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!"
When the green flag waved at slightly past noon on September 30th, the Millennium Yellow C5-Rs and 37 other cars roared away. The race would last 10 hours or 1,000 miles, whichever came first, and though the Petite Le Mans is a true endurance contest, it would be nothing less than an all-out sprint to the checkered flag. In the ensuing hours the lead in the GTS class was swapped between the two Corvettes and Vipers #91 and #92 no less than 15 times. The vicissitudes of fortune visited both camps indiscriminately throughout the battle, exacting a higher toll from some than from others. In the afternoon, the #91 Viper was slowed by a blown front tire after colliding with a Panoz.
The #3 Corvette was hampered by handling irregularities all day, making it all the more challenging for drivers Ron Fellows, Chris Kneifel, and Justin Bell. The disappointment was expressed by Fellows after he turned the car over to Kneifel 51/2 hours into the race: "It's really frustrating out there. We can't seem to get the car to behave. We were loose, now it's pushing."
The #92 Viper ran well throughout the race, but was fighting an uphill battle owing to the fact that it was usually a fraction of a second slower than both of the Corvettes. The Viper was also hampered by a 20-second penalty for not having a fire bottle at the ready during an early pit stop
The #4 Corvette also performed consistently well for the entire race, but did not entirely escape the wrath of Lady Luck. It suffered a heart-wrenching setback when track officials made a glaring mistake about halfway through the race. A privately entered Viper crashed at the beginning of the front straight, coming to a stop on its roof. This instigated a full-course yellow flag, which in turn brought out the pace car. The pace car was supposed to position itself in front of the race leading car; to do so every car between it and the leader is waved by and allowed to go past the pace car and into the pits. Unfortunately, there was confusion regarding which car was the overall leader, resulting in a number of cars erroneously getting "waved by." This group, which included both the #91 and #92 Vipers, essentially gained a "free" lap on the other cars. The teams that got shafted protested bitterly but to no avail. Race officials said they were sorry but claimed they had neither the authority nor the mechanism to restore each car to its proper position.
The mistake took away the #4 Corvette's one-lap lead and put it only a few seconds ahead of the Vipers. An hour later those few seconds disappeared when a mistake was made during what should have been a routine pit stop. The nut holding on the C5-R's right rear wheel was cross-threaded, giving the impression it was tight when it really wasn't. Kelly Collins had to take a rather harrowing lap at reduced speed before he could bring the car back in for a new wheel and wheel nut. By then, of course, both Vipers had jumped out in front by a considerable margin.
At a little past 7:00 p.m. events took a turn for the worse in the #91 Viper pit. Battery failure prevented the car from starting after a routine stop, and the precious minutes it took to diagnose the problem and install a new battery proved irreplaceable.
Scarcely an hour later bad fortune struck in the Corvette camp. In spite of its inexplicable handling inconsistencies, #3 was managing to stay in or near the lead until about 8:30 p.m. It was then that the car lost power in one cylinder, slowing it considerably. This was a certain deathblow given the intense level of competition.
With the clock beginning to wind down it looked rather bleak for Team Corvette. The #92 Viper led the #4 C5-R by a comfortable margin, and though the Corvette was consistently faster per lap, absent some sort of fortuitous intervention the gap was simply too big to make up in the remaining time. Then, in partial recompense for the earlier race officials' mistake that robbed it of a full lap, #4 caught a lucky break. At 9:15 a GT class BMW M3 tossed its cookies and puked oil all over the track between turns #9 and #10, inducing a full-course yellow. This allowed the field to tighten up, reducing the Viper's lead over the Corvette to 9.748 seconds when the green flag came out at 9:30.
Emotions in the Corvette pits surged when quick calculations revealed that Andy Pilgrim theoretically had enough time to catch Tommy Archer's Viper in the 14 remaining laps. Pilgrim was already well into a double stint at the wheel and was obviously exhausted as the end neared, but he knew what was required and pure adrenaline took over. "I unmercifully thrashed the car during my last stint," he said after it was over, "I was running very hard to catch the #92 car." As the final laps ticked off Pilgrim closed the gap until he was nose-to-tail with Archer. With only minutes remaining Archer took a defensive line through every corner, swinging wide and braking as late as he dared to prevent the Corvette from passing. But with less than two laps to go he could deny Pilgrim no longer.
Sixty thousand fans watched in awe, then roared with delight as Pilgrim made an utterly brilliant move to take the lead. Coming into turn one at the end of Road Atlanta's long front straight, Archer braked perilously late and moved left to keep Pilgrim from passing on the outside of the sharp right hander. Pilgrim moved even further left and then in an instant darted right and got inside the Viper near the apex of the corner. The cars went into the corner off line and with way too much speed, making it appear certain that both would crash in an instant. But in seeming defiance of the laws of physics, the Corvette stuck to the track as though on rails, its carbon rotors glowing bright orange with heat and the Goodyear slicks fighting for every iota of grip.
The Viper was not so fortunate. As the Corvette blew by the Dodge, the Viper lost front downforce. Archer moved his car slightly to the right, gently kissed the Corvette's rear, and then went left, sailing off-course into the gravel trap. He managed to gather himself back up and get back on track, but by then it didn't much matter. Two minutes later Pilgrim roared across the finish line and took the checkered flag for Team Corvette. Just 6.837 seconds later Archer brought his battered red Viper home in second place, and a minute after that Fellows nursed the ailing #3 Corvette to third in class. The mood in the Corvette camp was, to say the least, jubilant. Victory in the grueling Petite Le Mans confirmed what the team and Corvette fans around the world already knew-the win in Texas was not a fluke; it was the only possible outcome of an evolutionary process begun at Daytona in 1999. The Vipers' reign was fun while it lasted, but America's real Sports Car is once again King of the Hill.
The Winning Move
To appreciate Andy Pilgrim's amazing late-race pass you have to understand something about Road Atlanta. Coming out of Turn 11 the cars go down a very steep hill and pick up a great deal of speed as they enter Turn 12, a sweeping righthander that barely slows them down. Out of 12 they enter the long front straight in top gear with the hammer stuffed to the floor. At the end of the straight, where the Corvettes and Vipers are topping 180 mph, is Turn 1, a full 90-degree righthander. Drivers must quickly downshift and brake very hard to make it through Turn 1. It was here, in one of road racing's most challenging corners, that Pilgrim executed the seemingly impossible pass. "Andy is one of the best drivers out there," said Corvette Racing team manager Doug Fehan after the race. "Going into Turn 1 he put that Corvette where it was never intended to go, where everyone knew it couldn't go, and somehow he made it stick. He showed what Corvette handling is all about, what America's true sports car can do!"
In describing his daring maneuver, this is what Pilgrim had to say: "I thrashed it unmercifully during that last double stint. I was running very hard to catch the #92 car. And the pass-the Corvette was a better car at the end of the race. It was a question of 'I knew I could get to him, but could I pass him and make it stick?' With two laps to go it was now or never. I came out of Turn 12 with a good run on Tommy Archer down to Turn 1, and he moved to the middle to block. I moved back to the left to try and fake him out, like I would be dumb enough to do that in Turn 1, and as soon as we hit the brake zone I dove the car back to the right and went underneath. I think I might have surprised him. I don't think he expected me to go by him there. He told me on the podium that it took the air off the front of his car and he lost all the front downforce and went off the track. When I got to the top of the hill I couldn't see lights so I ran like an idiot all through the esses thinking, 'My gosh, he's so close to me I can't even see him!' I didn't realize he had run off the track-I thought he was right on my rear. I had to laugh to myself when I realized he wasn't there."