Loyal VETTE readers will be well accustomed to reading about the professional exploits of Corvette Racing's Johnny O'Connell, lead driver of the No. 3 C6.R. While many enthusiasts dream of racing a Corvette for a living, O'Connell has lived the dream, competing in 13 American Le Mans Series races a year for the team, including the historic 24 Hours of Le Mans every June in France. He produced Corvette Racing's first overall victory, at the '01 24 Hours of Daytona, as well as its first Le Mans class victory that same year. Perhaps most impressive, he holds the record for the most career victories (seven) at Sebring International Raceway.
With all that time behind the wheel of the C5-R and C6.R race cars, it's no surprise that O'Connell's love for the Corvette extends into his private life. "My first Corvette was my '02, which I still own today," he says. "I bought it after joining the [Corvette Racing] team, after I had the opportunity to really drive one. I fell in love with it."
O'Connell previewed the '02 Corvettes at the National Corvette Museum's Birthday Bash in Bowling Green, Ken-tucky, on April 17-20 of that year. It was there that he made the decision on how his first Corvette, a six-speed convertible, would be optioned. "I special-ordered what I wanted, having picked out the options and colors after seeing all the cars at the Birthday Bash," O'Connell recalls. "I went with Light Pewter as it was more under the radar and not flashy; it was kind of a classy, clean look."
Somewhat surprisingly, O'Connell didn't test the Corvette's upper limits when he purchased it. He gets plenty of that in the C6.R. "The first drive was nice, but I didn't pull the trigger," he laughs. "About a week after I got it, I sat in it in the garage and thought, Wow, I love this car.
But how does one go from driving the world's fastest Corvette race car to driving a production model? Was it like pushing the slow-motion button on a DVD player? "Not at all," O'Connell says. "I was completely happy with the LS1 Corvette. But like most Vette owners, I wanted to do something to jazz it up for fun."
It wasn't long before the crew of Corvette Racing learned that O'Connell had bought a Corvette of his own. Ron Helzer of Katech Engineering, the builders of the C5-R and C6.R race engines, asked if he could "jazz up" the car to Johnny O's specifications. "Ron had been begging me to let him build it some for me," O'Connell says. "That guy's an engine-tuning addict. Finally I told him yes, but that I didn't want something over the top. [I didn't want] too aggressive a cam or anything that would make it noisy and run rough at low idle."
The Katech crew left the LS1's bottom end as the factory intended, topping it with one of its proprietary head/cam packages to achieve O'Connell's output bogey. The setup consists of CNC-ported LS1 heads with 2.00/1.55-inch valves, LS6 springs, LS1 lifters, and Trend pushrods. The camshaft is a Katech Torquer LS6 unit with 204/218-degree duration, 0.551/0.551-inch lift, and a 112-degree lobe-separation angle. Extrude-honed LS1 exhaust manifolds, an SLP Blackwing CAI, Katech valve covers with coil-relocation kit, and a Katech billet belt tensioner complete what is informally known as the "Johnny O'Connell" package.
O'Connell then added a Corsa exhaust system and Michelin Pilot Sport tires to the Corvette. After that, he lowered it by cutting the rear bushings and turning down the bolts on the front. The upgrades provided him with what he was looking for in a well-behaved-but very powerful-street car.
"They did an amazing job. When you pull the trigger it's awesome, but around town the Corvette is still pleasant and not annoying," O'Connell says. "Versus the stock LS1, it's slightly cleaner feeling at slow acceleration, and not much louder. But when you pull the trigger, and especially from 4,000 rpm up, it's a completely unreal animal. The power and torque in that area greatly improved." According to Jason Harding of Katech, the car puts out 380 hp at the rear wheels.