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10-01-2007: Corvette Racing Looks Back and Looks Ahead to Petit Le Mans
Source: Corvette Racing

Corvette Drivers Recall Early Days at "Little Le Mans"

BRASELTON, GA - Corvette Racing didn't participate in the first Petit Le Mans in 1998 - the team made its competition debut the following season - but several of its drivers were there in the beginning. With the 10th running of the 1,000-mile/10-hour endurance race scheduled for Saturday, October 6, it's appropriate to look back at the early days of this prestigious event.

"Don Panoz had the vision to create an American version of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and his vision has become a reality," said Ron Fellows, who drove a turbocharged Porsche 911 to a third-place finish in the GT2 class in the inaugural event. "Back in 1998, you could see there was a real commitment to make Petit Le Mans a big event. The pomp and ceremony before the race, the fireworks after the race, and the overall atmosphere of the weekend created something special. In the years since then, enthusiasm for the race has grown among both fans and competitors. Road Atlanta is a classic track, and it's fitting that an important sports car race is held there. Petit Le Mans has become a very prestigious event, and it truly is a 'Little Le Mans'."

Johnny O'Connell would also have raced in the first edition but for an unfortunate incident. Slated to drive a GT1 Panoz, he wrote off the car in qualifying after a teammate oiled the track in Turn 12.

"The significance of winning Petit Le Mans has increased every year," O'Connell noted. "More importantly, the fan interest has increased every year. That's an indication of how the ALMS has developed into a premier form of American motorsports and how the race itself has become an annual event that people really look forward to attending."

Corvette Racing has won its class seven times at Road Atlanta (including five Petit Le Mans class titles), but it was a very different team that first tested the waters at Road Atlanta in 1999. Fellows was the cornerstone of the development team that put in months of testing before the Corvette C5-R was finally ready to take on the championship-winning Oreca Viper team. Ironically, the French team's lead driver was Olivier Beretta, who's won back-to-back GT1 championships with Oliver Gavin since he joined Corvette Racing in 2004.

"It was very early in the learning curve for us, and Petit Le Mans in 1999 was the first time we brought the Corvette to Road Atlanta," Fellows recalled. "It turned out to be tougher than I thought it would be on the car. We've seen that over the years - getting to the end of a 1,000-mile race at Road Atlanta is not an easy task. It's also very physically demanding for the drivers because the high-speed corners produce high g-forces, and there's not a moment to relax until you get onto the back straight."

Andy Pilgrim also remembers the early days of Petit Le Mans. He finished fourth in the GT3 class in 1998 in a BMW M3, and the following year he drove the then-new Corvette C5-R alongside Scott Sharp and Kelly Collins. Pilgrim, Collins and Franck Freon notched Corvette Racing's first Petit Le Mans victory in 2000, and this year at Road Atlanta Pilgrim will be gunning for his second SPEED GT championship with Team Cadillac.

"The competition was tough in that first year," Pilgrim said. "We were taking on the championship-winning Oreca team, and they had their act together back then as well as Corvette Racing does now. They were the benchmark, and we were trying to get the Corvette program to the same level. We made a good effort, but we knew what we were up against."

Just as Corvette Racing's technology and driver lineup have changed over the years, so has the track itself. Several turns have been reconfigured, and the track was recently resurfaced. O'Connell was one of several Corvette drivers who sampled the new asphalt in a Michelin tire test.

"The track is faster with the new paving, and they've opened up some areas on the Esses so it's also safer," O'Connell reported. "The new surface has more grip, and there are no longer concrete sections that slow the cars down. For example, Turn 7 used to be concrete, but with the new asphalt, the grip level is consistent all the way around the race track."

"The tire test went well, and the team was able to get a head start on plans for 2008," commented GM Road Racing Group manager Steve Wesoloski. "Michelin conducts an annual tire test in Europe, but it's not feasible for us to participate. The opportunity for Corvette Racing and other key Michelin teams to participate in a tire test at Road Atlanta was very much appreciated."

Championship Scenario
With two races remaining in the 12-race American Le Mans Series, Oliver Gavin and Olivier Beretta hold a 32-point lead in the GT1 drivers championship over Johnny O'Connell and Jan Magnussen. With bonus points on the line at Petit Le Mans, a third-place finish will clinch a third straight GT1 drivers' title for Gavin and Beretta. They'll need to complete at least 70 percent of the race distance to score championship points.

From the Fans
The list of finalists for the ALMS "From the Fans" award includes Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan and team manager Gary Pratt. Fehan and Corvette marketing manager Gary Claudio are previous recipients of the award, which recognizes the greatest contribution to sports car racing in the last year as voted by ALMS fans. Voting for the From the Fans award and the Most Popular Driver award (won for the last three years by Corvette Racing's Ron Fellows) will continue at www.americanlemans.com through midnight on October 7. The winners will be announced at the post-season award ceremony.

The 10th running of Petit Le Mans, the 11th round of the 12-race ALMS series, will start at 11:15 a.m. ET on Saturday, October 6. The 1,000-mile/10-hour race will be televised live on SPEED Channel from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 6:30 to 10 p.m. ET.