ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (August 18, 2003) -- After his scintillating performance in the closing laps gained an emotional win for his team in the most recent American Le Mans Series event, Johnny O'Connell is flying high as the series heads to one of ...
ELKHART LAKE, Wis. (August 18, 2003) -- After his scintillating performance in the closing laps gained an emotional win for his team in the most recent American Le Mans Series event, Johnny O'Connell is flying high as the series heads to one of North America's most storied racing circuits for this weekend's Road America 500 presented by the Chicago Tribune.
O'Connell, from Flowery Branch, Ga., and his co-driver, Ron Fellows of Canada, will be seeking their fourth GTS class win of the season in American Le Mans Series competition in Sunday's two-hour, 45-minute timed event on the ultra-fast, four-mile Road America track. Driving for the factory Chevrolet Corvette C5-R team, O'Connell and Fellows won their class when the ALMS made its first-ever appearance at Road America last year.
The two road racing veterans are savoring their most recent win, which came in the Toronto Grand Prix of Mosport this past Sunday. Racing at Fellows' home track, and with thousands of enthusiastic Canadian fans cheering them on, the two scored one of their most impressive wins since becoming teammates in 2001. In the last three laps, O'Connell, driving on worn tires, repeatedly held off the challenges of a Ferrari 550 Maranello driven by Dutchman Peter Kox, to win by one car length.
The Corvette vs. Ferrari rivalry in the GTS class has been one of the most riveting dramas of the 2003 American Le Mans Series season. Though Corvette has beaten the Ferrari challenge in all five ALMS races held this season, the bright red Ferraris from the Prodrive stable took the measure of the American muscle car in the 24 Hours of Le Mans held in June. O'Connell feels that over the four miles of Road America, the advantages that each car enjoys will be demonstrated.
"Our main competition this year is the Ferrari 550 and they are extremely good in a straight line, they've got top end on us, we saw that at Le Mans this year," said O'Connell. "That's really why they beat us. Where we are exceptionally good is in high speed and medium speed corners. I think it's going to be a good battle at Road America because I think through the Kink, through the Carousel and through Canada Corner we're going to be quicker, but down the straightaways they're going to have a lot of fight for us. So I think the fans once again will see a great Corvette/Ferrari battle."
Road America contains some areas that O'Connell refers to as "hero corners," sections of the track that, as he puts it, "really test your commitment.
"I first started racing cars in 1984 and the first place I raced at was Riverside (California)," he said. "They had a corner there and the real fast guys would go through it flat out. It took everything you had to get through it flat out but that was where the time was made. You go back to Laguna Seca in the late 80's in turns 2 and 3; if everything was right you were quick, if you messed up, like my crew chief said, you buy a new car.
"The great thing about Road America is you have that Kink and it really does separate those guys that are willing to take a huge chance," he said. "And if you make it right you make up so much time in that one corner. Those are special corners; those high speed, get it right, know you're a hero type corners and we love that about Elkhart."
Like all drivers in the American Le Mans Series, O'Connell was delighted when Road America joined the series schedule for the first time last year, basically filling a void that had existed during the first three years of the series.
"When you race in any series in America you want to race at the best circuits," he said. "We have Road Atlanta, we have Laguna Seca, we have Sears Point and not to have Elkhart Lake, your dance card was not complete. Every race car driver thinks of Road America as being one of our best circuits. The Europeans come over and it immediately becomes their favorite circuit and then the town itself is such a great town to stay in. It is for every racer a special weekend and the fact that we are back there really says a lot for the commitment that everyone at the ALMS is doing to make this the best road racing series in the world."
Four classes of American Le Mans Series sports cars will compete in the Road America 500. Included are two classes of the sleek and exotic Prototypes, which are open-cockpit, high-horsepower machines capable of reaching speeds of 200 mph on parts of Road America. Racing on the track at the same time for class wins and the overall win are the GTS and GT classes, production-based cars such as Corvettes, Ferrari 550's and Dodge Vipers (GTS) and Porsche 911s, Ferrari 360s and Panoz Esperantes (GT).
More than 35 cars are expected to compete in the Road America 500, which gets the green flag at 1 p.m. (CDT) on Sunday, August 24. Practice and qualifying for ALMS cars will be held on Saturday, August 23, along with an autograph session featuring all ALMS drivers.
The race will be televised live by the SPEED Channel. Live coverage by the American Le Mans Series Radio Web can be heard online at www.americanlemans.com.
Ticket information for the Road America 500 is available online at www.roadamerica.com or by calling 1-800-365-RACE.