Corvette Racing is always keen to show what it's made of, but having a chance to do so in front of the hometown crowd in Detroit really kicks the team members into high gear. The Second Annual Detroit Grand Prix brought relatively good weather and a reasonably fine racing surface (for a street course) on the Belle Isle venue. Roger Penske has taken the lead in assuring that this event goes smoothly, and anything "The Captain" gets involved in is sure to be a success. As it did last year, the Detroit event encompassed a weekend full of racing, with the ALMS groups paired with both IRL and SPEED GT to create a spectator's road-racing overload.
Exercising home-field advantage, the Corvette team brought along anyone and everyone involved with the racing program. The "bigwigs" from GM were well represented, with the likes of Ed Peper, Mark Kent, and Tom Wallace. Emerson Fittipaldi was also there to watch over his adopted ALMS team (Fittipaldi's daughter is married to Max Papis, who pulls driving duties in a C6.R at long-distance events) and to drive the race's Z06 pace car. And seemingly everyone from Pratt & Miller made the drive over from the company's home base in nearby New Hudson. With all the extra foot traffic in the paddock garage, it was a wonder the Vette crews were able to keep on schedule and on task.
The ALMS weekend was scheduled so as to provide minimal exposure to the track. Friday brought a morning warm-up and an afternoon practice, followed later by a qualifying round. The Corvettes hid out for the afternoon practice session as a brief rain shower doused the track. Having experienced significant shunts the last two races, the team had no interest in potentially damaging the freshly repaired C6.Rs.
The afternoon qualifying session did offer relatively dry conditions, allowing Jan Magnussen, in the No. 3 car, to edge out Oliver Gavin's No. 4 for class pole position. Taking advantage of the tight street course, two nimble Porsche GT2 entries squeezed into time slots between the two GT1 team Corvettes. The lone GT1 Aston DBR9, with Terry Borcheller aboard, dutifully filled in the third GT1 class position.
Following a brief warm-up on Saturday, the race got underway early in the afternoon. The start was briefly delayed when the leaders stretched themselves out so much the starter waved them off on the initial try. With the field well bunched and behaving themselves, the green flag was dropped and the racers charged ahead in the shadow of GM's Renaissance Towers.
Before the race, the two Porsche GT2 drivers had advised the Corvette team that they would be watching for Gavin's forward charge and would not hold him up. It took a few laps for the Brit to pull into position behind the No. 3 car, but the maneuver went off uneventfully. The race was to be 2 hours and 45 minutes in length, so two pit stops were planned. During lap 40, both C6.Rs came in for their scheduled service appointments. In an uncharacteristic bungle, Dan Bink's team let the No. 3 car down off of its air jacks before the left rear wheel nut could be sufficiently tightened. This prompted the car to be raised again so the nut could be properly torqued, after which it was dropped once again to finally reenter the fight. The additional time allowed the No. 4 to scoot out ahead of its stablemate and gain the class lead.
Given the tight confines of the Belle Isle street course, catching up to the No. 4 car would prove next to impossible for Magnussen. Both C6.Rs performed flawlessly the rest of the day, and the second pit stop brought no unpleasant surprises for either crew. The race concluded with Gavin and Olivier Beretta taking First place in GT1, while Magnussen and Johnny O'Connell captured Second. The Aston brought up the GT1 rear in Third, fully seven laps down from the Corvettes.
The overall race win was captured by the Andretti-Green Acura LMP2. In fact, Acura stole the show by finishing 1-2-3 to capture the podium and move ahead of Porsche in the LMP2 points race. One of the impressive Audi R10 LMP1 cars initially finished Third overall, but it was disqualified in post-race technical inspection when it was found to be two pounds lighter than the rules allowed. The LMP2 Porsche Spyders took four of the next five places, while the Corvettes rounded out the top 10 with Ninth and Tenth Place finishes.
The GT1 victory was especially gratifying for Gavin, as he had closed out the last two races with DNFs precipitated by significant off-track excursions. The win gave crew chief Mike West and the rest of the No. 4-car crew their first win since St. Petersburg at the beginning of the season. General Motors, meanwhile, had the weekend of weekends. The company celebrated Chevrolet's centenary by winning the 100th race entered by the modern Corvette Racing team, all under the approving gaze of the hometown crowd.
Corvette Racing Team Profile: Ralph Simpson
They say an army travels on its stomach. The same could be said of the Corvette Racing team, whose successes are powered by the fare emanating from the kitchen of culinary overlord Ralph Simpson. The work days in the Corvette garage are long and vigorous. The crew works tirelessly at the track, typically laboring from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., and the only breaks are often those taken at mealtimes. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are served each day while the team is at an event, and Simpson is in charge of making sure it all happens flawlessly. To accomplish this, he rises at 3 a.m., traveling to the grocery store to stockpile ice, drinks, and snack essentials for the day. He then makes sure the various mobile coolers stationed at the garage and the pits are well stocked, supplying the team with cold drinks and calories as they need them. Once he arrives at the track, having already set up the silver chafing dishes in the hospitality area, he visits the traveling kitchen that services many of the ALMS teams. There, he begins the daylong transfer of hot food to the Corvette garage in the paddock. If the job seems effortless for Simpson, it's only because he's spent a lifetime refining his methods.
Simpson started out in 1965 as a truck owner/operator with two rigs in his stable. He later had an opportunity to enter the hired-coach business, and from 1977 to 1983, he worked as a charter bus driver to learn the ins and outs of that business. By 1984 he had developed a relationship with Marathon Coach and started a company that catered to the rich and famous, supplying transportation and logistics upon request. His past-clients list reads like a who's who in business and entertainment, including corporations such as American Airlines, Calvin Klein, Coca-Cola, and Disney Studios, as well as world-famous touring musicians such as Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, Paul McCartney, and U2
Simpson's business was booming, but it was hard, relentless work. In 1996, he decided to sell the company and retire from the rigors of the road. Retirement would not last long. In 2000, Marathon called Simpson with a desperate plea for help. It seemed the company had several racing clients, including Penske and Corvette Racing, clamoring for the services and expertise he possessed. Corvette Racing eventually won out, and Simpson has been the go-to man for the team's culinary needs ever since. In addition to his Corvette obligations, Simpson runs a hospitality rig for Delphi Corporation and is involved with NASCAR and IRL. With that busy schedule, he is on the road constantly from February through October.
When Simpson is on task, it's best not to get in the way. But catch him after hours, and his stories of past experiences on the road will keep you spellbound. He does everything in a first-class way, just like the rest of the Corvette Racing family. He's an essential part of the crew that makes the C6.R program a success.