Johnny O'Connell remembers 2002 Persian Gulf trip

Memories of 2002 Persian Gulf trip strong for American Le Mans driver Johnny O'Connell. BRASELTON, Ga. (April 3, 2003) -- As a world-class sports car racing driver, American Johnny O'Connell has competed on some of the world's finest racing ...

Memories of 2002 Persian Gulf trip strong for American Le Mans driver Johnny O'Connell.

BRASELTON, Ga. (April 3, 2003) -- As a world-class sports car racing driver, American Johnny O'Connell has competed on some of the world's finest racing circuits. He has tasted victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and is currently enjoying a very successful tenure with the factory Corvette team in the American Le Mans Series.

But as his country wages war in Iraq, the Flowery Branch, Ga., resident can personally identify with the Coalition Forces who are serving in the conflict. In fact, his national pride grows as he remembers a special trip that he made in May of 2002.

Almost a year ago, O'Connell and the other drivers on the Corvette team toured the Persian Gulf area as guests of the U.S. Navy's Morale, Welfare and Recreation Division. The group visited military installations in Bahrain and then went aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John F. Kennedy. O'Connell said that the five days left an everlasting impression on him, one that is even stronger now that America is at war.

"Quite simply, it is amazing how dedicated everyone in the armed forces is to what they are doing, and also how talented they are," he said. "I know that everyone on the Corvette team left the troops impressed with their love for our country and their dedication for doing whatever is needed from them.

"It's a funny thing," he said. "It's not often that we use words like 'honor' and 'courage,' but the folks that are now defending us are living examples of the words in what they do every day. Their love for the United States, and what we stand for, is so pure and honest, it truly makes you proud to be around them.

"It was at times, while we were there, a bit strange in that they would look upon us as heroes for driving cars," he said. "Honestly, compared to them, we really weren't heroes, but they were."

O'Connell and the Corvette team will head to France early next month for Le Mans practice on May 4, and then will return to the Circuit de La Sarthe for the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 14-15. Then, it's back to America for the resumption of the American Le Mans Series championship with the Atlanta Grand Prix at Road Atlanta June 27-29.

During his racing exploits, O'Connell will continue to carry memories of his Persian Gulf experience, including the thrill and jolt of a carrier landing, meeting fighter pilots and ship engineers, and experiencing the heat and difficult conditions under which the men and women work.

"Most people don't get the chance that we on the Corvette team did," he said. "For me, it was a great honor to spend some time with those people who really represent the best that this country has. They understand that it is through their sacrifice, and the others before them, that we get to live the way that we do in the United States."

The American Le Mans Series is an international racing series, with drivers, teams and officials converging on North America from Europe, Asia, South America and other locations for every race. Last year, the series began playing portions of the national anthems of the nations of all drivers in the field in pre-race ceremonies, prior to the playing of the full U.S. national anthem at American races. Drivers and teams stand at attention in a line by their car during the anthems, and O'Connell said that the ceremony always touches him deeply.

"Visiting our guys last year certainly made me even more proud to be an American," said O'Connell. "It is with great pride that before the start of every race, I can look over at the Star Spangled Banner, and place my hand over my heart."

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Series ALMS
Drivers Johnny O'Connell