Johnny O'Connell hasn't quite yet grasped the notion that he is a champion in the 2003 American Le Mans Series sports car racing season.
O'Connell, from Flowery Branch, Ga., and co-driver Ron Fellows of Toronto earned the GTS class driving championship for the season by finishing fourth in their class in this past weekend's ALMS event in Miami. In eight races, the duo has won three times in their Chevrolet Corvette C5-R.
"It (title) hasn't set in yet, especially as rotten as our result was at Miami," he said. "But it is gratifying to finally get a championship, having been so close the past two seasons. What really makes it special is sharing this one with Ron. Both of us commit ourselves 110 percent all of the time and we entered the season with really only one goal on both of our minds, and that was the championship for both the manufacturers and drivers."
O'Connell and Fellows will officially receive their championship rings and trophies when the ALMS holds its season awards banquet on Oct. 19, but their first order of business is the season-ending race, the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta on the previous day. Chevrolet leads Ferrari by only eight points in the race for the all-important Manufacturer's Championship and O'Connell and Fellows will enter the race with clinching that title as their number one goal.
The Petit Le Mans is a true endurance race, covering 1,000 miles or 10 hours, whichever comes first. Last year, Fellows and O'Connell won their class in the race, O'Connell's first-ever win at his home track. He lives only a few miles west of Road Atlanta.
"It meant a whole lot to me to finally get a win at Road Atlanta, as it is such a special race track," said O'Connell. "We've always run strong there, but then also usually have bad luck at some point or another during the race. Winning very much gets that monkey off your back."
The two-car factory Corvette team received a double blow at Miami, not only because of O'Connell's crash in the race but also because their team car driven by Kelly Collins and Oliver Gavin was totally destroyed in an accident during the warm-up on race morning. Collins was at the wheel at the time and walked away unhurt, but the car had to be withdrawn from the race.
"The car that Ron and I run was really not hurt that bad, so we are covered there," said O'Connell. "But I think Oliver and Kelly will move over to the test car, which is the one they ran at Laguna Seca (Sept. 7). It's exactly the same as what we have."
The Prodrive Ferrari team, which campaigns a pair of Ferrari 550 Maranello machines, has entered a third car for Petit Le Mans to bolster its chances of overtaking Corvette in the manufacturer's race. David Brabham and Jan Magnussen, who formerly drove for the factory Panoz team in the ALMS, have been driving for the Prodrive team since July. The pair were together for two of the three wins in the team's current streak, while Brabham paired with Briton Darren Turner for the Miami win when Magnussen had to miss the race due to a schedule conflict. Tomas Enge and Peter Kox share the other regular entry, while the team has not yet named the drivers for the third car.
Kox and Enge were delighted to point out that they had lapped both Corvettes in the recent series event at Laguna Seca and that Prodrive had extended Corvette's record of never winning on the California track. O'Connell acknowledged the superiority of the red Ferraris in that race, but not in the team's wins at Road America and Miami.
"They have won the last three, but really, luck was on their side," said O'Connell. "Bad traffic allowed them to get close and win at Road America. They won straight up at Laguna, and then got really lucky with our misfortune at Miami. Really the only track they were better in my mind was Laguna.
"To beat the Ferraris at Petit, we will of course have to be strong and prepared," he said. "Jan and David have certainly been a nice addition to their team, but I don't think they are more of a threat than Tomas and Peter are. I would say that Prodrive is similar to us in that either car can win."
The race is on.
The Petit Le Mans will get the green flag at 11:30 a.m. (ET) on Saturday, Oct. 18. Practice, qualifying and support series races will be held beginning Wednesday, Oct. 15. Ticket information is available from Road Atlanta by calling 1-800-849-7223 or online at www.roadatlanta.com.