On February 8, 2007, Paul Reed Smith Guitars presented Corvette Racing driver Ron Fellows with a unique and very special gift: a one-off PRS Corvette Standard 22 guitar, painted to match the brand-new, limited-edition Ron Fellows ALMS GT1 Champion Corvette Z06. The two-year relationship between Chevrolet and the renowned guitar-maker reached its pinnacle as PRS President Jack Higginbotham personally presented the red-on-white six-string to Fellows.
The dispensation of celebrity swag usually is not the type of news VETTE finds noteworthy. But this story goes much deeper. It details the improbable union of two dissimilar but like-minded manufacturers, and how a guitar-playing race-car driver from Canada and Corvette-driving luthiers from Maryland found very fertile common ground.
First, let's take a look back at the history of the alliance. The year was 2005 when Chevrolet and PRS first announced a partnership. The guitar-maker would build a Standard 22 Z06 Guitar and offer it in the same palette of colors available on the Z06 Corvette.
Higginbotham announced, "We believe, as does [the Corvette team], in delivering the highest-quality, highest-performance product imaginable. Our passion for Corvettes and guitars leads to a relationship that goes above and beyond corporate sponsorship. Working with GM Racing to achieve this goal has been an extraordinary experience."
In a press release, Chevy officials also commented on the Corvette/PRS relationship. "PRS Guitars is known in the music world as a builder of premier guitars, instruments that are truly functional works of art. We at General Motors believe that, within our industry, Corvette mirrors these attributes, and so it's very fitting that PRS and GM work together. We're proud to display the PRS logo on the championship Corvette C6.R race car, which will allow us to further our partnership and extend the marketing reach of PRS."
Over the next two seasons, Chevrolet and PRS watched the C6.R race team rack up an unprecedented string of victories in the GT1 class. By the time of the 2007 Chicago Auto Show, the relationship between the two corporations had long since proved itself an across-the-board winner.
Recently, we had the opportunity to speak with the multitalented Ron Fellows about cars, guitars, and his ever-growing celebrity status. Ron recalled that he became personally involved with the partnership early on.
"Two years ago, Chevrolet heard PRS was going to make a Z06-themed guitar and market it as a Standard 22 model," he told us. "I did a photo shoot with one of the guitars at Sebring International Raceway before the start of the '05 race season. Being a bit of a quasi guitar player myself-a Neil Young wannabe, a good Canadian-boy thing-I ended up wanting one, and there were a couple of guys in my crew who play [guitar] who work on the Chevrolet Corvette No. 3 car. I was able to snag some guitars-one for myself, one for a sponsor, and one for each of our crew guys that play. So it was a very cool deal to have one of those PRS Corvette Standard 22 guitars."
Ron described in his own words the synergy that exists between the two companies. "I think it's a neat relationship when a guitar-maker like PRS has a president like Jack Higginbotham who is a Corvette owner and enthusiast. You end up with a guy...who is keen to participate in our Chevrolet Corvette race program in terms of marketing a special Z06 guitar, for instance, and in making charitable [heroics] happen with special PRS guitars and Corvettes.
"I think a lot of it is the common bonds between us-Jack and PRS, their interest in Corvettes and driving, and certainly a few of us at Corvette are guitar enthusiasts. And here's the most important thing: craftsmanship. We have craftsmen working and building our Corvettes. The same with PRS. You can see the kind of care they put into the quality of their workmanship."
If you are able to secure a pit pass at any of the ALMS GT1 racing events this 2007 season, you might find yourself applauding more than the Corvettes. Ron informed us that the C6.R crew members often relax by plugging their PRS guitars into a portable amp and jamming away.
"We've got a couple of crew guys, particularly Mike West, who are awesome. Mike, on the off-day between practice and race day on [a recent] Friday, dragged his amp and his PRS Z06 guitar out and played a stirring rendition of 'The Star Spangled Banner,' a la Jimi Hendrix. That drew a huge crowd in pit lane."
But what about after winning the race? Fellows told us that the rigors and pressure of ALMS racing have forced him to find a release valve in his private time. He's found it, figuratively, in his PRS guitar. "Primarily, I find playing the guitar is just very therapeutic.
I mess around and play away and it's good personal time for me. Both my boys play guitar; my thirteen-year-old is very good. He's super keen on the electric. The PRS guitars are a nice fit in our family."
We asked Ron whether the divergent worlds of auto racing and guitar playing shared any common requisites. "Wow, interesting question. To do both-it may sound odd-you've got to be relaxed. Although your heart rate gets pretty pumped up while racing (from the physical activity), both racing and guitar-playing require having the hands relaxed in order to be efficient."
Given Ron's obvious affection for music in general and guitar-playing specifically, we wondered: Has he ever experienced any doubt over his choice of career paths? "I enjoy playing guitar-I got that influence from my dad-but the race driving was a deep, burning passion to want to go do it. I enjoyed playing guitar as a kid, but I really didn't have any illusions of making any money at it. I mean, we had a band in early high school, but then I stopped playing. I just got so busy pursuing racing.
"I got back to being interested in messing around, playing again about five years ago...we've now got a good handful of guitars, and a couple of PRS guitars in my collection."
Having helped lead Corvette Racing to six GT1 championships in a row, Ron's musical goals are a little more down-to-earth. "Well, I'm not that good. That's why I make a living racing cars. If I could play about ten percent as well as Carlos Santana..." he laughed. "And, even though my guitar playing style is more like Neil Young, I would love to be taught the technical style of [Canadian folk-rocker] Bruce Cockburn."
If history is any indication, Cockburn would do well to keep his chops up. After all, when Ron Fellows sets his sights on a goal, there's not much that can prevent him from achieving it.
Editor's Note: Watch for an upcoming feature article on PRS President Jack Higginbotham's modded C5. Armed with Lingenfelter heads, a Z06 cam, high-compression pistons, a Mid America Motorworks Xtreme Touring suspension package, and more, the car is proof positive that the Corvette/PRS alliance is for real.
Ron Fellows on His Past, Present, and Future with Corvette Racing
VETTE Magazine: Ron, do you drive a personal Corvette?
Ron Fellows: Yes, I have an '06 Machine Silver Metallic Z06.
VETTE: What modifications have you done to your Corvette?
VETTE: You're telling us the world champion's weekend driver is completely stock?
RF: Yes, that's right. It's plenty of car the way that it is, right down to the wheels and tires.
VETTE: What are your most memorable Corvette experiences, both on the track and on the street?
RF: Well, I had a C5 convertible for awhile, but I never got to drive it much. My wife had it. Certainly, on the production side, just being able to get to do a little bit of the test driving of the Z06 was very special to me. I was asked by Dave Hill to help out with that. It was an honor and a privilege.I think on the race track, to this day, the two biggest achievements that I was part of were winning the 24 Hours of Daytona overall-that was our first 24-hour victory-and then our class win later that same year at Le Mans in terrible, terrible conditions-just rain, rain, and more rain. Those are the two racing experiences that stand out in my mind as very cool and very proud moments for all of us who were involved.
VETTE: What year were these two special events for you and Corvette Racing?
RF: That was in 2001 with a C5-R Corvette.
VETTE: Ron, the Corvette Racing Team won six straight championships. Have you given any thought to retiring?
RF: We're looking at running a limited schedule for '07 for me, and yes, I think we've got to make some decisions here shortly, perhaps move on. The time is right to run a limited schedule and then look at moving on with the Corvette program and other roles at GM Racing. The long races are a tough grind. We've had plenty of success. I want to get involved in some other areas of the program [where] I think I can help the Chevrolet Corvette race team.
Test Drive: Paul Reed Smith Corvette Standard 22 GuitarThe aligning of disparate products for marketing purposes has yielded some imminently forgettable results over the years-Mercury Villager Nautica, anyone?-usually due to an utter lack of conceptual harmony between the items in question. Fortunately, in the case of the Paul Reed Smith Corvette Standard 22, the intercorporate mash-up represents much more than a cynical attempt to bridge the divide between two fat-walleted demographics.
Just as the Z06 Corvette is based on the standard-issue C6, the PRS Corvette guitar is based on the company's workhorse Standard 22 model. As such, it comes with a mahogany body and 22-fret neck, a rosewood fretboard, and a dual-humbucker pickup configuration. An abalone "Z06 505hp" inlay (a "427" inlay design is also offered), a Corvette crossed-flags logo, and a choice of six model-specific paint colors (the same shades offered on the real Z06) set this version apart from its non-automotive sibling.
In terms of playability, the PRS Corvette guitar is difficult to fault. Strat votaries and the small of hand may need a little time to adjust to the standard "wide fat" neck profile, but for everyone else, the carve feel will likely prove spot-on from the outset. The action on our tester was refreshingly low from the factory, allowing for fast, clean runs worthy of the Corvette appellation.
PRS's five-way pickup-selector knob made it easy to summon a range of tones spanning the sonic spectrum. Brilliant in its simplicity and intuitiveness, this arrangement is infinitely superior to the fiddly toggle switches that have plagued electric guitars to varying degrees since time immemorial.
Playing through a three-channel Ampeg/Lee Jackson VL-503 tube combo, I was able to dial in everything from shimmering, crystalline clears to Dio-era Sabbath scorch. Death-metal devotees may wish for a bit more dirt from the standard Dragon II pickups, but overall, the Corvette guitar is a paragon of tonal flexibility.
As one would expect from a guitar in this price range, thoughtful touches abound. The Phase II locking tuners, for example, make string replacement a quick, low-effort affair and all but eliminate retuning hassles. It's subtle features such as this that will endear the Corvette guitar to its lucky owner for years to come.
Like the car it celebrates, the PRS Corvette Standard 22 is a relatively expensive piece elevated to bargain status by its exceptional performance, pedigree, and long-term value. Indeed, the worst thing about spending a few weeks behind the figurative wheel of this six-string speedster was having to send it back.