Johnny O'Connell Feels Le Mans is Greatest Race Braselton, GA - (Many racing teams and drivers that regularly compete in the American Le Mans Series will be racing in the 72nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de La Sarthe in ...
Johnny O'Connell Feels Le Mans is Greatest Race
Braselton, GA - (Many racing teams and drivers that regularly compete in the American Le Mans Series will be racing in the 72nd running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans at the Circuit de La Sarthe in France June 12-13. The ALMS is associated with and based on the 24 Hours of Le Mans and annually builds its schedule of events around Le Mans, giving teams that wish to compete at Le Mans the opportunity to do so. The ALMS will return to action June 25-27 at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course. This is the latest in a series of feature articles on ALMS drivers and teams with their thoughts on competing in the world's most famous endurance race.)
<B>Johnny O'Connell of Flowery Branch, Ga., boarded a Paris-bound airliner Friday to prepare for his, and Corvette Racing's, pursuit of a third 24 Hours of Le Mans GTS class win. He will co-drive with normal teammate Ron Fellows as well as veteran international racer Max Papis, who joined Corvette this season for long-distance races. O'Connell, one of the most popular and well-known drivers on the American Le Mans Series, talks about the unique features of the day-long competition that many consider the world's greatest automotive spectacle. The 24 Hours of Le Mans begins at 10 a.m. (EDT) on Saturday, June 12 and will be televised in North America by SPEED Channel.
Q: You've won twice at Le Mans with the Corvette. Aside from your success there, why is it such a special locale?
Johnny O'Connell: "Just being out on the pit straightaway and looking up the track. Being able to see that huge Dunlop tire that you saw when you were a kid watching the race on TV."
Q: As you depart for the French countryside, what kind of shape are the team and car in?
Johnny O'Connell: "I think we are the best prepared for this race that we have been since I've been with the Corvette team. How we ran at Sebring, and then how we tested afterwards. Then the (Le Mans) pre-qualifying (where his car was fastest in the GTS class). A lot of our speed comes from the (new tire provider) Michelins. And the engineers kept their laptops busy over the winter. Aero-wise, we're better. Better, suspension-wise. The gearbox is stout. The whole package is just so much better, especially the strength of the car."
Q: What happens when you get overseas?
Johnny O'Connell: "In reality, it's several days of boredom, because we aren't able to get on the track until Wednesday evening. But the car has to go through tech (inspection) on Monday. One of the hardest things about being over there so early is the mental aspect. You can't allow yourself to get bored."
Q: How do you pass the time?
Johnny O'Connell: "I try to get as much rest as I can, because the whole week can be very grueling. I try to relax as much as I can the early part of the week, then, once you get in the race, now you're working."
Q: Is Le Mans motorsports' greatest spectacle?
Johnny O'Connell: "I think it is. I've raced at Indy and I've raced at Le Mans, and to me there is no question. Le Mans presents so many challenges. You're racing through the night, through the rain sometimes. It is the ultimate test of the car, and of the drivers as athletes. The athletic aspect is one of the most appealing parts of the Le Mans experience."
Q: What do you do to prepare for Le Mans and to stay in shape generally?
Johnny O'Connell: "I do pump (weightlifting) classes with (wife) Robin, then I have some pretty heavy-duty cardio workouts with the elliptical machines. I can't run anymore because of my foot injuries (suffered in a 1997 crash at Indianapolis). The elliptical machines are a great substitute. I also do the martial arts, but there's no substitute for being in the car."
Q: After the layoff from Sebring in March until now, are you a little anxious?
Johnny O'Connell: "I've been in the car very little since Sebring. I mentioned this the other day to (team manager) Doug Fehan, and he said, 'You're going to have 24 hours to get comfortable with the car!'"
Q: After Le Mans, you and Corvette Racing will have the chance to extend some win streaks at both Infineon and Mosport. You and Ron Fellows will be going for four straight wins at each of those venues.
Johnny O'Connell: "Yeah, but I try to take each race as it comes, and do the best that I can. Ron's and my philosophies are similar. We use our wisdom along with our speeds when it comes to (winning) races. It's funny, because if someone asks (about) my favorite circuit, Mosport is on that list, and (Infineon) is on that list. It's much easier to run at a place that you love. But I won't approach them any different than I have in the past."
Q: When you get to the wine country (Infineon Raceway), there's this guy named Earnhardt who'll be your teammate.
Johnny O'Connell: "And I think it's going to be great. He is an amazing race car driver. What (his presence) means to ALMS, you can't put a dollar figure on that. We are all more than happy to make room for him."
Q: What is going to be the biggest adjustment Dale will have to make from stock car competition?
Johnny O'Connell: "Getting used to a car that is a proper sports car. Everything's going to happen so much faster for him. Going from no grip to a lot of grip is the best feeling in the world. He is so in love with these cars."
Q: Do you foresee him getting more involved in sports cars?
Johnny O'Connell: "Well, Nextel Cup is where he makes his money, and it's pretty substantial. Sports car racing appeals to his truism to the sport, so to speak. Dale just loves driving race cars. He likes the Corvette a lot better than the prototype he drove at Daytona, and hopefully we will get to see him at some other events."
Q: After Le Mans, the ALMS season heads into full swing.
Johnny O'Connell: "Finally, our season begins! Sebring seems like last year, almost. With us not doing any racing since March, I'm looking forward to the next couple of months. Between Le Mans and the early part of August, I think we race six times. Ideally, we'd all like to race once or twice every month, and that's something we need to strive for in the future."