Corvette Racing's domination continued as the 2002 American Le Mans Series season reached its half way point with the July 21st Cadillac Grand Prix of Washington in the nation's capital.
Despite formidable opposition from a small armada of Saleen S7-Rs, Ferraris, and Vipers, Corvette won the season opener, the famous Sebring 12 hour race, on March 16th. This was followed by class wins at Sears Point and the 24 Hours of Le Mans, where the Millenium Yellow stormers finished one-two for the second year in a row.
Following Le Mans, the Corvette team ventured to Lexington, Ohio, for the June 30th Grand Prix of Mid-Ohio. Though ProDrive's fabulously fast Ferrari 550 Maranello was not there (The Corvettes will probably not face Britain's ProDrive outfit again until the season finale, Petite Le Mans, in October) Team Olive Garden's 550 was in attendance. Also adding to the GTS mix were Konrad Motorsport's Saleen S7-R and two American Viper Racing GTS-R Vipers, all of which are series regulars.
Though still hampered by additional chassis weight and smaller engine intake air restrictors for failing to meet the ACO's (the French governing body that sets the rules for both Le Mans and ALMS racing) production-based racer rules, the S7-R's almost-pure race car design still places it well up front.
In spite of its phenomenal speed, however, the Konrad Saleen has been hampered by reliability problems for the past several races. At Mid-Ohio ace driver Terry Borcheller had to pit just 22 minutes into the fray to repair a broken half shaft.
While the once-dominant Vipers have fared poorly in the hands of privateers since Chrysler withdrew support after the 2000 season, American Viper Racing gets an A+ for effort and perseverance. This largely volunteer team came to Mid-Ohio with two new cars featuring numerous improvements (including 3 inches of additional body width) that bring them closer to the C5-Rs in terms of speed. In the reliability category, however, AVR still has some work to do with their new cars, the best of which finished third in class after suffering mechanical problems that put it a very distant 19 laps behind the winning No. 3 Ron Fellows/Johnny O'Connell C5-R.
Mechanical woes also took their toll on Olive Garden's bright green Ferrari, which ended up fourth in class, 33 laps behind the lead Corvette.
The next meeting came on July 7th in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, at the beautiful and historic Road America circuit. As at Mid-Ohio, Road America was blanketed by a vicious heat wave that made life inside closed race cars like the Corvettes nearly unbearable.
Ambient air temperatures well into the 90s and humidity numbers to match translated to cockpit temperatures topping 140 degrees.
In spite of the heat, Fellows managed a record-breaking 11th GTS class pole at Road America, passing the ALMS mark set by Olivier Beretta in the Oreca Viper.
Fellows, O'Connell, and Oliver Gavin's bid to keep their 2002 win streak alive was put in jeopardy early on at Road America when Terry Borcheller took the lead in his Saleen S7-R only 12 minutes after the race began. But six minutes later the Saleen's engine failed. Though this was their first engine problem since losing a cylinder at Portland last year, it was another problem in the string of bad luck Konrad's team has faced in 2002.
With the Saleen out, Corvette No. 3 regained the GTS class lead but hot on its heels was C5-R No. 4, driven by Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. The two Corvettes swapped the lead a couple of times until No. 3 fell victim to its own brand of bad luck about three-and-a-half hours into the four hour, fifteen minute contest. A clip holding its driver window safety net in place broke, allowing the net to come down. Fellows had to make an unscheduled pit stop so the Pratt & Miller crew could secure it back in place. The time lost could not be made up, and for the first time since their resounding victory in last year's Petite Le Mans No. 4 took the checkered flag ahead of No. 3.
The ALMS series next moved to Washington DC, where a temporary circuit was set up on public roads and through parking lots adjacent to RFK Stadium. As with Mid-Ohio and Road America, high heat and humidity were the order of the day, making it especially difficult and dangerous for drivers of closed cars.
Fellows made it five in a row and 12 total when he won the GTS pole for the historic July 21st race, but qualifying times made it apparent that the Corvettes were facing an ultra competitive GTS field. Pilgrim's No. 4 was just a .545 second behind No. 3, with Konrad's Saleen another .342 second back and Olive Garden's Ferrari a .254 second behind the Saleen.
As has happened frequently this year, Borcheller in the Saleen passed the Corvettes at the very beginning of the race. That didn't last long however as he had to come into the pits for a "stop and go" penalty levied after passing the Corvettes on the pace lap, before the green flag waved. Twenty minutes later Borcheller made contact with a GT class Porsche, causing both cars to spin. With that, he had to come in for repairs which effectively put the S7-R out of contention for the win.
Ensuing laps saw the Corvettes and the Olive Garden Ferrari trading among themselves for the top three positions. Despite a flat tire late in the game, No. 3 again showed superior mettle, taking the checkered flag 40 seconds ahead of its teammate, and 46 seconds ahead of the Ferrari.
The win in Washington was the fourth in five races this year for Fellows and O'Connell. Combined with the No. 4's victory at Road America it kept Corvette Racing's perfect record intact and brought the program that much closer to sweeping this year's driver, team, and manufacturer championships.