You never forget your first – especially when it's the first win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Today Corvette Racing is recognized around the world as a powerhouse in international endurance racing, but a decade ago, the members of Chevrolet's factory sports car team were innocents abroad.
Memories of that first Le Mans victory in 2001, contested in a wet and chaotic race, are etched in the minds of the men and women who were there. The lessons learned during that rain-soaked day and night of racing formed the foundation for Corvette Racing's six GTS/GT1 class wins in the world's most prestigious sports car race. On June 11-12, 2011 Corvette Racing will run for its seventh class title at Le Mans, and its first in the GTE Pro (formerly GT2) category.
Corvette Racing had launched an expeditionary force to Le Mans in 2000, a race contested in searing heat. The American team finished third and fourth, an auspicious result in its first foray to France. Corvette Racing returned in 2001 with updated Corvette C5-R race cars and a revised driver lineup. Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell and Scott Pruett piloted the No. 63 Corvette to victory in appalling conditions, while Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, and Franck Freon were second in the No. 64 Corvette C5-R, giving Chevrolet the first of its four 1-2 finishes in the French classic. Fellows, O'Connell and Pruett finished eighth overall, equaling the performance of John Fitch and Bob Grossman in Briggs Cunningham's iconic No. 3 Corvette in 1960.
"The race in 2000 was the hottest Le Mans on record," said Fellows. "We were fast, we learned a ton, and we had a few mechanical gremlins to overcome. Then one year later, 2001 was one of the wettest races, and it was an adventure.
"One of the very few times I've been in an argument with (team manager) Gary Pratt was in the pits prior to the start of the race," Fellows recalled. "Gary was adamant that I needed to start on slicks like everyone else, but I insisted that I wanted intermediates. I said, 'I don't care, I want them. So the sister car started on slicks, and I was on intermediates.
"After the first three laps, the track was drying quickly, and I thought I'd made a huge mistake," Fellows said with a laugh. "Suddenly coming around Arnage, I saw a wall of rain ahead of us. There was a monsoon coming out of the southwest, and cars were going off everywhere.
"The cars around me were floating and spinning, but I could still maneuver because I had grooved tires. Somehow I got through the chaos without getting hit, and we moved way up in the overall standings in first 20 minutes."
Johnny O'Connell called on his previous experience at Le Mans to get him through the treacherous conditions. "I have a vivid memory of Le Mans in 2001, going out at night in the pouring rain," O'Connell recalled. "I came out of Tertre Rouge at full chat, hit a puddle, went sideways, caught it, and wanted to lift. Then I said to myself, 'They're not paying you to lift, stay in it.' The spray was blinding, and I drove through the night with one eye looking out the side window to find my braking points. That rainy night was phenomenal, scary, and exhilarating – a spectacular race."
Fellows agreed: "The level of concentration required to race in the wet was just overwhelming," said the Canadian ace. "None of us were physically tired, but we were mentally exhausted. The troughs in the pavement left by the heavy trucks on the public roads were filled with standing water, and the puddles were the biggest issue. The straights are normally a place you can relax, but just keeping the car on the road was a real challenge. I attempted slicks in the night, went out and came right back in. It was impossible."
The Corvette team went to Le Mans riding a wave of confidence after a 1-2 finish and an overall victory in the season-opening Daytona 24-hour race.
"The team had an unbelievable air of confidence after the success that we had at Daytona," O'Connell noted. "When everything is right in a team you feel it, and there was a very strong, positive energy. The curve ball was the ungodly amount of rain. We’d won in the rain in Daytona, so we knew we were good in the wet. I think everyone had faith that this race was going to come our way, and sure enough, it did."
While the drivers were sanguine, program manager Doug Fehan had his doubts.
"In those days, we were using a conventional transmission mounted behind the engine, and its reliability was marginal with the horsepower we had," Fehan revealed. "We were nervous about that. In addition, some type of harmonic vibration was destroying the starter motors; if the car spun and the engine stalled, there was a 50-50 chance that it wouldn’t restart. It was a huge issue.
"The rain worked to our advantage because the race pace was dramatically slower, which reduced the stress on the gearboxes. By the 20th hour, we had an insurmountable lead and a certain victory as long as the cars were running at the finish. We brought the cars in, went through the transmissions, dried out the starters, and sent them back out for the final hour. Then I had a moment of sheer panic when I was told that a GT car was ahead of us, but the officials reassured me that Corvette was still the leader in GTS."
Another lesson learned was the importance of perfect execution in the pits.
"We missed an overall victory in Daytona by 32 seconds," Fehan explained. "Thirty-two seconds is pretty easy to find in 24 hours, and not necessarily on the race track. It became vividly apparent that every movement in the pit lane had to be choreographed, every action needed to be as efficient as possible, because a 24-hour race can come down to just a few seconds."
The team also gained an appreciation of the unique demands of the immense 13.5 km Le Mans circuit.
"The Corvette C5-R had a fairly narrow body in 2000 – we had tremendous straight-line speed, but didn't have the cornering and aerodynamic characteristics that come with a wide car," Fellows noted. "We came back in 2001 with a wider body. The car had a little more drag but a much better aero platform. We were slower on the straights, but quicker overall in 2001."
With its first Le Mans victory, Corvette Racing reached an objective that had been set years earlier.
"In 1997 I sat down with Herb Fishel, who was then the director of GM Racing, when he laid out his vision and outlined his plan to win Le Mans," Fellows remembered. "Four years later it came to fruition. I'll never forget standing on the victory podium in the rain, with throngs of people on the track. It was a breakout year for Corvette Racing, and that first win was very special."
Corvette Racing's next event is the 24 Hours of Le Mans in Le Mans, France, on June 11-12 2011.