GM Racing's 2001 season for the factory-backed Corvettes concluded at the 10-hour long/1,000 mile Petite Le Mans held on October 6th at Road Atlanta and for the second time in a row, Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, and Franck Freon shepherded the No.4 C5-R to first place in GTS class at the enduro. The hard-fought class victory earned the 2001 American Le Mans Series (ALMS) GTS manufacturer championship for Chevrolet and the GTS team championship for Pratt & Miller.
The victory in Atlanta was a fitting finale to what may have been the most successful season in Corvette's long and storied road racing history. In addition to the manufacturer and team titles, the Chevrolet-owned, Pratt & Miller-run two-car effort won six out of eight races in ALMS competition, took home First and Second in class at this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, and won the 24 Hours at Daytona overall.
It was almost a perfect season for Corvette Racing. The only element missing was the ALMS GTS driver's championship, which was garnered not by a Corvette driver but instead by Konrad Motorsport/Team Saleen's Terry Borcheller. Ron Fellows, lead driver in the No.3 Corvette, came to Atlanta 11 points ahead of Second Place Borcheller in the driver standings and was clearly favored to win the title. In fact, even if Borcheller and his Saleen teammates won the race, Fellows would still have won the driver's title-if he and co-pilots Johnny O'Connell and Scott Pruett finished Fourth or better in class. But when the checkered flag waved No.3 was ranked last among nine GTS cars and 40th in a field of 41 cars, ahead of only a prototype class car that crashed before completing even its first lap.
The uncharacteristic and downright bizarre series of problems that plagued No.3 began well before the race started. At the very beginning of qualifying the car's driveshaft literally tore in two, damaging various undercar components as its broken halves flailed about. The driveshaft, made of carbon fiber, is incredibly strong and nobody present recalled ever seeing a failure of this sort. Prior to the race start No.3 also suffered a problem with the computerized engine management system. This resulted in a damaged piston and the loss of a cylinder.
Crew chief Bill DeLong and his mechanics worked late into Friday night fixing the driveshaft damage and installing a new engine for the all-important race. In the Saturday morning warm-up period No.3 was given a few easy, then some not so easy laps to ensure that the new parts, installed the night before, functioned properly.
They did, and if Fellows was shaken by his bad luck the previous day he didn't show it, exuding great confidence in his teammates, the crew and the car.
As the start of the race neared, C5-R No.4 assumed its position on the grid ahead of all other GTS competitors. Andy Pilgrim had not only out-qualified Fellows, three Vipers, and a Ferrari 550 Maranello, but for the first time all year also outran Borcheller in the fastest of three Saleen S7-Rs entered. Fellows started at the back of the pack owing to his car's qualifying woes. Not good but not the end of the world in a 10-hour race.
Before the field completed the first lap, the aforementioned prototype car, a Lola B2K, crashed into the wall exiting turn 12, bringing out a full course caution. The Corvette team decided ahead of time that if there was a full course yellow early in the race they'd bring No.3 in for a splash of fuel. The logic was simple: a splash in the beginning of the race could potentially obviate the need for the same late in the race and, taken in the beginning, it would be essentially free since Fellows was already at the back of the pack. He could come in and zip back out without losing a position. So in he came, exactly as planned. What wasn't planned, however, was a short in the starter motor. After re-firing the engine, the starter motor continued to spin. By the time the car made it halfway around the track the starter's overloaded circuitry began to burn, stalling the engine and preventing it from being started again. Fellows radioed in the situation and the crew immediately went into action, heading toward the stranded racer on a utility cart loaded with tools and parts. Upon reaching the car, the crew radioed to team manager Gary Pratt that the car was stranded in an unsafe place on the track. Pratt asked a pit official if his men could push the car to a safe spot and the official said yes. Pratt relayed this to the crew and they acted instantly. Moments later, another official told Pratt that his crew could not touch the car while it was on course and, if they did, it would be disqualified. They had and it was, dashing Fellows' chances for a much-deserved championship title.
During Fellows' agonizing ordeal and afterward, C5-R No.4 roared along, like an iron horse with a full head of steam. Despite at least three minor collisions with other cars (each of which, by the way, was clearly the other guy's fault) Pilgrim, Collins, and Freon drove faultlessly and their crew, led by Frank Resciniti, performed just as well. They truly earned their victory and the glory it brought to both Chevrolet and Pratt & Miller.
2002 And Beyond
That glory will continue next year, as the factory Corvette racing team will contest the entire ALMS series, as well as the 2002 24 Hours of Le Mans. That's good news indeed considering that GM only initially committed to the C5-R program for three years. Corvette began racing in 1999, making 2001 the program's final year. That, plus the fact that the primary objective-a class victory at Le Mans-was realized this past June, made some pundits opine that GM would call it quits. Instead, it appears that, as of now at least, there is a plan in place to continue racing factory-supported Corvettes beyond the current production model's life span. If the production timeline proceeds on schedule then, we should see a C6-R hit the track in 2004.
The C5-R will continue to evolve in 2002 as it has since its inception. A cursory glance will reveal few if any differences from what came before but a more careful evaluation will undoubtedly disclose many small but important developments.
"We'll continue to look at all areas of the car," says team manager Pratt. "We feel there are aero gains to be made and we'll be doing testing in that area. We're always looking at engines in terms of both power and reliability. We'll look at saving weight where we can."
The C5-Rs are competing against the world's best cars and teams, and continued development is absolutely essential if the Corvettes are to remain at the front of the pack. This is, of course, also true of the drivers that pilot the C5-Rs and the crews that keep them going. Corvette Racing's driver lineup, which clearly ranks at the top in professional sports car racing, will remain the same in 2002. And the Pratt & Miller crew, augmented by engineering talent from within GM, will continue to hone their skills and teamwork, which played a large role in this year's successes.
All of the elements that make for a winning program-great cars, top-notch drivers, and a tireless and talented crew-will be needed to face the opposition both at home and abroad. Particularly threatening are the potent Saleens, which showed their mettle by beating the Corvettes twice, at the Sebring 12-hour race and at Laguna Seca, in 2001.
"Saleen has proven to be very capable," admits Gary Claudio, "and the cars have gotten better at every race. Next year we'll have to work that much harder to stay ahead of them."
Regarding the Ferrari 550 Maranello that was recently homologated for ALMS GTS class competition, Claudio had this to say: "It would be foolish not to be wary of a sheep in red clothing, particularly if Ferrari is there to support its cars. If they come out of the ether and decide to compete they will undoubtedly be a formidable foe."
Besides the army of Saleens and the potent Ferrari 550, Corvettes may also once again face stiff competition from Dodge Vipers. The French Team ORECA, which guided the GTS-R Vipers to the pinnacle of racing success in years past, may run a team again in 2002, now that their Chrysler prototype racing program has ended. And if Saleens, a Ferrari, and Vipers were not enough, there are persistent rumors of more factory GTS racing programs, perhaps from Nissan, Aston Martin, and others coming to fruition in 2002.
It certainly does seem as though the factory Corvette racers will be outnumbered even if they are not outgunned. Helping to alleviate that problem, however, will be the sale of C5-Rs to "privateers." At least two privately entered C5-Rs are expected to run next year. A British team called Atomic Kitten Racing (AKR) recently took delivery of two brand new C5-Rs and several more cars are currently under construction at Pratt & Miller. AKR and other qualified teams will have all of the latest equipment and data that the factory team has, and will benefit from considerable technical support from The General.
With the intense level of competition in the ALMS as a whole and the GTS class in particular, 2002 promises to be incredibly thrilling. The series' schedule, which includes longer races than in previous years, adds to the excitement. The final icing on the cake is that those longer events will take place on two temporary street courses (Washington, D.C. and Miami) and eight of the most historic and beautiful road race courses in the world. Gone from the itinerary are the "rovals" (superspeedway ovals with an infield road course section) that competitors and fans alike found rather boring.
Study the 2002 schedule and do your best to get to at least one of the races so you can cheer the Corvettes on in person. In stark contrast to Formula One and even NASCAR, ALMS racing is exceedingly fan friendly and you are guaranteed to have the time of your life.
2002 American Le Mans Series Schedule
12 hours long
3 hours long
4 hours long
4 hours long
500 miles long
3 hours long
3 hours long
4 hours long
4 hours long
1,000 miles long