Road Atlanta racetrack is the home of the American Le Mans Series' penultimate round, the Petit Le Mans. To the competitors, the race is of special importance, as a win in class here guarantees an invitation to the world's premier sports-car race, the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
Twenty-eight cars in four performance classes lined up to see who would carry home the honors this year. The series is picking up momentum, as evidenced by a record crowd of 90,000, a 26 percent increase over last season. Spectators piled into the race course on Saturday morning to see the 10-hour or 1,000-mile (whichever comes first) race, packing the 240-acre infield to capacity before noon and forcing authorities to prematurely close infield spectator access. Disappointed fans had to be diverted to alternate parking areas around the course. (To their credit, Road Atlanta officials have committed to major renovations to both the road course and the facility's infrastructure.)
The Petit Le Mans event is spread over a rolling, tree-lined landscape. The 2.54-mile track features major elevation changes and quick sections followed by tight corners-an ideal recipe for pushing a car's suspension and braking systems to their limits. Adding to the challenge for the Corvette Racing team, the dietitians at the ALMS had concocted a special weight-gain regimen to keep the C6.Rs' performance in line with that of their competition.
Prior to the race, the Corvettes were saddled with 110 pounds more than their closet rivals, the Aston Martin DBR9s. This was especially disadvantageous, as the Astons already enjoyed a significant performance edge in the engine compartment. Due to their success early in the season, the Corvettes were required to run air restrictors two sizes smaller than the ones used on the Astons.
These penalties had taken a toll on the Corvettes, effectively relegating them to Third and Fourth in class barring some terminal problem on the part of the Astons. This performance disparity left GM and Pratt & Miller little choice but to "go for it" everywhere on the track and hope the Vettes' brakes would hold up. At hilly Road Atlanta, that promised to be an especially daunting task.
Qualifying for the race was held on Friday. Georgia resident and Road Atlanta vet Johnny O'Connell eagerly jumped into the No. 3 car, while Oliver Gavin took up the reins in No. 4. For long-distance races like Petit, the team employs three drivers per car. No. 3-car regulars O'Connell and Ron Fellows share seat time with "Mad" Max Papis, while Gavin and Olivier Beretta are joined by Jan Magnussen in No. 4. These driver lineups for Petit, Sebring, and Le Mans have been together for three years now, and their synergy is apparent.
O'Connell threw down the gauntlet by notching a 1:18.210 time to take the GT1 pole. Gavin qualified second with a 1:18.460, with the Astons just behind in third and fourth. Is it possible the British invaders were playing a little cat and mouse with the field, waiting to reveal their full potential at race time?
To truly appreciate the effect of the weight and air-restrictor penalties on the C6.R, consider last year's qualifying record of 1:16.627, posted by Beretta. The Corvette was a full 1.6 seconds slower than last year's car at Road Atlanta, even though the teams had an extra season's worth of racing experience under their belts.
The race got off to an inauspicious start Saturday morning when the flag stand didn't like the rolling lineup and threw a yellow flag instead of the anticipated green. Better organized the next time around, the start tower finally cut the field loose to the din of revving engines and the screams of nearly 100,000 fans. Fellows quickly assumed the lead in GT1, with Gavin slotting in behind him in second. Fellows established a fast pace and led the class for most of the first hour.
After the first pit stops, the class settled into a back-and-forth battle for the lead. It didn't take the Aston boys long to catch the Corvettes, with Stephane Sarrazin in the No. 009 car taking front position away from Fellows. Shortly after taking over in the No. 3 Vette, O'Connell was punted off course by one of the LM Prototypes. This was to be the first of two collisions suffered by the No. 3 car, as the No. 007 Aston of Darren Turner would also shove Johnny O. off in the sixth hour. Turner was subsequently penalized with a stop-and-go in pit lane for aggressive driving. Even so, it didn't take the speedy Brit long to catch the leading Corvette once again.
The performance disparity brought about by the machinations of ALMS officials really showed every time the Astons found themselves behind the Corvettes. It was tough to watch the Astons shadowing the C6.Rs, dropping lap times by half a second per lap while in catch-up mode. It was obvious the Corvettes were laboring to brake and maneuver through each corner. The Astons, meanwhile, were pulling up quickly behind the Vettes through the braking zones, seemingly taying off the brakes altogether.
Once behind a Corvette, the Astons simply waited to pounce. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, it was merely a matter of goosing the gas and away went the DBR9, past the C6.R and off into the sunset. Soon, there was a 1-minute gap separating the two.
The ALMS simply must stop tinkering with the series recipe in an effort to level the playing field. Otherwise, officials may soon find that the "high-calorie diet" being forced on successful entrants has proved detrimental to the development of their young series.
Fortunately, the No. 4 car managed to escape the "offs" and contact experienced by No. 3. Gavin, Beretta, and Magnussen labored away under the same handicaps as their teammates but kept the yellow nose of their racecar firmly planted on the rears of the green machines from Aston. The extra weight carried by the Corvettes eventually took a toll on the cars' brakes, however, and the carbon pads used to stop the C6.R finally gave out. The No. 4 car came in for a pit stop late in the race and was forced to change pads and rotors on both the left and right front. That put the team down two laps to the Astons and took them out of the race for the class lead. Soon after, the No. 3 car was in for service. It, too, required a complete front-brake change, knocking it down two laps despite the crew's miraculous 4-minute pit-stop effort.
Although GM's engineers and the Pratt & Miller crew did everything they could to overcome their cars' legislated obesity, in the end, it was all for naught. The race finished with 1,000 miles accomplished in 9.5 hours, the Astons sitting in First and Second and the Corvettes trailing in Third and Fourth.
Only one race remained in the ALMS schedule, and the duel at Monterey's Laguna Seca race course would determine the series championship. The Corvette team was 7 points ahead in the manufacturer's standings after Petit Le Mans, and Olivier and Oliver had an 11-point lead for the driver's championship.
Would the ALMS allow the Corvette to forego the mandated high-calorie diet and regain its original trim form? Either way, the folks at Pratt & Miller and GM Racing would be doing everything they could to keep the foreign invaders from usurping their American championship.
In 2006, the American Le Mans Series sanctioning body decided to adjust the competitiveness of series entries by penalizing certain teams that showed a performance advantage over their competition. To this end, officials demanded that the successful C6.Rs of Corvette Racing be placed on an immediate weight-gain program.
The ALMS dietitians fiddled constantly with the amount of "success" weight added throughout the year's race schedule. The result was that the Corvettes were consistently overweight compared with their competition. Fortunately for the Vettes, the extra weight didn't have to be added in any specific place. This allowed the engineers to distribute the ballast to their best advantage.
Here, Corvette Team member David James is attaching a weight plate to the inside bottom of the C6.R's carbon-fiber door. These plates, which come in various sizes, were placed in strategic spots throughout the car in an effort to minimize their effect on handling.