Corvette Racing Runs for Third Jewel in Endurance Racing's Triple Crown
Corvette Racing Aims for Sixth Petit Le Mans GT1 Victory in Seven Years at Road Atlanta
BRASELTON, Ga. - Horse racing has the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes; road racing has the 12 Hours of Sebring, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and Petit Le Mans. Corvette Racing has already secured the first two jewels in endurance racing's Triple Crown in 2006 with GT1 class wins in Sebring and Le Mans. On Saturday, Sept. 30, America's premier sports car team will try to complete the collection with a victory in the 10-hour/1,000-mile American Le Mans Series race at Road Atlanta.
Eleven thoroughbreds have won the equine Triple Crown since 1919 - and none has accomplished the feat since 1978. Chevrolet's thoroughbred sports car has won auto racing's version twice, in 2002 and 2004. Corvette Racing teammates Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Jan Magnussen are currently the most successful trio in the sport, having scored four straight endurance racing victories since their win at Le Mans in June 2005.
"While Corvette Racing has enjoyed great success in the American Le Mans Series sprint races, we consider the endurance races our specialty," said Steve Wesoloski, GM Racing road racing group manager. "GM Racing built the Corvette program around the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We know what it takes to win an endurance race, and we thrive on the challenge.
"The competition in GT1 is intense, and every endurance race is now run like a long sprint race," Wesoloski noted. "The team has learned how to set up the Corvette C6.R race cars for speed, and we know that the package has the durability to run the distance in the endurance races."
The yellow Corvettes have won the fall classic five times since 2000. Oliver Gavin has stood on the top step of the podium in three of those victories - with Ron Fellows and Johnny O'Connell in 2002, and with Beretta and Magnussen in 2004 and 2005.
"Petit Le Mans is an entirely different animal than a two-hour, 45-minute race," said the Briton. "It's one of those races where so much can happen.
"We're going to have Jan back with us, which is always a pleasure," Gavin continued. "He just slots straight into our team. But you have to make sure that everyone is comfortable with the car and the setup, which we usually are. We've done eight races together and won six of them, so I feel confident that we'll go into the race with an excellent car."
Although the pace promises to be fast and furious, Gavin and his teammates have learned the discipline of endurance racing. "Once the race starts, you have to drive hard but be aware it is a long race and a lot can happen," he noted. "It's not going to be won in the first stint; it usually comes down to the last two or three hours. That's when things happen - cars break, it's difficult to see, mistakes are made. The track often gets slippery as the race goes on, and you've got to be on your game when it gets dark."
At 2.54 miles in length, Road Atlanta is the shortest of the three tracks that host endurance events. With the fastest prototypes turning laps in just over a minute, race strategy is critical at Petit Le Mans.
"It's going to be busy in the cockpit because of the short length of the race track," explained Johnny O'Connell, a resident of nearby Flowery Branch, Ga. "Because the lap times are so much quicker than at Sebring and Le Mans, the odds of getting caught out by a pace car and going down a lap are much greater. Every driver is aware of the risks of falling behind your rivals at Road Atlanta because of that pace car situation."
Gavin agreed: "It's one of the things the engineers talk to us about at length," he said. "Any lead you get or any deficit you have can change in an instant. That's what happened last year - we got a little bit of a lead, managed to gain a lap during a caution period, and the competition never got it back. But it could swing the other way this time."
O'Connell and Fellows will be reunited with their endurance racing teammate Max Papis at Petit Le Mans. While O'Connell will have the luxury of sleeping in his own bed during his home race, he'll also have the responsibility of organizing his annual charity auction that benefits the Alzheimer's Association and The Guest House, a senior citizen day care center. Last year's auction raised $52,500. This year's auction will take place on Friday, Sept. 29, at 6 p.m. in the Road Atlanta winner's circle.
"The auction last year was amazing, and hopefully we will score another home run this year for the Alzheimer's Association and The Guest House," O'Connell remarked. "Almost every team and driver in the paddock contributes something, from artwork and helmets to sets of tires."
While Petit Le Mans is the shortest of the three endurance races, it may well be the most daunting because of the nature of the circuit.
"The straightaway at Road Atlanta is one of the fastest sections that the drivers see in a season," Wesoloski reported. "It's a track that takes a lot of skill and a lot of guts as a driver. Think about coming down the hill into Turn 12 and in front of you is the wall. It's up to the engineers to make the car stick, and it's up to the drivers to have the confidence that the engineers did the right thing. When you get it right, it's a big advantage in lap time to go through there flat out."
For the men and women of Corvette Racing, there is nothing petite about the task of winning Petit Le Mans.
-credit: gm racing