The factory C5-R crew came to Road Atlanta for the American Le Mans Series' Petit Le Mans 10-hour endurance race with the sweet taste of success still lingering from their decisive trouncing of the Vipers in Texas on September 2nd. But that didn't lure anyone involved into a false feeling of security regarding this contest. The people behind the Corvette racing program have far too much experience to overlook either the vagaries of racing or the strength of the opposition. After all, the factory-backed, French-led Team Oreca Vipers haven't scaled the heights of sports car racing around the world by accident. As Corvette team manager Doug Fehan pointed out after the Petite Le Mans was over, however, Viper's unchallenged ascendancy of those mountains has obviously come to an end. "Two victories in a row signifies a changing of the guard," he said with a smile.
Road Atlanta is owned by pharmaceuticals tycoon and entrepreneur Don Panoz, the same Don Panoz who founded and orchestrates the American Le Mans Series (ALMS). The Road Atlanta race then is something of a homecoming for the ALMS, which in just two short years has developed into the premier series for international sports car racing. The strength of the series is illustrated by the depth of participation by many of the world's most important performance car builders, including BMW, Audi, Ferrari, Panoz, Porsche, Lola, Reynard, Riley & Scott, and, of course, Dodge and Chevrolet. Mix together these premier car builders, top racing teams, and the challenging Road Atlanta course, and you have the potential for a truly great race. This year's contest fulfilled that potential every step of the way.
As expected, Audi dominated the prototype class in spite of strong opposition from both BMW and Panoz. Two Audi R8s qualified first and second and finished in the same order, setting a number of track records along the way. Third and fourth overall went to a pair of Panoz LMP-1 roadsters, and fifth went to a problem-plagued BMW V-12 LMR. The other BMW prototype was taken out by a spectacular crash that saw the car sail nearly 30 feet in the air, rotate backwards a full 360 degrees end over end, and come down hard first on its rear end and then on all four wheels. It was one of several serious crashes that, fortunately, resulted in only very minor injuries to the drivers.
While the spectacularly fast prototype cars held plenty of interest, the most exciting battle was in the production-based GTS class. Following extremely close finishes at Daytona and Mosport, and the C5-R's decisive win in Texas, it was eminently clear from the get go that the fight between Corvette and Viper would be of epic proportions. The Dodge boys were quick to blame the overwhelming heat for their uncharacteristic failings in the Texas race, labeling the Corvette victory an anomaly. Well, here's a news flash for the Viper team; it was just as hot for the single Corvette entry as it was for the multitude of Vipers. The Vipers and their drivers succumbed to the heat while the Corvette and its drivers toughed it out.
The unspoken but subliminally expressed sentiment that it was the heat and not the C5-R that beat the Vipers in the Lone Star State only served to motivate Team Corvette even more. That, in concert with exacting preparation, paid off when both Corvettes ran roughshod over the existing Road Atlanta GTS track record on their way to qualifying first and second in class. Quite an accomplishment, but as Andy Pilgrim said afterward, "One-two in qualifying is great, but really doesn't mean much with a race this long. If we're one-two at the end of the race, then we'll have something to talk about!"