This ‘From The Archives’ piece is a stunner and was last used as a ‘From The Archives’ piece back in 2009 to mark Corvette Racing’s final GT1 appearance.
This one was originally written at the end of 2004. That year Corvette Racing went undefeated and mostly unchallenged in ALMS competition, and won its class at Le Mans again, for the third time in four years. With four consecutive manufacturers championships and three consecutive drivers championships in the ALMS under its belt already by that point – Gary Horrocks’ epic (6,500+ words) tribute to the Corvette C5-R told the story behind the development of this fantastic racecar – seen through the eyes of some of the significant people involved – right up to the first Petit Le Mans win.
With a record like that referred to above, you would half expect a team to become complacent, holding back until the competition starts to catch up. Not Corvette Racing, that has never been their method of operation. Ever since they made their competition debut in 1999, they have been constantly changing and evolving, pushing until they produced one of the greatest sportscar designs to ever come out of the United States – and possibly the world. And now that the C6.R has been testing and is due to make its debut, I guess it’s a good time to reflect on the story of those who brought the C5-R to life, and carried it to the lofty status that it has achieved.
A project such as this does not come about overnight, especially when a large company like General Motors is involved. Make no mistake about GM being involved. They are involved in a road racing program like they never have in the past. Previously, whenever GM products were raced, it was done in a discrete way, almost like it, as a corporation, was trying to distance itself from any of the efforts. Even to this day, efforts like the Corvette Grand Sport and the Chaparral, despite having great potential and some rather intensive “factory” assistance, remain as nothing more than orphans that were disowned by the corporate structure.
In the ‘80s, when GM products like the Corvette GTP were running in IMSA, it was still very much a “back door” type of a program. It was obvious that something as complex as the Corvette GTP project could not have been developed without factory assistance, but there it was, being raced by the Hendrick Racing team, with little if any visible factory support or ties.
It is about this time that Doug Fehan entered the picture, working for GM, evaluating the racing efforts. He saw that any racing efforts “were forced to operate under clandestine conditions”. It was the way the GM always was when it came to racing. “Across the board, racing didn’t exist and it was frustrating to me. If we won a race, there was no recognition. There was no use for it.”
In 1992, Doug proposed a program, called the American Patriot, in which he had hoped to build and sell a high-performance car to fund a racing program. “I saw that we had a good group in Pratt & Miller. They were running the Intrepid in GTP, and I wanted to be able to continue to use them. Now you have to remember the times. I think we were bleeding something like 2 million dollars a day, and here I go, asking. Well, I did ask the board to nod and say yes, but I couldn’t get the support needed to get it rolling.”
According to Doug Fehan, “when the C5 version of the Corvette came around, it was apparent early on (inside GM) how good this car was going to be – that it was, in fact, not only going to be the finest Corvette ever built, but arguably – probably – the best car that General Motors had ever built, top to bottom, from a quality and performance standpoint, and because it represented the most advanced technology that we had inside the company. Herb Fishel came around and suggested that it might be time to revive the American Patriot concept. By this time, I felt that if we were going to do it, we would do it with full factory involvement. Previously, all efforts had been under the radar, but involvement in a program like the one I was proposing offered so much more. So, I assembled a program, a business plan with a template that we could structure our efforts around.
“So, there I was in front of all of the management and I made the presentation. I told them we couldn’t be under the radar any longer and said we would need two years of development. I didn’t ask. I told them we would spend two years developing the car before it would race. I still remember the setting quite vividly. The room was quiet. They were probably all thinking I was nuts, but it was something that I had to do. I believed in it and wanted to see it done, but not selfishly. I just wanted to see it done, what I perceived was the correct way. Finally, John Middlebrook, who was the General Manager of Chevrolet at the time, commented, breaking the silence that it was ‘a hell of a plan’ and to a person in that room, they said it would work.
“Now you must remember. This was a completely different approach to racing at GM. It was an end to our back door racing program. There were some that were afraid that it would upset many of our long term supporters or those that were recipients of that support. John Heinricy was one of those who had been running with that support, but he too was in full agreement that we should proceed.”
Then the real work started. Sportscar / GT racing was different then: you had USRRC, PSCR and the FIA series. The so-called showroom stock series were almost as strong as some of the US-based series. It left a great sense of confusion about where a factory was to go. A wrong decision would be a disaster.
“So we started that program. We just drove a C5 into the back of the workshop. We weren’t really sure what to do with it. It took the form of an investigation. We were actually going to look at the Corvette, build a racecar for no specific series – but just build it, utilizing production components, put race tires on it, put a lightweight body on it, go out and run it, and see what happens. And they knew this. They bought into this program. No commitment to run it, no commitment to racing it, but let’s see what we’ve got.
Here’s the first C5-R development car, at GM’s Milford Proving Ground in 1997 (see Doug Fehan comments below).
“When you look at what we have done with the racecar, I think we were inherently lucky in starting with the C5 (the racecar was remarkably faithful to the road car, above, a ’98 shot), because indeed it was a great road car, and when you start with a great road car in a production series, you get a great racecar.
“Probably the mainstay and the strongest point is the hydro-formed frame rails. For those of you unfamiliar with the process, they take a large tube, mandrel bend, block up both ends, put it in a die, inject high-pressure water in it, and it forms the frame rail. What it does, it makes the wall thickness very uniform throughout the entire complex shape, which in turn makes it extremely lightweight and very, very strong. And that really is the backbone of our racecar, and it has allowed us really to build a car that’s capable of competing with the best in the world, with some very high tech technology – but in a very simple application. So it has served us well to have a great car from which to begin.”
The two images below show Katech engine development specialist Kevin Pranger and GM Racing engine development engineer John Rice tending to the first design C5-R LS1 race engine in a dyno cell at Katech in 1997, and the engine as it looked in the car in that first year of testing.
It was about this time that the Chrysler / Dodge Viper was making a splash in the international racing arena, eventually settling into the GT2 category. As the rules were somewhat stable for that category, it made sense to take on the Viper.
Doug Fehan: “We wanted to go up against the Viper. So in spring of ’98, we started to see where we were and made the decision that we would target the Viper in the PSCR. Le Mans was a plan in the back of my mind, but hell no, I never dreamt it could happen. I had prepared myself for being disappointed, for not seeing it all come together and us not achieving the goal, but I would have been even more disappointed if we hadn’t even tried. As it turned out, GT2 developed into GTS and now into GT1. It’s like the perfect star alignment, with the way it all came together.”
The next two images are of testing at Sebring in 1998.
The rules at the time required that you had to start with the production chassis and that the engine had to start as a production item. They allowed suspension changes, but clearly, it (GM) wanted to maintain as many production components as possible. It helps the promotion of the product to make the racecar as close as possible to the streetcar. In the beginning, even the upper control arms in the suspension were production components.
Doug Fehan: “We knew that some of the production components were killing us on the track, but gradually we were able to take advantage of the rules and incorporate more changes into the car. And through that, we were able to filter those improvements back into the production vehicle.”
Testing of the concept took place at various tracks in the Midwest and in Florida.
“We ran for two years without a sniff. Nobody knew we were doing this at all. I tell you, that was no small chore. For two years – ’97 and ’98 – with a little clandestine fifth-wheel trailer, totally unmarked, and a little unmarked racecar, we went to various small venues and secretly tested this racecar – until we developed what we thought was a car that would be capable of debuting.”
Initial testing was handled by Chris Kneifel and Ron Fellows.
Ron Fellows: “Chris was the first driver to get in the car, when he shook it down in Michigan. Then we were off and running, with the first test taking place in the fall of ’97, which was when I first got into the car.”
Chris Kneifel: “Yeah, we pretty much tried to stay under the umbrella. We towed the car all over the mid-west and the south on a nondescript, white, gooseneck trailer, pulled by, believe it or not, a maroon Ford dually pick-up. We didn’t want to do anything to let anybody know what we were doing. The first shake-down of the car was at Grattan, a track near Grand Rapids, Michigan. It was bitter cold out and we had to wait for the snow to melt so we could get the car on the track. Thankfully, it was nothing more than a shakedown, a plumbing check, making sure the gearbox worked, that kind of stuff.
“In I think November or December of ’97, we went down to Atlanta Speedway for a three-day test. We were looking at doing some high-speed testing and we destroyed the car. The ironic thing was that it was due to leave for GM as soon as the test ended, as it was to have its corporate unveiling. We were there in force, taking data and putting miles on the car, using their after-thought road course section. It was probably used as nothing more than a place to park cars during a NASCAR race. Anyway, it was close to 5:00 on the last day and the right rear tire blew, well, actually exploded on turn 3 of the oval. Our top speed through there was around 175 mph. Well, me and the car were introduced to the wall in a big way. It was a big hit, and to this day, my neck is still a mess. I guess it is a souvenir of the Corvette racing program.
“Well,” we were thinking, “how are we going to explain this?” The car was due to show to the GM brass in a few days, and it was a mess. I guess it was one of those situations where every cloud has a silver lining because this wreck showed the integrity of the stock components of the car. They did their job. Actually, it was an interesting way to start. I guess we ended up getting the big crash out of the way early, anyway. We were able to repair the car, which was our main test mule and we put a lot of miles on it.”
When the testing had started, Ron and Chris knew of each other, but really had no relationship. They had raced against each other in Trans Am, but at the time, they raced for competing makes – Ron for Ford and Chris for Chevy.
Ron Fellows: “In a way, it was my success as a Ford driver that really ended up leading me to driving for GM. In all actuality, I was a Ford driver but was not really a true factory-supported driver, as I was really contracted to the team. Well, I ended up winning the Detroit Trans-Am race, which was sponsored that year by Chevrolet. You need to remember that that was a huge Trans Am race back then. It was Ford vs. Chevy in their back yard. Anyway, I won that year for Ford, and Herb Fishel of GM presented the winner’s trophy to me. He later called me, said I was a thorn in his side and hired me. I went back and won Detroit the following year for GM. Pretty cool, huh?”
At a test at Daytona, the team was trying to run for 24 hours, spread out as six hours a day, over four days.
Chris Kneifel (at Road Atlanta in ’98, right): “We were each running one hour stints for that test. At that time the car wasn’t insulated and was hot. Way over the top hot. I just got burned to a crisp. My feet, hip – I was miserable. After a stint, I’d get out of the car and throw ice all over me. Gary Pratt came over asking what was wrong and why we didn’t stop if we were hurting that badly. I replied, “you don’t stop in a 24-hour test, that would be a waste”. That attitude is what made this team what it was and is. Blood, sweat and tears. The car was an absolute handful during that early testing. I remember taking off on those hour runs and having to nurse those tires. They’d be good for 5-6 laps, then the car would turn into a bloody handful.”
As the testing went on, Chris and Ron really didn’t have much time to get to know each other, as typically one or the other was either busy in the car or busy elsewhere.
Chris Kneifel: “It is interesting how things come together. As we were getting ready to leave from that test, there was one of those awkward, silent moments. Neither Ron nor I had really spoken to each other much, but we knew both of us were flying out of Orlando the next day. One of us broke the ice, saying “wanna go for dinner?” It was one of those few rare moments that just don’t come around that often in life. We hit it off well and became close friends, and remain that to this day.”
Andy Pilgrim was part of the original driver line-up from the beginning, continuing on until 2003 when he went on to drive the Cadillac in the Speed GT Series.
Andy Pilgrim: “Ron and Chris handled all of the initial testing. I first got in the car when we tested at Sebring, in November of ’98 (in conversation with Ron, above), as a tune-up for the race at Daytona. I didn’t get a lot of running in the car at the time but I do remember that it was real fast in a straight-line. It handled well, but it had quite a bit of roll in it. At the time, the engineers were struggling with trying to control the roll. It was very fast, had good brakes, but it still had a production car feel to it.
“But I knew at the time that the car had potential. It had to do well, as Doug Fehan and Pratt & Miller had put together a first-class operation. It all started from the top. The people gave you confidence. If you, as a driver said something needed to be addressed, you knew it would be taken care of.”
Chris Kneifel: “It was not born a world-beater, but it became one of those because of hard work.”
So the car went through a continual improvement process until they felt they were finally able to let it loose at Daytona in 1999 (this is chassis #001, testing at a GM facility in ’99, above).
Doug Fehan: “I’ve got to tell you they thought I was crazy at home when they said, “Why on earth would you want to debut at one of the world’s toughest races?” I said, “Well, a couple of reasons. Number one, because I think it makes great headlines, I think it generates great interest – and number two because I think the car is ready to do that.” We’d done two years of testing, we were fairly confident of what we had – it’s Corvette, I don’t think there is a better place.”
The end result was a pleasant surprise, although it was not what it might have been.
“Well, it wasn’t the debut that we necessarily would look for from a storybook, but we led twenty of the twenty-four hours of that race, we ended up finishing third, and it was only a small air filtration problem that led to the erosion of some piston rings that cost us an overall victory in our first race (below).
But I have to tell you, all the executives were there, they all witnessed what went on, and you could see in their eyes the light went on – racing is good, people are excited. We had a huge turnout from the Corvette Club and Corvette owners. You could see the enthusiasm that it generated there. They were extremely pleased with what they saw.”
The third Daytona image (below) shows oil accumulating on the rear deck at Daytona. Faulty air filters had allowed the always-present Daytona sand to get into the Corvettes’ engines. After some 20 hours of running with sand, the cylinder bores were pretty well worn out. Piston blow-by caused crankcase pressure to transition from negative to positive. Engine seals were designed to run with a vacuum in the crankcase so when the crankcase became pressurized oil blew out past the seals with great enthusiasm. The car’s aerodynamic characteristics caused much of it to accumulate on the rear fascia, before it ran down onto the track.
That enthusiasm went a long way to get the corporate might of GM behind the project, ensuring that the project would lead on to bigger and better things. But next up was Sebring.
Doug Fehan: “At that point in time, the natural progression becomes – in a racer’s mind – you’ve done Daytona, you’re going to do some races, what’s the “crown jewel?” That becomes Le Mans. Though General Motors, as a “factory” had never really competed at Le Mans – there was some “push-back” – but in the end, they all agreed if we felt we could do it, that would be the place to go – knowing it represented huge challenges, but if we answered those challenges it would be a tremendous feather in our cap.”
So, the corporate wheels started turning in that respect, but there was a tremendous amount of work that was required to be done before they were ready for that challenge.
After the great, for a first race, success at the Rolex 24, the program thudded back to the ground at Sebring, where success was not to be had. Domination in qualifying doesn’t always mean domination in the race, especially at Sebring. The best either car could do was 23rd overall, fourth in class, after being delayed by differential cooling pump issues, while the other team car retired after nine hours owing to accident damage.
While at Sebring, GM asked the ACO to inspect the car, to see what changes might be required to be legal to run at Le Mans. Now mind you, this was the second time that they had asked for the ACO to look at what they had. The first reply was “We need this, we need this, we need this, we need this…”
Doug Fehan: “We went back, we did our homework, we made those changes, built a second-generation car, which we took that same year following Daytona to Sebring, following their orders precisely. We went down to Sebring and raced it – very unceremoniously – we had problems and were not very successful at all. But they (the ACO) reviewed the car, and said, “Absolutely not, not even close.” So we swallowed hard – realized we had delivered exactly what they had asked for, in our minds. We said, “Well, what do we need to do? ”You need to do this, you need to do this, you need to do this, you need to do this…,” they said. Each time I would come back to management they would say, “What are we doing? You came in and you told me this is what you needed, we did this, and now they’re telling us it’s this. I said, “You have to understand, these are the dues you have to pay. You have to be gracious, you have to be humble and you have to play by the rules. And if you do that,” I said, “I think we can succeed.” We went back, we built a third-generation car. At no small expense, I might add.”
The team ran a limited schedule that year, Sears Point (two images, below), Petit Le Mans, Laguna Seca and Las Vegas, basically learning the car and seeing what it needed to be competitive. Sears saw Ron and Chris finish a fighting second in the GTS class, to the lead Oreca Viper. This was an identical result to what they were able to achieve at Laguna Seca that year.
The 2000 season started at Daytona again, where they had high hopes of bettering their finish of the previous year. If it wasn’t for 30 seconds, somewhere during that 24-hour race, they might have taken that first victory.
Doug Fehan: “You know, in Daytona in 2000 we finished second. We finished second to the Viper by thirty seconds – twenty-four hours, you lose by thirty seconds. You don’t think we went home and asked, “Where can we pick up thirty-one seconds?” Well, the list is about this long! It becomes very apparent that small things make a difference in a 24-hour race. So we really took the bit in our mouths to do the best job we possibly could, to find every little thing that we thought would make a difference over that twenty-four hours.”
And that was to apply directly to Le Mans, where for the first time, General Motors had an official presence at the track, with both the Corvette and the Cadillac.
Chris Kneifel: “Things really started to click during that race. We knew what we wanted to do and it really became a turning point for the program. We were down several laps after three hours, but we only lost the race by about 30 seconds. Yes, it was a bit of an empty feeling, but we knew if we did it right, we had the recipe for success. Without battling Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlindger, we never would have made it to the level that the program is now. Early on, the wins weren’t there, but I knew when they started to come, they’d come in bunches. There was never any question that we weren’t going to be good, but is easy to forget the grind of the early days. The hours felt longer and there was a bunch of smacking your head against the wall.”
After getting oh so close to that first victory at Daytona, the team started to look towards Sebring and the big one, Le Mans. First of all, Sebring did show that the Corvette had the pace to compete, with Fellows taking pole and challenging for the lead early, only to be slowed, and eventually retire, with engine problems. The second team car did not really feature and finished a distant sixth in class.
But things were heading in the right direction. The decision had been taken to increase the displacement of the engine to a full 7 litres – a unit that first raced at Las Vegas in 1999..
Ron Fellows: “Katech developed a 7.0 to help us compete with the 8.0 V-10 in the Viper. This was a significant change in the development of the program.”
Andy Pilgrim: “When we got the bigger motor, we also got a smaller restrictor, but we got more torque. As far as top speed, the car in 1999 was as good as it would get. I think we were able to reach 200 mph at Daytona, but we never saw that again. I think our typical top speed at Le Mans stabilized somewhere in the 185 range. I think there was one time that we trimmed the car out to see what it would do and Franck Freon was in the 195 – 196 range. The car was rather unstable on the straights and the lap times were not any better, so we went back to our original higher downforce set-up. At Le Mans, downforce can be a detriment, as it is about the straight line speed, but we have been able to strike a balance between the two.”
Getting the team to Le Mans was much more than just shipping the cars over there and making sure the drivers got to the track. Planning for the trek started well in advance of the race itself.
Doug Fehan: “We wanted Le Mans to be our target and we knew it was going to be difficult. When you look at what goes on, it’s so much more than just racing. When you have to take two racecars, transporters, fifty people – I think we transport about twelve tons of equipment. We have to accommodate all those people. You have to properly feed them, you have to properly house them – in a country where they don’t speak the language, nor have they ever been. I think you can see the challenges that we faced there; they were immense. But we welcomed them, we kind of looked at it that it would be fun and in fact, it would be a challenge.
“We managed to get everything over there. We managed to get everybody a room, although not the best of accommodations. We did a good job of providing nutrition for them. You know, these guys are pretty rugged; they can exist in almost any type of climate for two or three days. Much past that, if it’s not something they’re accustomed to, they get cranky and you get a pretty rapid erosion of teamwork and spirit. So in my presentation of what I thought we would need, I thought it would be important to bring over someone who would cook food in an American style and an American presentation, so that when they sat down to eat they would know what they were eating; something they would recognise and they would eat it.
“Having spent a little time over there before, and I knew what was available and knew these guys would get tired of eating at one of the three McDonalds thereafter the third day. Our guys don’t have to worry about where they’re going to go to eat. Everything’s there for them at the racetrack. They show up in the morning, they have breakfast, they know where they’re going to get their lunch, they eat their dinner and they’re able to go to their clean and comfortable hotel room. When you’re there for seven, eight, nine days, that’s very, very important, especially when you consider the rigours of the schedule.
“Our first trip there actually was fairly successful and resulted in a third-place finish – a podium first time out – which I thought was pretty spectacular. And so did the company. And from that point on I think it (the racing program) was a pretty easy sell.
“Andy was able to get on that podium with Kelly Collins and Franck, despite having starter issues throughout the race and also only being able to get 12 laps per fuel load, versus 13 for the Vipers.”
Andy Pilgrim: “I have great memories of Le Mans. Even though I have not won there, it’s great to even have been on the podium. It was quite an experience.”
When Le Mans ended, the program took upon the building and development of a second-generation car, which would further take it away from its production origins. According to Gary Pratt, “we went racing with one arm tied behind our backs.”
Ron Fellows: “This car built upon the lessons we learned (from the original car). We were new to the game and still trying to figure out what was required.”
Much of the development of the second generation chassis centred around making it wider. Oddly enough, this came about by request from Goodyear.
Doug Fehan: “Goodyear wanted to develop a new tire which required some additional suspension adjustment.” The way to do that was to make the car two inches wider, right up to the maximum allowable width. But while making the chassis wider, other improvements were incorporated, reducing the weight of the car about 100 lbs.
All of these changes added up, because all of a sudden, people were talking victory in the Corvette camp.
Ron Fellows: “We originally weren’t going to be running Mosport, but I did some talking and convincing. I felt I could guarantee a win at home. Finally, Joe Negri (GM Racing Group Manager) gave the OK. Man, we had that race. We had those Vipers covered. Our Goodyears were significantly better in the rain, but in the end, it started to dry and an untimely caution came out. That allowed them to pass Andy with a few laps to go. We lost by 0.3 seconds. With any other weather conditions, we would have won. It was racing luck and Andy really felt bad, but it wasn’t his fault at all. It was clearly evident that we had a better car on that day. I will say that Joe did ask me about that guarantee though.”
While finishing second again was disappointing, there was a new attitude within the team. They knew they were right there, ready to get the elusive win.
Ron Fellows: “Well, thanks to the dollar support of AER, we were able to race at Texas. Originally, we were not supposed to be there, but with Texas being the home of Bob McGraw and AER, they wanted us to be able to run there. Lo and behold, his continued support helped to make Corvette history. The convincing argument was that we were going to a track that none of the teams had been to before (especially our rivals at Dodge and ORECA). Two things I will remember: it was incredibly hot during the first stint late in the afternoon and driving through the two slowest corners, the heat-soak in the car was so bad it hurt to breathe. I would hold my breath through those particular corners. Following my first stint, I was stripped down to my underwear, standing in the garage area – open to full view – while Program Manager Doug Fehan literally hosed me down with cold water prior to my final stint. It was a great win.”
Andy Pilgrim: “Man it was hot there. It was so hot that I couldn’t even breathe through my mouth, as it dried up so badly. It was like breathing through a hair drier. Thankfully, my body temperature is consistently two degrees lower than normal. It helped me cope with the heat. Ron started the race, but the heat got to him, so I did a double stint in the middle. They called me on the radio to see if I could continue till the end, but Ron was able to recover and finish the race. That was a great win.”
In the end, despite track temperatures reaching over 150 degrees, Ron Fellows and Andy Pilgrim were able to beat the Oreca Viper of Olivier Beretta and Karl Wendlinger by over three laps.
The Corvette team skipped the next race at Portland and regrouped at Petit Le Mans, with a two-car effort. Fellows, Kneifel and Justin Bell were in one car with Andy, Kelly and Franck in the other.
Andy Pilgrim: “Oreca was going for the Grand Slam – Daytona, Sebring, Le Mans and Petit Le Mans. We heard something about them getting a huge bonus to win Petit to complete the sweep. Well, let’s just say that we didn’t want them to get that bonus. This win was all about winning a big endurance race, not just a sprint race – which we already had done weeks before in Texas.”
Coming up on the end of the race, Andy was catching the Oreca Viper driven by Tommy Archer.
Andy Pilgrim: “There was about twenty minutes to go in the race when we went back to green and I was about 20 seconds back from Tommy Archer in the leading Viper; Beretta’s car and the other Oreca Viper were down a couple of laps, as was Ron Fellows in the other Corvette, owing to mechanical gremlins through the race. I had no real problem with traffic and the car was working well as I started the run to try and close the gap. I could see Tommy and actually closed the gap to get right behind him with about five laps to go. There was not much between the cars under braking: Tommy had a little more speed on the straights and a little more coming off the corners, but we were better through the apexes of the corners, especially through the quicker turns like 1 and 12.
“I tried several times to set myself up, but Tommy was blocking well and braking very late, even locking up his tires several times to hold off a challenge. I had figured out that one of the weaker places for his car was the apex of turn one – for some reason, he was having bad understeer there, and had to slow the car down to get through it, but had enough grunt to pull me up the hill to Turn 2.
“It was very, very close but I just had not been able to have a real shot as he was quick enough on the straights. With two laps to go, I saw the lead group of prototypes coming out of turn 7 in my rearview mirrors (to lap us for the first time since the last yellow) as we were going over the hump (about 400 yards ahead) on the straight and I said to myself, ‘you’ve got to do it very soon because if those guys get to you you’re done.’ I faked a pass going into turn 10 and made Tommy block the inside and I took a good line out. His car was quicker pulling up the hill, but he was not as far ahead as before as he had compromised his exit a bit to block me. Going into Turn 12, I figured Turn 1 had to be it and he just would not really expect it there as it was pitch black dark and difficult to see.
“I had a very good run out of 12, holding the gas flat. Tommy moved his car over to the middle track to cover a move and I made sure I stayed left, showing him my headlights in his left mirror to make him think I was not going to make the move. I waited and waited until he hit his brakes, luckily he left the inside open as I was still on his left and he felt safe. The split second he hit the brakes I threw the car right and hit the brakes after I had made the move to his inside. I went by him so quickly that I really think he was shocked: by the time I was down the inside and he reacted I was by. I flew up the hill to turn two, not daring to look in the mirror, I blew through three and down the hill to four, before turning into four I glanced in my mirror and assumed he was so close I couldn’t see his lights in my side mirror. There was so much background light with camp fires and track lighting that it was very hard to see behind.”
“Assuming he was right there, I went through turn five like a complete lunatic, with the car sliding and bouncing all over the curbs. As I came out of turn five I let the leaders by as I stayed to the right. Suddenly I looked behind and realized there was nothing else there: Tommy had not been behind me at all and I actually laughed out loud at my frantic driving to outrun my own shadow. I found out later that he had in fact pushed off the track after I made the pass back at turn one. Suddenly the race was over and I watched the fireworks coming down the back straight.
“We had done it and I somehow felt one era had ended and another had started. It was a great feeling. It worked out perfectly and I executed it as well as I could have. It was a watershed moment. That became known as the “Pilgrim Pass” and was elected as one of the Top 50 Moments in Corvette History by Corvette Quarterly.”
The 2000 season ended with a second in class at Laguna and a third in class at Las Vegas. As Andy just remarked, this could very well be looked upon as the ending of one era, the starting of another. The factory-supported Viper effort was leaving and in its place was to be what some saw as the future of the GTS class when the Saleen S7-R made an initial appearance at Laguna. On paper, it was something to look forward to, but you couldn’t discount the efforts of the people at Corvette Racing.
The best was yet to come…