This one hurt. The 2000 Sebring 12-Hour was a race that Chevrolet would like to forget as quickly as possible. The Corvette team didn't just lose-they lost ugly. The sad part was that the race began on such a high note of optimism. Standing on the grid in the bright Florida sun, all was right with the world. Then they started the race, and everything turned to gloom.
The Corvette C5-R came out of Daytona with its best finish ever. The Corvette had never done so well in a world endurance race. If the pit work at Daytona had been a little better the Corvette would have gained its first outright win in a major international race. It looked as though the learning curve had peaked and the Corvette was ready to finally knock off the Viper.
Saturday at Sebring dawned with perfect weather. Things were going so well that Dave Hill even predicted a win, and for once no one protested. This was the day. The C5-Rs had run thousands of miles at Sebring in testing. This is virtually their home track. The Oreca Viper team hadn't even tested at Sebring.
Ron Fellows was on the pole, and he had the look of determination on his face. He predicted that a Corvette win was imminent. After all, he had been testing here for a week before the race. This race was not going to turn out to be another Daytona. One of the two Corvettes was going to win this time.
In the very early stages of the race the #92 Viper made contact with a Prototype car and had to come in for a new right rear suspension. Now the odds were even. It was going to be two Vipers versus two Corvettes, and this was going to be the day for the Corvettes.
Then at noon the #4 Corvette came into the pits with an overheating problem. The front nose was removed, complete with the radiator. It quickly became obvious what the problem was. The ride height on the #4 car had been set too low, and the bumpy Sebring track wore right through the front splitter or spoiler. Ride height had been an issue earlier in the week during testing, and this car was set up with a slightly lower front ride height than the #3 Corvette. As one crewmember said, "It's the ride height issue coming back again."
As quickly as the Pratt & Miller crew team changed the front nose, they also realized that the race was over for the #4 Corvette. Sebring is really a 12-hour sprint race, and the Corvette was now several laps down with no real chance of getting back into the fray.
Then Chris Kneifel spun the #3 car at the hairpin. In spinning around he flat-spotted the tires and had to come into the pits for a new set of rubber. This meant the #3 Corvette was now a lap down to the #91 Viper and out of sequence on its pit stops. The optimism was starting to fade. Little did anyone know how bad it would really get.
During the early hours the #3 Corvette was running loose, while the #4 car developed a push. None of this was a major problem though, just one of those weird "racin' thangs." By three o'clock the #3 Corvette was running two laps behind the #91 and #92 Vipers, with the #4 Corvette running fifth. It wasn't looking good for the Corvettes.
Around four o'clock in the afternoon the despair was setting in, as the Vipers were running like a freight train on a mission. One of the Corvette crewmembers suggested to me that I eat my dinner early and come back around five o'clock with extra film. Asking the obvious question as to why I should do this, the reply was "That's when stuff will start falling off the cars. It always happens around seven hours into the race." The despair was really bad now.
When I asked what sort of problems he expected, he said it was hard to tell, but they would probably have to replace the transmission in the #4 car since the drivers in that car were rougher on the transmission than the #3 drivers.