After the Sebring 12 Hours, the 1,000-mile/10-hour (whichever comes first) Petit Le Mans is the American Le Mans Series' crown-jewel event. The race continues to get bigger and better each year: For 2008, 113,000 people showed up to watch three days of racing on the 2.54-mile Road Atlanta track. The Corvette Racing crew took up residence early in the week to start working on race setups and perform a little development work on its upcoming GT2 entry. The weather was great all week, but that didn't prevent a number of casualties from occurring. Practice sessions on Wednesday afternoon and Thursday night were littered with cars damaged in off-track excursions. Few of the accidents were car-to-car problems; mostly, the drivers were simply pushing too hard and exceeding their vehicles' handling limits.
Corvette Racing, meanwhile, suffered a motoring accident of a different sort. Max Papis decided to ride his bicycle to the track from the team hotel, some 20 miles away. Along the way, he had an altercation with an 18-wheeler that sent him headlong into a pickup truck. The crash was pretty serious, cracking Papis' helmet and destroying the front of the bike. While he recovered enough to compete in the race, his face bore the scars of the incident.
In qualifying on Friday afternoon, Johnny O'Connell recorded a pole-winning time in the No. 3 car, setting a new class record of 1:16.542. Olivier Beretta was a scant 0.04 second behind in No. 4. The GM team looked pretty confident and well prepared getting ready for Saturday's race. The only real disappointment was the lack of competition. No one turned out to challenge the factory C6.Rs, leaving them to dual amongst themselves...again.
With no class rivalry to worry about, the Corvette team turned to another task: winning the newly established Green Challenge trophy. This is a competition among all of the cars in GT1 and GT2 combined (an additional trophy is given to the combined prototype classes), and it uses a scoring system to determine the best result for overall performance, fuel efficiency, and environmental impact (in the form of greenhouse-gas emissions). The ALMS is the first racing series in the world to establish such a racing category, effectively creating a race within the race.
Green Challenge competitors utilize their choice of three different fuels: sulfur-free diesel, E10, or cellulosic E85. All of these fuels are "street legal" and are virtually the same as what might be found at a local filling station. Corvette Racing has taken the lead in this challenge by electing to run the entire '08 season on cellulosic E85. The GM team's closest GT competitor is the GT2 Aston Martin, which also runs E85.
Saturday morning's practice offered up still more carnage, with the lone Mazda prototype entry hitting the wall and suffering irreparable damage just two hours prior to the race. Down one competitor, the entire field formed up for the two warm-up laps arranged before the event's 11:15 start. But before the starter could even wave the green flag, the front-row Audi R10 of Alan McNish spun on cold tires and slammed into a wall. McNish was able to get the car back to the pits and into the garage for repair, but he would have to start the race from pit lane after everyone else was flagged off.
The green flag did finally drop, prompting still more mayhem on the course. Ryan Lewis stalled his Lola/Judd prototype at the entrance to Turn 6, bringing out a full-course caution just three minutes into the race. Next, Scott Sharp put his Acura-powered proto hard into the wall, prompting another yellow flag just 17 minutes after the restart. The event would go on to experience no fewer than 11 full-course cautions during its 1,000-mile duration, most of which were spread throughout the first half of the race.
Corvette Racing managed its two entries with characteristic poise. It was obvious that the No. 4 team was pushing hard, with the No. 3 crew doing everything it could to stay ahead in its sibling rivalry. The first two pit stops went according to plan, but during the third pit stop, Max Papis managed to slide behind the controls of No. 4 and get out ahead of freshly installed No. 3 pilot Ron Fellows. When the next pit stop came, the Danny Binks-helmed No. 3 crew executed a flawless stop, allowing its C6.R to retake the lead.
At around six hours into the race, Oliver Gavin reported that the No. 4 car had lost power and he was coming in for repairs. Mike West's crew quickly removed the hood and determined that the engine's throttle linkage had come loose. Ron Helzer, the team's Katech support expert, immediately got to work on a fix. Unfortunately, the rest of the field was able to complete around five laps before the crew could get the C6.R back onto the track. This placed the No. 4 car at a serious disadvantage, one it would not be able to overcome. The race ended with Jan Magnussen piloting No. 3 to the GT1 win over teammate Gavin.
Corvette Racing also became the first recipient of the GT Class Green Challenge trophy, barely nudging out the GT2 Aston. With more "green" cars on the road than any other manufacturer, General Motors is keen to demonstrate its commitment to alternative energy sources. Capturing the first Green Challenge trophy is just another indication of that commitment. As Corvette Racing's Doug Fehan put it, "If we can compete successfully on the world stage in racing with cellulosic E85, Mom can certainly use it in her SUV taking the kids to school, and Dad can put it in his truck going to work."
In a miraculous turnaround, the overall win was taken by Alan McNish in his Audi R10. After wadding up the prototype before the start of the race, McNish scythed his way through the field to end up in a three-way battle with Audi teammate Marco Werner and Peugeot driver Christian Klien. The race ended with the Audis in First and Third; Klien took Second in the Peugeot.
Despite the multiple crash delays, the record crowd was treated to a thrilling race. Next year's Petit promises to be even more exciting, as Corvette Racing will be running in the hotly contested GT2 category. It should be a blast.
Corvette Racing Profile: Melanie Correll
You may not know her name, but if you're a Corvette Racing fan, you're probably familiar with her face. During each race, Melanie Correll sits in front of the team's pit stand, timing and scoring every car on the course. She does this via computer, entering the information by hand, one car at a time. Because the job requires constant attention and concentration, Correll can't take a single break during the course of the event-no bathroom visits, no time to eat, nothing. As daunting as that might seem in a typical two- or four-hour race, just imagine what it must be like at the Sebring 12-hour or the 24 Heures du Mans.
That was Correll's only job when she came to Corvette Racing in 2000. It was a time when the official timing and scoring process was not totally reliable. Since then, the ALMS has improved its methods through the use of transponders and upgraded computer-monitoring systems. Most teams in the ALMS no longer have someone performing a job like Correll's, preferring to rely upon race officials to deliver that information. However, there are times when the official system breaks down, as it did for more than half of this year's Petit race. Without Correll's back-up statistics, the team would have lacked the data required to make critical race decisions.
With the official system now providing semireliable data, Correll has taken on a much more involved role with the team. In addition to scoring and timing duties, she also monitors the IMSA/ALMS communication channels, keeping track of any important information that may be flowing around the race circuit. Her job is to take all of the scoring info, radio chatter, and internal engineering-staff communications and distill it into concise recommendations on team strategy.
Correll's "race craft," as she calls it, stems from years of experience. She started out timing and scoring for her father's amateur racing effort in the '70s. When he decided to retire from racing in 1978, Correll joined the SCCA, eventually becoming chief timer for the New England Region. That soon segued into doing 24-hour races with showroom-stock classes and eventually becoming the official timer for IMSA from 1979 into the '80s. She became involved with timing for Camel Lights teams in 1986 and then the Nissan GTP effort in 1990.
Along the way, Correll subsidized her income by doing temporary clerical work. This gave her a good understanding of business systems and led to her becoming team coordinator and business manager for Brix Racing and the PACWEST touring-car program. By 1999, she was back as official timer for IMSA, a move that led to her being hired by Corvette Racing in 2000, to serve as team timer and scorer. Also in 2000, Ferrari asked Correll to handle all of its timing and scoring functions for the Ferrari N.A. Challenge and Shell Historic Challenge programs. Additionally, she provides the equipment, staff, and management for Ferrari's North American race operations-all while keeping track of the Corvette program.