Thirty-two years ago, a privately entered, showroom stock '69 Corvette finished Fourth overall and First in GT at Sebring. The thundering red L88 completed 221 laps and 1,149 miles around the old 5.2-mile circuit. The English Racing Corvette, driven by Dave Heinz and Bob Johnson, finished behind three factory prototypes (two Ferraris 312s and one Alfa T-33). Mario Andretti and Jackie Ickx drove the winning Ferrari. Fast-forward to Sebring 2004. The No. 3 factory Corvette driven by Fellows/O'Connell/Papis matched the Heinz/Johnson 1972 performance by finishing Fourth overall and First in GTS. The C5-R completed 329 laps and 1,217 miles on the new 3.7-mile course. The Corvette Racing entry also finished behind three Audi R8 prototypes. The similarities are amazing! The Corvette Racing C5-R covered 68 more miles than the Heinz/Johnson entry, a 2.13-mile-per-year improvement. It was a remarkable performance for both teams and a great way for Corvette Racing to kick off their 2004 ALMS season. The last time Team VETTE reported on Corvette Racing at Road Atlanta, we were not so upbeat about their upcoming 2004 season. They won the ALMS Grand Touring Sports (GTS) championship by one point over Ferrari. Corvette Chief Engineer Dave Hill told the Road Atlanta press that, "It's time for Corvette to sharpen their axe."
During the off-season, some dramatic axe sharpening occurred. Doug Duchardt and Harry Turner replaced retired GM racing executives Joe Negri and Herb Fishel. Their first decision was to not renew contracts for Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, and Franck Freon. The fan reaction was not positive. All three drivers had earned the respect of Corvette fans for their contribution in helping Corvette win three championships. However, GM's new management felt a change was in order. Ex-Prodrive drivers Olivia Beretta and Jan Magnussen joined Oliver Gavin in the No. 4 C5-R, and "Mad Max" Papis was added to the Fellows/ O'Connell No. 3 C5-R. Was it the right choice? Well, we will wait and see if the corporate mantra "change is good--so be a team player and embrace change," improves performance. Corvette Racing also switched from Goodyear to Michelin tires. The team made a difficult choice but it seemed to pay off with fewer tire changes and quicker lap times.
Corvette Racing came to Sebring prepared to do battle with the dreaded Prodrive Ferraris. It was not to be; Prodrive opted to skip Sebring, which left the GTS class short of top-quality competitors. The only factory GTS entries were the two C5-Rs. Two Ferrari 575s, one Saleen, and one Viper rounded out the slim GTS field. GTS qualifying was a Corvette romp. Gavin/Beretta/Magnussen set the GTS pole time with a 1:56.858 and Tenth fastest overall. Fellows/O'Connell/Papis' 1:57.052 was good for Second in GTS and Eleventh overall. Their closest competitor, a Viper, was Third at 2:00.971. After qualifying, IMSA post inspection revealed that the No. 4 Corvette rear-wing end plates were out of adjustment. IMSA stripped the Corvette of its qualifying time and moved it to Fortieth on the starting grid. The No. 3 C5-R now sat on the GTS pole.
The green flag fell, and 130,000 fans watched as the Audi's sped into the lead. Gavin passed 18 cars on the first lap. Eight minutes into the race, Gavin was Second in GTS, behind Fellows. Gavin, driving like a man possessed, passed Fellows to take the GTS lead. He ripped off a 1:57.167 lap time, which was quicker than his qualifying time. He seemed to be forgetting that this was a 12-hour race. Sixteen of his twenty-five first stint laps were under the previous race-class record. Late in the first hour, Beretta replaced Gavin and Johnny O replaced Fellows. The Corvettes were 1-2 in GTS. On lap 30 the Fellows/O'Connell/ Papis entry took the GTS lead because the No. 4 Vette received a stop-and-go penalty for running over an air hose during a pit stop. At the 2 1/2-hour mark, Magnussen was pushed off course by a LMP car but continued. On lap 84, the No. 4 pitted and Gavin replaced Magnussen. Two minutes later, Gavin grounded to a halt just beyond the hairpin, complaining of a soft clutch pedal. Gavin tried in vain to repair the broken Corvette, but it was no use. The team towed the stricken racer back to the pits and retired the car. It was clear that this new driver lineup is fast, but did the torrid pace take its toll? You have to finish to win.
Meanwhile Fellows/O'Connell/Papis continued to motor on and moved up the chart. Flawless pit stops and incident-free driving brought the yellow C5-R across the checkered flag at 10:32 p.m. at Fourth overall and First in GTS. The Corvette finished the race 22 laps ahead of the Second place GTS Ferrari 575. Johnny O'Connell became the first driver in Sebring history to have six class wins at this historic race. The victory circle was filled with a lot of smiling Corvette Racing team members. But the biggest smile we saw was on the face of GM's new racing boss Doug Duchardt. Victories do that to people.
What ever happened to the car and crew of that 1972 Sebring victory? The '69 L88 was found and restored by Kevin McKay and is now in a private collection in California. Dave Heinz passed away some years ago, but he is still remembered for his amazing driving skills. Bob Johnson lives in Marietta, Ohio, and still retains his wonderful sense of humor. Toye and Dana English own a successful Chevrolet dealership in Florida. Their early success as race team owners paid big dividends for them in business. As Team VETTE stood in victory lane watching the celebration, it was easy to remember that amazing Corvette victory that stood unbeaten for thirty-two years.