After finishing another successful racing season, Doug Fehan and the Corvette Racing team thundered into the Simeone Museum in Philadelphia for a pit stop. Situated a stone’s throw from the Philadelphia International Airport, the Simeone contains more than 60 sports and racing cars. Remarkably, all but a handful can be gassed up, topped off with oil, and running in about 45 minutes. These are not static display pieces, but rather fully functional war horses. Just knowing that makes looking at each car feel more “real.”
The Corvette Racing team arrived in one of its fully decorated big rigs with the C6.R “show car,” plus several unique Corvette display pieces. The event was a two-part “Legends of Corvette Racing” presentation. Friday night featured an open bar, buffet hors d’oeuvres, and a one-and-a-half-hour presentation by team manager Fehan.
Museum PR director Harry Hurst opened the evening by introducing Fehan, who was flanked on the dais by a pair of Corvette race cars. On one side was the George Wintersteen No. 002 ’63 Grand Sport, and on the other was the C6.R show car. Hurst said, “Ladies and gentlemen, before we bring up our special guest of honor, I would like to introduce you to the C6.R and Grand Sport Corvettes.” And on cue, both cars were fired up. Throttles were blipped, and the sounds of uncapped racing engines filled the room.
While a bellowing pair of Corvette race cars might seem like a tough act to follow, Fehan was unfazed. For the next 90 minutes, he explained the monumental efforts that go into every race of the season. Four videos were shown, featuring the various aspects of taking a racing team to Le Mans. Fehan explained the unique challenges of endurance racing and the critical importance of preparing for almost any possibility. One could not help but be impressed.
The last half-hour found Fehan taking questions from the audience. After the predictable barrage of queries about the C7, someone asked why Chevrolet doesn’t offer a “club racer” base Corvette with all the hot Z06 and ZR1 parts installed. Fehan acknowledged that while such a car would be deeply desirable to a small number of buyers, it would cost around $250,000 and sell in quantities too small to be profitable. Meanwhile, the base C6, at around $50,000, is so advanced that one could build a comparable track out of it for considerably less.
Another audience member asked if there was a possibility of Corvette becoming its own brand. Fehan explained that while such a move had been discussed, the amount of work surrounding the new C7, the final year of the C6.R, and the development of the C7.R kept it in the realm of the theoretical.
Asked about the future of the LS7, Fehan responded, “It’s doubtful. But the new engine will be stronger and lighter. And the 427 badges will still be available.”
He went on to share a insider’s perspective on that oft-asked car-enthusiast question, “Why don’t they just install a [blank]?” He talked about the challenges of not only building a lightweight sports car, but filling it with all the features and amenities we expect today, while simultaneously meeting federal crash and CAFE (Corporate Average Fuel Economy) standards. He has a point: When one takes into account all the factors involved in building a production Corvette, the car is all the more impressive.
The following day featured a panel discussion and Q&A with Fehan, Corvette racer George Wintersteen, Corvette prototype race driver David Donohue, and Dr. Fred Simeone, owner of the Simeone Museum.
As the senior racer on the panel, Wintersteen went first, explaining how it was through his friendship with Roger Penske that he became the first to drive Penske’s ’66 L88 prototype. He also has some history with Grand Sport roadster No. 002.
After taking delivery of the car, a reliable L88 427 engine was installed and Wintersteen went racing. Things were advancing so fast back then that the Grand Sport’s 4-year-old design was already our dated. That didn’t keep Wintersteen from having a great time. Having driven a production-based L88, he reported that the light weight of the GS dramatically changed the driving experience (and yes, the front-end lift was bad). But despite the car’s short comings as a competitive racer, Wintersteen regrets selling it.
David Donohue is a prototype racer and the son of racing legend Mark Donohue. In 2012 he drove the Action Express Racing No. 5 Corvette Daytona Prototype. Donohue explained that because the DP cars are built to deliver comparable performance, the driving and crew work are extremely competitive. For example, when he won the 24 Hours Daytona race in 2009, he was just 0.2 second ahead of the Chip Ganassi Racing Lexus driven by Juan Pablo Montoya.
Questions from the audience of more than 150 were wide ranging. Wintersteen was asked why he didn’t use the all-aluminum 377 engine in his Grand Sport. His answer was pretty basic: “I just wanted a bloody reliable, powerful, and fun car with lots of grunt.”
Someone else asked Fehan why ALMS cars have fixed wings, rather than movable wings like the F1 cars. “Is technology being restricted by rules?” he wondered.
“Our objective is to create a series that attracts pride and passion for the customer, so cars have to have production relevance,” explained Fehan.
Wintersteen offered some historical perspective, adding, “I had a drag-reduction program when I was racing the Grand Sport, [so] I just ducked my head down a little bit.”
Another audience member wondered how difficult it had been to keep the Corvette Racing program alive following the GM bankruptcy.
“[GM] had eight or nine racing programs; only two survived,” replied Fehan. “NASCAR took a 50 percent budget cut, but the Corvette Racing budget was untouched. The return-on-investment for Corvette Racing is the best in the company.”
The last question concerned the role ethanol will play in future Corvette Racing seasons.
“A few years ago we started using flex-fuel,” replied Fehan. “We thought it was a good idea to get on the bandwagon, so I gave orders to our engine guys to run the engine on E85. It runs cooler, and we can run with more compression. IMSA let us run with ethanol, and now they’re thinking of an ethanol program. We were the first team to [do it]. It’s not the answer, but it’s part of the solution.
“It’s difficult to say what the future will be. Liquid fuels will be around for a while, and we’ll see smaller engines. The customers will determine the direction.”
After the panel discussion wrapped up at around 1:30 p.m., a Corvette Racing team assistant fired up the C6.R and carefully drove the car into the museum’s three-acre courtyard to display it in front of the team trailer. Meanwhile, Simeone volunteers carefully pushed the Wintersteen Corvette into the courtyard for a few demonstration “laps.”
This is perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the Simeone Museum: Once a month, Dr. Simeone and his staff pull together three or four cars with a specific theme or commonality, and present them on a Saturday at high noon. Simeone explains each car’s history and importance, after which attendees get the opportunity is see, hear, and smell these magnificent machines run. It’s an added feature you don’t normally get from a car museum.
After museum curator Kevin Kelly (the only person who drives the race cars besides Simeone) racked up about 10 laps, the Grand Sport was parked in front of the C6.R’s trailer with the hood and doors open so the crowd could get a close-up look. The L88-powered Vette has the reputation of being the loudest car in the Simeone collection, and it’s arguably the most popular. On a picture perfect autumn afternoon, the GS and C6.R basked together in the sunshine and the adoration of the crowd. Which car attracted more attention? Not to take anything away from the C6.R, but sometimes you just can’t beat a classic.
The Legends of Corvette Racing event was so well received that plans are underway to make it an annual event. Visit simeonemuseum.org for more information and updates.