The 2000-spec Corvette C5-R is faster than the Viper GTS-R. And yet, the Corvette finished in second place, behind the Viper, at the Rolex 24. Racing is not about just the speed of the car. In the recent Daytona Rolex 24-hour enduro, the Viper won because of superior tires and better pit work. When the margin is just over 30 seconds after 24 hours of racing, that's all it takes.
This was the C5-Rs finest hour, and it just missed its first overall victory in a major international race. If you go back through the records, you'll find that Corvettes have never won a major international race. There have been several class wins, but the Vette has never got the whole thing. This year they were sooooo close, yet so far.
The Corvette team fired an incredible shot across the bow of the Viper during qualifying, when they ran 3.2 seconds faster than the quickest Viper. This wasn't quite as exciting as it might seem, since they used qualifying tires while the Viper qualified on race tires, but it sure looked good.
Until this year the teams were required to qualify on the tires they would race on. The Corvette team seemed to be the only one that read the rulebook. Qualifying tires are slicks that stick to the pavement like Super Glue. The only problem is they have a life span of one, maybe two laps. Ron Fellows went out when he could get a nice clean run and blistered the Vipers. This was one very fast Corvette.
The big problem, or the most exciting thing, depending on how your car runs, is that 24-hour races have become sprint races over the past few years. There used to be a pace to these things. This time, even before darkness arrived, the Sports Racers began breaking-the pace was just too fast. At the same time, the Viper and Corvette train just kept going.
Before the start of the race, folks in the garage had been talking about how this could be the year when a GTO car takes first overall. As the Ferrari and Riley & Scott sports racers started breaking, it was beginning to look as though that prediction could become reality. Everyone was pushing as hard as possible, and the attrition rate was high. The GTO cars were setting the pace.
The Rolex 24 is about racing in darkness. There is a tremendous amount of darkness at Daytona. Remember, it's mid-winter and the nights are long. LeMans has only about five hours of darkness, while Daytona has over 10 hours. The 24-hour Daytona race is the night race of the world.
The secret to racing in the dark is to hold your position and not make mistakes. While this may have been the conventional wisdom, the Viper team picked up the pace during the long night. The Corvette team stayed right with them. The Rolex 24 was starting to resemble a shootout.
Then Pratt & Miller, the C5-R team, had problems with the fueling rig at one of the stops. While the Viper team was clicking off textbook pit stops that were the envy of NASCAR teams, the Corvette group had a series of little problems. If you add up the time the C5-Rs spent in the pits and compared it to the time the Vipers spent in the pits, the #3 C5-R won the race hands down. The reality is that the winner of the race is determined by who crosses the finish line first. The time you spend-or lose-in the pits counts the same as your speed on the pavement.
As the night turned into day the stage was set and the serious racing began. You could sense it in the air-this was going to be for all the marbles. After 20 hours of racing, we were about to witness a four-hour sprint race.
The big event of the morning was when the Viper sprinted into first place overall. The #3 Corvette followed close behind. If it could pass the Viper, Corvette would win its first major international race.
During the final session, Ron Fellows was chasing Wendlinger's Viper with everything he had. With a half-hour to go, it was DaimlerChrysler vs. GM. It was also the Austrian vs. the Canadian. The cars and the drivers have never been so evenly matched at the end of 23 1/2 hours. Ron Fellows has made beating these Vipers a personal vendetta. He has become very tired of chasing them around the race tracks of the world. Fellows wanted to win this one-bad.
Even with the Corvette's superior speed on the banking of Daytona, Fellows simply couldn't close that minute gap on the Viper. A Corvette victory wasn't in the cards-not quite yet. The Corvettes lost to the Vipers all last year, but it was never really close. This year was different. A Corvette victory was-and is-there for the taking. It's one thing to go into a race knowing you really can't win unless the big dogs break or make a mistake, but when it comes down to the final half-hour, and you've been this close, it really hurts.
The big difference this year is that, with all the initial first-year excitement gone, GM has put forth a much more professional effort. The bad part is the Viper team is about as good as a race team can get. The Pratt & Miller Corvette team still has room for improvement.
Everyone seemed to agree that Pratt & Miller is no match for the ORECA Viper team-yet. Though both race programs began at roughly the same time, the Viper team has a lot more actual race experience. This showed at Daytona. Pratt & Miller will close this gap as quickly as possible.
The tires are another matter. Goodyear is going through one of those slumps that all major corporations have. They've bailed out of Formula 1 and CART racing. This year at Daytona they supplied six or seven fewer race teams than ever before. The only place Goodyear remains competitive is NASCAR, where they are the only tire supplier. Some people feel that this tire problem is really due to the construction of Goodyear's race tires, not simply the rubber compound. The Corvette team has tested on Pirelli race rubber and was very pleased. The only problem is that it becomes very difficult to sell your street Corvette with Goodyears and then use a different brand for the race cars.
The tire situation is going to be a real test of GM's courage in racing. Will they make this seemingly necessary change in the quest to win races? This Viper versus Corvette contest has become a real blood feud. These two race teams are out to show who's the best. The Viper team has the experience and the good tires. The Corvette now has the speed.
This straight-line speed could be a deciding factor at Le Mans. Keep in mind that the straight at Le Mans is four-and-a-half miles long. This is one track where terminal velocity is critical. It's also a place where the Corvette has the advantage. Right now all the bets seem to be on the Corvette for LeMans.
Remember, the whole 2000 C5-R racing program is about one race in France. Everything else is just practice. Last year wasn't a bad year for a new Corvette team. This year the Corvettes are ready to take the lead. This is starting to shape up like the old Ford-Ferrari wars. Only now it's The Bow Tie vs. The Snake.
It's Hard to Pull the Plug
There comes a time when nothing else can be done. Everyone has worked as hard as they possibly can and the car is still going to die. At the very best you can keep it alive-but only on life support. That happened to the McCauley/SpecterWerkes/Sports Corvette team this year.
This Corvette team is composed of a bunch of guys who have hung around together for years in the Detroit area. They've built some pretty decent race cars and they aren't afraid to test them for 24 hours. Jeff Nowicki is the builder of the SpectreWerkes/Sports Corvette and one of the top Cor-vette tuners in the world.
He is also the only Corvette tuner who currently puts his car on the line. The Mallets, John Lingenfelter, and Reeves Callaway all talk performance, but never show up when the best cars in the world compete. (Editor's note: Callaway has competed in many venues, including Le Mans in the past.) You have to give Jeff a lot of credit for running with the big dogs.
This was a hard year for SpectreWerkes, because they had to run with the factory teams. There was a 4-liter limit on the GTU cars, leaving Jeff racing with the GTO factory Vipers and Corvettes. They knew they could never win, but they wanted to finish. The problems began even before the sun went down. The serpentine belt came off a couple of times in the late afternoon, apparently caused by a problem with the idler pulley. This was no major deal, except that the resulting overheating would later contribute to much more severe problems.
Around the dinner hour, the clutch began acting strange. This meant a return to the garage area, where the team began to pull the clutch. It turned out that there was a crack in the clutch slave cylinder. They replaced it, and the optimism that is a trademark of this team returned.
Then, in the dead of the night, the head gaskets let go. Very likely, this could be blamed on the earlier overheating caused by the thrown belt episodes. Again this tired band of Corvette enthusiasts took to the task at hand. In what must have been record time the cylinder head gaskets were replaced and the SpectreWerkes Corvette was back on the track. At least they would finish. Or so they thought.
Then, as the sun came up, the "gods of racing" delivered one final blow. As John Heinricy said, "We found out something we already knew. The stock C5 driveshaft coupler can't take 550 lb-ft of torque." Re-member, this is the team that wouldn't quit, so they pulled a stock SpectreWerkes Cor-vette over to the garage entrance.
The team wanted to swap out the driveshafts and keep on going. At this point it was a purely a quest to finish. Jeff and his sponsor, Jack Cauley Chevrolet, told the team it was their decision. That was when Crew Chief Danny Kellemyer decided to pull the plug. He congratulated the crew on the incredible effort they put forth, but pointed out that it was really all over. This was a crew that had gone beyond everyone's expectations. As the reality set on this band of warriors, grown men were holding back tears. When you've spent over 20 hours in an effort to keep the dream alive, pulling the plug is not something you want to do.
Somehow I know that SpectreWerkes will be back next year. This is the team that refuses to die. These folks are willing to test themselves and their cars against the long grind of a 24-hour endurance race. While the other Corvette tuners are resting at home and sleeping in their nice, warm beds, the SpectreWerkes team has this need for speed. They have this insane urge to spend the night proving they make the best Corvette in the world. You have to believe in them.
What's Happening in Sports Car Racing?
Sports car racing has never been big in the United States. It also seems to be in a constant state of confusion, and the 2000 season is only one more example of this chaos. Essentially, we have two groups. The Daytona race was sanctioned by the Grand American Road Racing Association, often called Grand Am.
This group has the blessing of the France family of NASCAR fame. The idea is to create a road racing series where the average millionaire can race, and stand a good chance of winning. They run four classes of cars: Sports Racer, GTO, GTU, and the American GT division. You can actually trace this group back to the old IMSA organization.
The other group is called the American LeMans Series. This group was put together by billionaire Don Panoz, and follows all the LeMans rules. It is also a series designed for the factory teams. This is the playground for the Audi, Cadillac, and BMW teams. These teams have the types of racing budgets that make the average multi-millionaire blanch.
Daytona is a very special event and draws cars that you won't see in Grand Am racing for the rest of the year. The Vipers, the C5-R Corvettes, and the new Cadillac will run the ALMs series for the rest of the 2000 season. BMW and Audi took a pass on Daytona and will show up at Sebring, where we'll also see some additional factory efforts.
The only reason the Vipers and C5-R Corvettes ended up challenging for the Daytona lead was that the Sports Racers class was composed of some very old cars that simply couldn't keep the pace. By the time the sun rose over the Atlantic Ocean they were all broken. This won't happen at Sebring.
It's hard to pick a winner between the ALMS and the Grand Am series. Both groups have large bank accounts and very enthusiastic management teams. The only thing for certain is that in a few years, only one group will remain. Then, on the other hand, they might both be gone.