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.
Figuring that someone who lived with the C5-Rs had a good idea of what to expect, I returned to the pits at promptly five o'clock. At 5:10 the #3 car came into the pits with what they diagnosed as an electrical problem. After changing some black boxes and the battery, the car went back out, still running on seven cylinders.
By 5:30 the #3 Corvette was seven laps down and the #4 Corvette was 12 laps down from the leading Viper. The enthusiasm had left with the Florida sunshine. It was now starting to resemble a deathwatch. I spent some time talking to Walt Thurn, one of the old crewmembers from the 1971 Corvette LeMans team. Thurn observed that the engine problem was purely mechanical, and it wasn't going to be solved by swapping electronics. Even the diehards were getting depressed now.
At six in the evening they took the #3 car back to the garage. The crew began tearing into the motor. They had finally decided to start looking at some mechanical solutions, or more correctly, problems. The intake manifold came off and the rocker arm covers removed. Then there was a lot of discussion regarding a valve spring on the left cylinder bank. The problem was either a burnt or bent valve there.
One of the saddest moments was that while the crew was still attempting to diagnose the problem, and hopefully get the car running at the end, the SpeedVision folks came over to remove the in-car camera. Even they had given up on the #3 Corvette.
At seven o'clock Justin Bell left the transporter in street clothes, with his garment bag over his shoulder. It was all over for the #3 car. It was simply a matter of loading everything back into the transporter and getting back to Detroit. Monday was not going to be a good day at Katech, the engine shop.
By the time I got back to the pit area the #4 Corvette was parked on pit road with a new transmission resting beside the car. Not only did the crew predict the time when things would go bad, they even predicted the component that would go bad on the #4 Corvette. This was the end of the road. The general feeling was one of total desperation.
Anyone who's ever been involved in racing knows the feeling that overwhelmed the Pratt & Miller team. They have several years of work involved in these cars and very little to show for it. At Daytona they thought they were reaching the peak of the mountain, only to be thrown down the slope. Chris Kneifel perhaps said it best when he observed that "I'm not disappointed because we dropped out of the race because that happens-things break. I'm more disappointed in knowing this wasn't our best effort. We can do better."
Monday morning in Detroit would not be a pleasant experience. This is a team set to embark on LeMans. The goal at LeMans is the same as it has been at every other race-beat the Vipers. This entire C5-R program is about one thing-once again establishing the Corvette as America's Sports Car.
Pratt & Miller, along with GM Racing, has proven that they can build a very fast race car. Goodyear even developed an outstanding new tire for the Sebring race. What's missing is something I like to call RaceCraft.
RaceCraft is making sure that your car is around at the finish and that pit management issues don't get reflected in the race results. All race teams have problems-that's what racing is all about. Beretta spun his Viper and then went on to win the class. One of the BMW prototypes ran out of gas and then finished third overall. Racing at the international level takes years of experience. That's where the Corvette is having problems. Winning is not just about having a fast car.
The C5-R Corvette has had the handling, and now it has the horsepower. It's just a matter of getting the car to finish without a problem. More succinctly, it's about having problems and overcoming them. Too often the problems stop the Corvette. By the time you read this the LeMans race will be over and we'll know the results of the entire C5-R racing effort. There's some reason to be optimistic, but we have to add realism to the picture. At this point we just wish everyone the best.
The Corvettes can beat the Vipers; it's just a matter of when. It's also a matter of resolve by General Motors. This program has been in operation since at least 1995 and has been on the race track for two years now. That's not a long time in the world of racing. But last year BMW won the Sebring race with a brand-new car, and this year Audi placed first and second with brand-new cars. The C5-R is ready to win. Pratt & Miller, and GM Racing, simply have to take charge of their own destiny. The Corvette community is going to have hold on just a little bit longer. This Corvette is capable of winning-and it will. They just can't have another week like the one they had in the central Florida sunshine.
(Editor's note. Official results from the 48th Annual Superflo 12 Hours at Sebring showed the 1st and 2nd place Audi prototypes both credited with completing 360 laps of the venerable course during the 12 hours. The three Team ORECA Vipers finished in 7th, 8th, and 9th, completing 327, 326, and 321 laps respectively and nabbing 1st, 2nd, and 3rd places in the GTS class. The tenth through 15th place finishers were all Porsches. The #4 Corvette C5-R, driven by Ron Fellows, Chris Kneifel, and Justin Bell, finished in 16th overall with 300 laps. The #3 C5-R, driven by Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, and Franck Freon, completed just 201 laps and placed a dismal 24th in a field of 42 entrants.)