In 1999, Corvette Racing hit the road-racing scene with the all-new C5-R race car. The car's main competition in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) was the dreaded Dodge Viper. The Vipers won everywhere they competed, and they proved more than a match for the C5-Rs early on. It took the GM-backed, Pratt & Miller-prepared Vettes one-and-a-half years before they finally beat the Vipers at Texas Motor Speedway in the summer of 2000.
When the Vipers withdrew from competition at the end of the 2000 season, the Corvettes became the dominant force in GT1 and never looked back. During the 2006 season, ALMS organizers became so concerned over the C6.Rs' invincibility that they created a "performance adjustment" method of slowing the Corvettes by adding weight and reducing the size of their air inlets. It worked, and the Prodrive Aston Martin DBR9s won five of the season's eleven races.
In protest, Corvette Racing threatened to withdraw from the ALMS and send the C6.Rs to Europe. Instead, the opposite happened: Prodrive withdrew, leaving the Corvette as the only factory entry in the GT1 category for 2007. This is unfortunate, since European GT competition is very popular with racing fans. When Team VETTE attended the 24 Hours of Spa last July, the GT1 class boasted 11 of the race's 43 total entries, including cars from Maserati, Aston Martin, and Saleen. It would have been interesting to see how the Corvette Racing C6.Rs fared in this environment.
If the 55th running of the 12 Hours of Sebring is any prediction, this season should be a cakewalk for the Corvettes. Only three cars were entered in the GT1 category-two Vettes and one ex-factory Aston Martin DBR9. In fact, the biggest news of the weekend may have been the unveiling of a racing version of the white Ron Fellows Commemorative Z06 road car. (See accompanying piece.)
Driven by Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, and Jan Magnussen, the freshly liveried No. 3 captured the GT1 pole position with a time of 1:57.061. The Beretta/Gavin/Papis No. 4 was a tick behind at 1:57.480. The Corvettes' only competition, the ex-Prodrive DBR9 of Antonio Garcia, Liz Halliday, and David Turner, nailed down third with a 1:58.241.
From the time the green flag fell at 10 a.m., the Corvettes' superiority was never in doubt. The white No. 3 quickly seized the class lead, a position it would maintain for the first three hours of the race. From hour four on, the No. 4 car dominated the GT1 category.
If nothing else, the race provided an excellent opportunity for the crew to try out new equipment prior to the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June. One item of particular note is a revised driving-compartment air-conditioning system. GM engineers designed a new high-performance A/C compressor that runs off the engine and drains very little horsepower. It pumps cold air into the cabin and dramatically reduces inside cockpit temperatures.
Driver Oliver Gavin was very happy with the new system, saying, "The A/C performs so well that I sometimes want to turn it off, which is very unusual for a closed race car." Nearly every driver who exited the car after a pit stop looked refreshed and ready to head out again.
The lone Aston Martin started the race from pit lane because of an oil leak and was never in contention during the 12-hour grind. But with only three cars in the class, the Aston was all but guaranteed a podium finish. In the end, the No. 4 Corvette took the class win (Seventh overall), the No. 3 car was Second/Eighth, and the Aston was Third/Eleventh.
Despite the significant margin of victory, the Corvette Racing crews worked through their pit stops as if the competition was breathing down their neck. Their stops were fast and perfect. These skills will be required when they head across the pond to take on the competition at this year's Le Mans.
In the meantime, unless someone decides to take on the Corvettes, the ALMS GT1 championship race looks like it will be essentially competition-free. Too bad for the fans.
Fellows Saluted at Sebring Corvette Corral
Corvette Racing and the National Corvette Museum once again sponsored a large Corvette Corral at the Sebring 12-hour. This year's corral paid tribute to longtime Pratt & Miller driver Ron Fellows. Guests of honor included Vehicle Line Executive Tom Wallace, Corvette Plant Manager Wil Cooksey, Corvette Product Manager Harlan Charles, Corvette Racing Group Marketing Manager Gary Claudio, NCM Chairman of the Board Buzz Nielsen, and legendary Corvette racer Dr. Dick Thompson.
On the Friday before the race, Charles presented Fellows with the keys to the first Ron Fellows ALMS GT1 Champion Corvette Z06. As we told you in July's "Currents," the Fellows Z is a limited-run model (399 will be built, all of which are spoken for) intended to commemorate the Canadian driver's nearly decade-long association with Corvette Racing. After the presentation, the rest of the team's drivers joined Fellows for a lengthy autograph session.
Fellows began racing in 1986, at the wheel of a showroom-stock Camaro. He went on to become one of the most successful drivers in the history of Trans Am, posting 19 wins in 95 starts before joining the Corvette Racing team in 1998. At the 2000 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona, he finished 31 seconds behind the overall winning Dodge Viper-one of the closest finishes in the race's long history.
Fellows fared better at Daytona the next year, winning overall with Chris Kneifel, Johnny O'Connell, and Franck Freon as co-drivers. Then, in June of 2001, a team composed of Fellows, O'Connell, and Scott Pruett drove a C5-R to a GTS-class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Corvette Racing also captured the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) manufacturer GTS title that year, a feat they would accomplish in each of the next five seasons. It was during this stage of his career that Fellows began working with performance scientist Dr. Jacques Dallare to improve his physical and mental training. A fan favorite, Fellows has been voted Most Popular Driver in ALMS for the past three years.
For 2007, Fellows is back with Corvette Racing in a limited, "supporting" role. He will be the third driver for the three long-distance races and will compete at Mosport, his home track. He will sit out the other races and provide technical input from behind the pit wall.
In his off time, Ron supports a number of charity programs. Like many Canadians, he has a deep passion for hockey, namely the Toronto Maple Leafs. He is a resident of Mississauga, Ontario, where he was instrumental in setting up the Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship. The series helps promising young Canadian drivers get involved in professional racing.
On Saturday, Tom Wallace drove Ron's Z06 on a parade lap around Sebring. Wil Cooksey, driving an '07 Indy Pace car, followed closely behind him. Later on, Corvette Corral participants lined the grandstands to watch the C6.Rs roar by in First and Second place in the GT1 category for the entire 12-hour race.
In the end, the Sebring weekend served as a fitting tribute to a formidable Corvette racer and an exceptional human being. We're confident Ron Fellows will continue to exert a positive influence on Corvette Racing for many years to come, whether from behind the wheel or behind the scenes.