All I can say is God bless Texas!" Gary Claudio, Group Marketing Manager, GM Racing.
The last season and a half of American Le Mans series racing has been one of promise and frustration for both Corvette racing fans and for the factory. Promise as in several superb qualifying efforts by the C5-Rs, and some extremely close-but not close enough-finishes, always behind the factory-backed Team ORECA Vipers. Frustration from those same almost-but-not-quite finishes and, unfortunately, from inopportune parts failures (that's a part of racing) and what appeared-from an armchair quarterback's perspective-to be occasional inadequate testing of unproven, new components.
But, that's all in the past. That elusive first victory came tantalizingly close at Mosport, when the lone C5-R pulled out a lead over the twin Vipers, only to have victory snatched away in the final few laps as Karl Wendlinder managed to squeeze past Andy Pilgrim and maintained a fraction of a second lead as the two cars took the checkered flag. It was a marvelous race, on a complex track, and the plot was thickened by rain early in the event, leaving a slowly, unevenly drying course. And even though one of the seemingly invincible Vipers held onto a miniscule lead at the end, seeing the nose of the lone C5-R alongside the door of the big, bad Viper as the two cars crossed the finish line had to be an omen of what was to come.
What was to come came just two weeks later, at Texas Motor Speedway, outside of Fort Worth, Texas. It was a study in contrasts. First, a race on a venerable, "natural," road course, followed by another enduro at one of the nation's newest super speedways, a 1.5-mile high-banked oval with a newly finished and totally "artificial" infield road course. A cold and wet race day followed, two weeks later, by a hellaciously hot 109-degree (!)day, so hot that residents of the Dallas/Fort Worth area were being advised to stay indoors, hot enough that the temperature in the C5-R's cockpit reached a staggering 175 degrees!
The course at TMS utilized nearly the entire 1.5-mile "D" oval. The cars ran counterclockwise, just like in a normal oval track race. After threading through a temporary chicane set up on the front ("D") portion of the track, the cars ran flat-out through the turns 1 and 2 banking and onto the back straight. Roughly halfway down the back straight, they'd brake hard and enter the brand-new infield course. After weaving through the infield, the cars would re-enter the oval, race through turns 3 and 4, back towards the start-finish line. The circuit measured 2.342 miles, and the race, which started at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, September 2nd, was to run for 2 hours, 45 minutes.
The C5-Rs have qualified well a number of times, so it was no real surprise to see Ron Fellows wheel the Corvette to a provisional pole during the first day of qualifying-only to have one of the Vipers narrowly edge him out (1:20.421 vs. 1:20.586) for the GTS class pole in final qualifying on a track that Fellows described as "greasy." Ron added, "I got a decent lap, but it obviously wasn't good enough. This Corvette is a good race car, so we'll go racing and see what we can do." Fellows' co-driver, Andy Pilgrim, agreed. "The pole is nice, don't get me wrong, but we need to concentrate on the race-and like I said, this Corvette is a very good race car, so we'll go from there."
And go they did! When the green flag dropped for the ALS Grand Prix of Texas that sweltering evening, Fellows quickly overtook and worked his way around the lead Viper. Early on, the battle between the forces of darkness and the lone good guy (the Vipers and the Corvette) was fierce, with the C5-R managing to retain a lead over both snakes. During the first pit stop, Andy Pilgrim took over for the utterly drained Fellows, who commented, "I actually had to hold my breath at times because the air was so hot to breathe."
While Fellows recuperated from the extreme heat in the "Fehan Special" (Corvette program manager Doug Fehan had rigged up a lawn chair with a garden hose and sprinkler), "Ironman Andy" just plain ol' ran away from the once-indomitable Vipers during an extended (nearly two-hour) stint at the helm of the C5-R, putting both "snakes" down by a couple of laps. Late in the race, in a final pit stop for fuel and fresh tires, a thoroughly recovered Ron Fellows relieved Pilgrim for the dash to the checkered flag.
As the race wound down to its final few minutes, there was a palpable air of both excitement and anxiety in the Corvette pits. The C5-R now had a three-lap lead over the better-running Viper; victory was in sight-if nothing broke, if another car didn't take out the Vette, if, if, if...
Fellows never let up, the Corvette continued to run flawlessly, and pandemonium broke out in the pits when the checkered flag waved over the white, black, and yellow C5-R as it crossed the finish line-with a more than seven-mile lead on the Vipers!
Victory is always sweet, especially that first, elusive win! And Team Corvette did it in style. This wasn't a squeaker, a narrow win with a few seconds lead, but rather a thoroughly decisive, total stomping of the "unbeatable" Team ORECA Vipers! Interestingly, this was the first time that both teams came to a venue without the advantage of, in the Vipers' case, up to four years worth of information about a track and setting up a race car for the course. It was, in Doug Fehan's words, "A true test of crews, cars, and drivers."
As the crew savored their first win, Ron Fellows stated, "The snake has been bitten in Texas! This is just awesome. Thanks to all of the guys. This has been a long time coming."
Andy Pilgrim was equally elated. "We look happy, don't we? The GM Racing guys, GM Goodwrench, Goodyear, Pratt & Miller, everyone involved, this has been an incredible two years in the making! What can I say?" Said team manager Gary Pratt, "Oh man, this feels great!" And Gary Claudio, the group marketing manager for GM Racing, summed it up very well, "I think the Corvette brand and all of the Corvette owners around the world should be very proud of Team Corvette."We are, Gary!