Katech mods notwithstanding, O'Connell's street Vette is an entirely different creature from the C5-R and C6.R racers he's driven to 34 ALMS wins over the last seven seasons. "Most of the Vettes that I've driven have been made more for the racetrack," O'Connell says. "They're like a top thoroughbred horse: fun to drive, but lots of work. There's absolutely no relaxing at any time [when] you're in one. And that is what I love about my [street] Corvette. A C6.R wouldn't be fun to drive every day, as it would beat you up. Adjusting to my C5 is easy, as I can relax in it."
O'Connell enjoys driving his Corvette in his hometown of Flowery Branch, Georgia, and occasionally exploring the car's limits on the sinuous mountain roads of north Georgia. Corvette Racing's resident quipster has had some hilarious moments in his car, too. "I did a video for the team's Christmas party, where I was doing doughnuts and completely smoking the rear tires, and then had the local police pretend to arrest me. That was fun," he says.
When he's not having fun in his Corvette, O'Connell provides valuable feedback to the Corvette design and engineering teams on how to improve current and future models. "I do know that with both the Z06 and the ZR1, my testing of the cars enabled [Chevrolet] to find things out that might have taken them longer to find without me there. So I think my input with both cars has been greatly appreciated," he says.
O'Connell has advice for mod-hungry VETTE readers, too. "Honestly, I would tell them not to mess with the suspension much. I've yet to drive one that had things done to it that turned it into a better car. The best advice I would have, and [I'm] being honest, would be to ditch the Goodyears and get on Michelins. I use the Pilot Sport and keep away from the EMTs. The ride is so much improved, and how the Corvette goes into a skid is much nicer and easier to deal with."
Given that the racing passion still burns red-hot in this championship driver, it seems only natural that O'Connell will eventually consider adding a new ZR1 to his nascent Vette collection. After all, he's one of a handful of professional racers worldwide who can compare the similarities of the street-legal 638hp flagship to its race-only counterpart, the C6.R.
"I think I'll wait for the 'Johnny O'Connell Corvette' that Tom Wallace [Vehicle Line Executive and Global Chief Engineer, GM Performance Vehicles] promises will be just a tick faster than the 'Ron Fellows Corvette,'" O'Connell says with a laugh. "I've driven the ZR1 lots and did a great deal of testing with it. To compare it to the race car is impossible, as again the race car is not civilized, whereas the ZR1 is very civilized. Power-wise, they are very close, but the race car is much lighter and has way better tires, brakes, and aerodynamics. But the ZR1 is completely sick with its acceleration, and so smooth with how it delivers the power. And yes, I am considering getting one."
Until that happens, O'Connell will savor winning ALMS championships and setting race records in the No. 3 car, while enjoying his '02 C5 in a considerably more relaxed manner. Should you happen to pull up next to him on the street, don't even think of revving your engine. "I don't race on the street," he says firmly, "so if someone acts like they want to race, I just smile and wave to them."
Johnny O'Connell and Corvette Racing will begin the '09 season at Sebring International Raceway in Sebring, Florida, on March 18-21. He invites all Corvette fans to come out and watch him race. "2009 is going to be a race all Corvette fans will want to watch. It's going to be the last time we compete there with the C6.R, as the car will be retired to museum use after that. So it will be one of the last opportunities to see this amazing car up close."
For more information, go to www.corvetteracing.com or www.johnnyoconnell.com.