I always thought it was one of the most important elements for success, and the results speak for themselves. Look around at the people who have been with us a long time, on every level, from truck driver to race car driver.”
Doug is keen to point out that it’s always been about the team at Corvette Racing. Crew Chief Dan Binks is one that embodies the core ‘Vette’ values of hard work, loyalty and continuity. Dan has been with Corvette Racing longer than he has been married, and his son is now embarking on a racing engineering career of his own, competing against his father as part of the Chip Ganassi Ford GTLM team in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship.
That philosophy of continuity runs deeply through the programme. This season, the team that run the Corvette Racing cars is the same Detroit outfit that Doug turned to back in the 1990s: Pratt & Miller Racing.
“When I walked through the door of Pratt & Miller, I immediately understood their capabilities. In Gary Pratt, you had a car constructor savant who could not just think it up, he was a highly skilled fabricator, so he could build it too. Jim Miller had business acumen unequalled in any individual I had met.”
In any conversation with Doug, two things become apparent very quickly.
He is fiercely competitive, but not at the expense of being a thoroughly decent, funny and grounded individual. That is abundantly clear when he is assessing the Corvette Racing Programme, which he does on – what might be to those who don’t know him – an unusually holistic level.
Twenty years in, it would be easy for people to ask what’s left to achieve for Doug and the programme. From 199 starts there are 106 victories, including a near 50% win rate at Le Mans alongside multiple championships, in the Corvette Racing account. But when adding up the successes of Corvette Racing, Doug is adamant that it’s not just been about the silverware.
“For me, cataloguing this over time, the people side of this has huge value. Watching the individuals develop in career and personal terms is where I find great value in what has been achieved. It’s as rewarding as all those great victories.”
The winning, then, hasn’t just been on the track.
The Corvette – America’s sportscar – has become a global phenomenon. ‘The people’s sportscar’, Doug calls it. And some of that is due to the racing programme.
I’m no closer to distilling the perfect formula for a winning team, but I’m sure that the attention to people – as well as the attention to detail – that Corvette Racing shows, is a core ingredient.
Doug Fehan has been in the American endurance paddocks, racing with Corvette, for the entire twenty-year period that I have covered those events. Over those years, in times when I have needed perspective on something in our sport, I have sought Doug out at the Corvette trailer or called him for a chat. It’s a measure of the man and his continued enthusiasm for the sport that the interview for this article took up over 90 minutes of his time and, yet, he was only worried about my schedule!
I simply can’t imagine the sport without either Corvette Racing or him. Fortunately, the introduction of the highly-anticipated, brand new Corvette C8 is just around the corner and that dramatic, exciting new car will soon no doubt add to the brand’s racing heritage.
As for Doug, again, I needn’t worry. He’s not got other plans.
“There’s still so much to do!”, he assures me. “I’m in no hurry to quit. What would I do anyway? In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m not really cut out to look out of the window.”
But we HAD noticed that, Mr Fehan. We had ALL noticed.
Every session of the IMSA WeatherTech Series is broadcast live, free and in full on the RS2 IMSA Radio channel, here: http://player.radiolemans.co And, outside the USA, you can watch every race at www.imsa.tv.
Images Courtesy of Jamey Price Photography.