Over the past several years, Corvette Racing has developed into one of the most successful programs in sports-car competition. Losses and other setbacks have been so rare, in fact, that GT1 dominance by the No. 3 and 4 C6.Rs has almost become a foregone conclusion. What does it take to sustain this level of dominance, both on the track and behind the scenes? As you will see, the key ingredients include long hours, plenty of sweat, and-most important-an unwavering commitment to excellence.
The team's racing season officially began at the 12 Hours of Sebring, the longest-running endurance event in the U.S. As always, this year's Sebring challenge was preceded by months of work at the GM/Pratt & Miller engineering offices, build shop, and test track. But even after the cars have been prepared for a race, just getting the team to the track is an immense logistical maneuver all its own.
P&M's Pam Prince and Sharon Riggs are in charge of getting the team to and from its commitments. For Sebring this year that meant ground transportation, hotel accommodations, and airplane tickets for 60 people coming from all parts of the country. The racing squad would finish the Sebring event, work on the car for a day, and then load up for two days of testing at Road Atlanta, only to turn around and head to St. Petersburg for the next ALMS race the following weekend.
While the main body of the team usually travels to events by air, Corvette Racing's big-rig drivers must depart much earlier with the cars and more than 125 tons of support equipment. In addition to carrying every conceivable spare part, the three truck/trailer combinations also serve as the team's shop while at the race track. In the case of Sebring, drivers Don Male, Richard Elred, Kurt Rychener, Steve Longhi, and Dean Doherty left their Michigan homes two days before the rest of the team and drove 21 hours nonstop to set up the team's on-site compound.
Like an experienced drill-team member, each of the five drivers knows exactly what to do to get the facility up and going-a process that usually takes four or five hours. These drivers are also responsible for setting up the hot-pit complex, a state-of-the-art operations center bursting with high-resolution flat-screen monitors and other performance-monitoring equipment. They even perform vital work in the pit and at the trailer/shop complex during the race itself. when the race is over, the same crew breaks everything down and heads for home. Once back at P&M headquarters, it will take them four to five days to clean, check, and restock the transporters for the next event.
Although the Sebring race takes place every year on a Saturday morning, most of the team arrives the previous weekend to prepare for testing on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. The test days are long, lasting from 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. Sebring International Raceway, notorious for pushing cars to their limits, is an ideal venue at which to gauge the C6.R's resilience prior to the all-important 24 Hours of Le Mans. Still, the testing pace is not overly fast-just a constant, round-and-round parade to evaluate the performance and reliability of the Vettes' various components.
With a multiplicity of diverse tasks to address, team members must be versatile. Heading up P&M's unofficial "hospitality committee" is team owner Gary Pratt's wife, Robin. Robin's role is to ensure that every team member is cared for in a way that maximizes his or her performance during the race. Her duties also include pubic relations and, with a huge following of diehard Corvette fans at every event, that alone is a big job. Whether it's entertaining an important team guest, handing out fan posters, managing the driver autograph session, overseeing medical and physical-therapy support (principally at long-distance races such as Sebring and Le Mans), or simply making sure that everyone is fed and happy, Robin is in constant motion.
Ralph Simpson has been in charge of the team's food requirements for the last six years. He arrives hours before anyone else (usually by 4:00 a.m.) so that breakfast will be ready for the team members when they arrive. Simpson is charged with ensuring that all meals, snacks, and drinks are ready to be eaten as the team's hectic schedule allows. The job can prove daunting since mechanics and engineers work on the cars constantly throughout the day, stopping only on those rare occasions when their workload briefly remits.
Back at Sebring International Raceway, the team prepared the C6.Rs for Thursday's early warm-up laps and subsequent qualifying session. Once qualifying was completed, crew members began readying the cars for competition on Saturday. For a long race such as Sebring, this process involves a "freshening up" of the entire car, including changing out the engine and rear transaxle. The pace is fevered; this year's SIR qualifying session was over by 4:00 p.m., and the engine was swapped out in time for the two-hour night practice at 7:00 p.m.
This year's Friday schedule included replacing the transaxle and performing a complete clean-up and race prep-pretty typical pre-event fare. But Sebring '07 also held a special surprise for the Corvette faithful. P&M and General Motors had arranged to transfigure the No. 3 car into a race-spec clone of the special-edition Ron Fellows Z06 announced just days earlier. This meant that the team had to strip the No. 3 car down to its frame and roll cage, leaving none of the familiar yellow bodywork.
The Corvette Racing staff had secretly prepared all of the new body parts beforehand, allowing the car to appear in its usual livery throughout the week. It meant a lot more work for the team to squeeze into an already busy schedule, but they were all smiles as they celebrated their friend and his racing legacy.
Saturday's morning practice was quick and uneventful, but as the team was rolling the cars back to the garage for a final inspection, No. 4 sprang a leak in one of its flexible, three-foot oil lines. The crew leaped into action, replacing the leaking hose with a spare from their large cache of parts.
Shortly afterwards, the No. 3 team discovered that the car's newly replaced transaxle was beginning to ooze fluid. Knowing that the part would not last the grueling 12-hour race, Crewchief Dan Binks made the call for a hurried replacement. This meant an unscheduled 20-minute change-out (a job that might take your local mechanic four hours or more), with the car making it out of the garage just in time for the reconnaissance lap. Fellows was even granted a solo parade lap to show off the newly liveried Corvette to the ALMS crowd.
One of the crew's biggest challenges during the race involves maintaining a constant supply of fresh tires. A pit stop and tire change are made approximately once every hour. At Sebring, that meant a minimum of 12 pit stops and 12 sets of tires were required for each car. Complicating matters is the fact that Corvette Racing's tire supplier, Michelin, is very protective of its technology, and only dispenses tires on an as-needed basis. In fact, the team is only allowed to keep one set of "scale tires" to use in setting up the cars' chassis and suspensions. Any leftover tires are returned to Michelin after the event.
Because of these restrictions, there is a constant train running to and from the Michelin transporter during the race, returning used tires and bringing fresh ones to be used at the next pit stop. Each set of tires has to be mounted and balanced at the Michelin area, taken back to the hot pit, inflated to the pressures required by the team's engineers, marked, and set into the pit space, ready to be used at a moment's notice. With each pit stop, the whole sequence starts over.
At the end of the race, the team had good cause (First and Second in class and Seventh and Eighth overall) to pause for celebration. The festivities were short-lived, however, as the team was scheduled to travel to Road Atlanta for two days of testing the very next week. This year's race schedule is particularly busy, with a total of four races falling between Sebring and Corvette Racing's ultimate challenge-the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
So what does it take to make winning look easy? In the case of Corvette Racing, the elements range from design, development, assembly, and racing expertise, to hard work, experience, and an unflagging will to do whatever it takes to succeed. What we see as two brightly colored Corvettes flashing around the track is, in fact, the culmination of a Herculean effort on the part of the 120 employees of Pratt & Miller and their comrades at GM Racing.
Ron Fellows' Sebring Surprise
As noted in our main story, the 2007 12 Hours of Sebring witnessed the debut of a special Ron Fellows-edition C6.R, painted to match its road-car cousin. While the redressed Vette's on-track performance was the weekend's headline story, the tale behind its transformation is also worth examining.
Its qualifying positions set, the team skipped Friday's practice session and set about changing the No. 3 car over to its new look. The awnings hung on the race transporters were zipped closed, and anyone not intimately involved with the car's transformation was ushered outside.
First, the team stripped the car of all its yellow panels. While the front and rear fascias, hood, rear deck, front and rear fenders, and doors are typically removed in preparation for track duty, this would mark the first time the car was stripped all the way down to its bare frame. The white replacement panels actually came from one of last year's C6.Rs and were prepared at P&M headquarters before the team left for Sebring.
Because the car had undergone such extensive changes, it was required to go through IMSA's tech-inspection process again. This meant pushing the Corvette the length of the racing paddock-a daunting task, since preserving secrecy meant keeping the car shrouded in a tight-fitting black cover. With Crew Chief Dan Binks wedged inside the broiling-hot cockpit to steer, team member Mike West relayed directions via a two-way radio.
Once the Vette arrived at the tech-in area, race officials gave it a private inspection inside a closed-off IMSA tent. With that out of the way, the crew was able to get the car back to the Corvette Racing trailers and put away for safe keeping. Except for the few fans who happened by the transporters early race-day morning, no one outside the team was aware of the car's new look until race time. While No. 3 did make a brief appearance in Saturday's 7:30 a.m. practice session, for most fans its debut did not come until Fellows made a special solo reconnaissance lap just before the cars were placed for pre-grid.
Few men in this profession have garnered the kind of admiration Ron Fellows has, and even fewer have enjoyed such remarkable successes and longevity. Sports-car racing has never had a better ambassador, and Corvette Racing's "Sebring Surprise" was a fitting-and well-deserved-tribute.