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Daytona Homecoming - Return Of The Hero

One of Corvette Racing's early standouts enjoys a triumphant homecoming in Daytona.

Walt Thurn May 29, 2012
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ince 1953 many significant racing models have captured the attention of Corvette enthusiasts, from the earliest "airbox" cars to the latest C6.Rs. This year marks the 50th anniversary of sports-car racing at Daytona International Speedway, a milestone that was commemorated in a special celebration that took place prior to the 24-hour race in January. Many historically noteworthy race machines were in attendance, including the '00 C5-R Corvette Chassis #003 that won the 24-hour event in 2001. This car racked up many firsts for Corvette Racing, accomplishments that have earned it a permanent place in the GM Heritage Center in Detroit.

The car's path to success began during the development of the C5 Corvette. Corvette Chief Engineer David Hill believed the upcoming C5 needed competition credentials, and he took on the daunting task of convincing GM management to support a racing program. Thanks in part to support from notable GM engineers such as John Heinricy and Tadge Juechter, Hill received approval to build one C5 racing test mule. Pratt & Miller Engineering constructed the car, and it was extensively tested in 1997 and 1998.

Hill's plea to enter motorsports was further helped by the racing success of the Dodge Viper GTS, a V-10–powered beast that was winning virtually every international race in which it was entered. The Viper was Corvette's direct brand competitor, and even though the Chevy's production numbers far outstripped the Dodge's, the Viper was receiving a lot of positive PR thanks to its victories on the track.

Around this time Corvette Brand Manager Jim Campbell developed a marketing strategy to support a GM racing program. Pratt & Miller converted the original test mule into an "exotic" streetcar to gain homologation from racing organizations. It was a wild beast that was equipped with a stripped interior, a modified LS1 engine, headers that exited under the doors, a lightweight body, and center-lock wheels. Only one was built, but it got the C5-R approved for racing.

Pratt & Miller received approval to build two C5-Rs (Chassis #001 and #002). The firm would service one car itself and farm out work on the other to Riley Engineering. GM Goodwrench was the team's primary sponsor, resulting in dashing black-and-silver livery for the new Corvette race cars. The Vipers proved to be fierce competitors, however, and the Corvettes didn't win a single race during the 1999 season.

Over the winter GM and Pratt & Miller improved the body, engine, and suspension on both cars. They also worked hard to sort out the transmission failures and starter problems that had plagued them during the previous season. The revised C5-Rs arrived at Daytona in 2000 with a new yellow-and-white paint scheme.

The performance improvements were immediately apparent, as Ron Fellows captured the class pole position in the No. 3 (Chassis #001) entry. But early fueling problems required the car to make frequent stops and allowed one of the Vipers to take the class lead. Drivers Ron Fellows, Justin Bell, and Chris Kneifel did their best to make up ground but ultimately ran out of time, giving the Dodge the overall victory. Fellows finished 30.879 seconds behind in Second. Corvette No. 4 (Chassis #002) did not finish due to a broken clutch. Sebring also proved a disappointment, as No. 3 lost its engine midway through the race, and No. 4 limped home Fifth in class with a rough engine.

Up next was Le Mans, where the Viper team had already notched several victories. While Corvette Racing prepared for the race in France, work began on the construction of two new C5-Rs, Chassis #003 and #004. The first new car was slated to make its debut at Mosport Raceway in Canada.

The team went through a huge learning curve at Le Mans, where the Vipers finished First and Second in class. The No. 4 Corvette--designated No. 64 for the French race--was close behind in Third, while the No. 63/No. 3 C6.R was Fourth.

After Le Mans, Chassis #001 and #002 were retired and replaced with Chassis #003. It was 3 inches wider in the front, and it boasted suspension and aero improvements. The car was entered at Mosport on August 6, 2000, with Fellows and Andy Pilgrim behind the wheel. Fellows captured the pole and held onto the lead through a heavy downpour. As the track dried, however, the Vipers--still wearing wet-weather Michelins--began to make up ground. The Goodyears on the Corvette seemed to be less effective.

Six laps from the finish, Pilgrim was passed by one of the Vipers; he finished 0.353 seconds behind in Second. It was at Mosport that Corvette Racing learned that the Vipers would not return for the 2001 season. Beating the seemingly invincible Dodges thus became the team's top priority in 2000.

Corvette Racing brought Chassis #003 to the next race at Texas Motor Speedway. Temperatures were hovering at around 110 degrees (F) ambient for this 2.5-hour night race, with cockpit temps climbing as high as 190!

Fellows led until the first pit stop, but the heat took its toll. The Canadian driver was taken to the team trailer and cooled down with water and ice. Meanwhile, Pilgrim kept the lead and stayed in the car for two stints, bringing the car across the line in First and giving Corvette Racing its first victory. It was a huge moment for the team, and it helped pave the way for future racing support from GM.

Chassis #003 continued to make history during its two-year racing career. Its accomplishments included an overall victory at the 2001 24 Hours of Daytona (a first for Corvette) and Eighth overall/First in class at Le Mans. The car continued winning throughout 2001, with victories at Sears Point, Portland, Mosport, and Mid Ohio. It went on to win Sebring in 2002, and it captured its 10th win and second class victory at that year's 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Corvette Racing has gone on to rack up numerous international victories, but the team holds fond memories of Chassis #003. It's fitting, then, that the GM Heritage Center sent this historic winner back to Pratt & Miller to prepare it for the Daytona celebration. The car's paint was freshened, its systems were checked, and the correct race decals were reapplied. Ron Fellows even drove the old warrior at the event. It was quite a sight to see the Corvette and its archenemy from Dodge once again pacing side by side on the Daytona banking.



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