Corvette Racing: Why O'Connell Loves Road Atlanta O'Connell Counts on Courage, Experience and Corvette Racing at Road Atlanta Local Hero Enjoys Home Field Advantage in Second Round of American Le Mans Series BRASELTON, Ga. - With hair as red...
Corvette Racing: Why O'Connell Loves Road Atlanta
O'Connell Counts on Courage, Experience and Corvette Racing at Road Atlanta
Local Hero Enjoys Home Field Advantage in Second Round of American Le Mans Series
BRASELTON, Ga. - With hair as red as the clay soil of his adopted home and a smile as white as an antebellum mansion, Johnny O'Connell is the favorite son of race fans at Road Atlanta. Born in New York, this transplanted Yankee has found a permanent place in the sunny South - just as he's found a home at Corvette Racing.
If there is a home field advantage in motorsports, O'Connell is going to be tough to beat when the American Le Mans Series comes to Road Atlanta on April 15-17 for the Sportsbook.com Grand Prix of Atlanta. O'Connell, a resident of nearby Flowery Branch, Ga., has turned thousands of laps on the 2.5-mile, 12-turn road course that winds though the Georgia countryside. With years of experience, unquestioned courage and a very fast Corvette race car, O'Connell and his teammate Ron Fellows are odds-on favorites in the fiercely contested GT1 category.
O'Connell, 42, ranks the Road Atlanta road course as one of his favorites on the ALMS circuit. "Every racer loves elevation changes, long straightaways, and long passing zones," he says. "Road Atlanta has all of those.
"I enjoy race tracks that have a variety of corners," O'Connell explains. "I like high-speed corners where you have to suck it up and use your courage, and I like low-speed corners where you need to draw on your technique. At Road Atlanta, turn 1, turn 12 and the esses are all about courage. Then there's turn 7, which is a tight, second-gear corner that's critical to get right because it leads to the long straight."
O'Connell brings a champion's perspective to Road Atlanta, where he's raced in ALMS events since the series' inaugural season in 1999. He's competed in a record 54 ALMS races, and his 21 career victories place him second on the list of all-time winners - a distinction he shares with Fellows, with whom he shared the 2003 and 2004 GT1 championship.
"Road Atlanta is a race track that demands that a driver make no mistakes," O'Connell reports. "The drivers who can keep their focus and hit their marks on every lap are usually the ones who end up at the front.
"When the car is right, the esses are fantastic," he declares. "You're driving flat out, and you have to force yourself to keep your foot down because it feels like you're defying the laws of physics. I call the bottom of the hill 'Ricochet Alley,' because if you mess up there, you're going to ricochet from one guardrail to the other. When you're fast through that section, it's a unbelievable experience."
In an age when many race tracks have become faceless and artificial, Road Atlanta retains its character as one of America's most daunting circuits - a reputation that O'Connell respects.
"Turn 2 is especially difficult, and I think most drivers finish this corner thinking that they left a little on the table," O'Connell admits. "It's a blind entry over the crest of a hill, the car's unbalanced, and you better know what's on the other side before you get there. You have to make the commitment to turn in before you see where you're going."
He also respects the sweeping downhill turn that leads to the pit straight.
"If you have a problem in Turn 12, not only is it going to be a big, big hit, it's going to happen right in front of your guys in the pit lane," O'Connell laughs.
O'Connell comes to Road Atlanta with a powerful new weapon - the Corvette C6.R race car that he and his teammates drove to a runner-up finish in the GT1 division in the season-opening Twelve Hours of Sebring last month. The new Corvette C6.R is the successor to the all-conquering C5-R that scored 35 victories in 55 races, won its class in Sebring three consecutive years, posted three 1-2 finishes in the GTS class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and earned four consecutive manufacturers championships for Chevrolet.
"This is my fifth season with Corvette Racing, and every year we raise the bar and improve the program," O'Connell notes. "The Corvette C5-R that I drove in 2004 was better than the car we had the year before, and now the new C6.R is another step ahead.
"When you look at the success I've had with Corvette Racing, it's not just because our race car is fast," he continues. "As a team, Corvette Racing doesn't make mistakes. In the entire time I've been with this program, I have never had an engine failure. Not one. It's the depth of the personnel that's responsible for the success of the program. Our team's advantage is its ability to engineer the race cars. I think that every GM engineer with Corvette Racing scored 1600s on their SAT tests, so I have confidence going into the Grand Prix of Atlanta."
O'Connell has a special affection for the track in his adopted home.
"Winning the Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta in 2002 completed my endurance resume'," he recalls. "When I started in sports car racing, I wanted to win the Daytona 24-hour, Sebring 12-hour and Le Mans 24-hour races. Then when the 10-hour Petit Le Mans race was added to the calendar, I wanted to win that one, too. There aren't many drivers who have won all four races, but Ron and I are two of them. That's rocking chair equity."
Fast, funny and fearless, Johnny O'Connell is going to give Georgians a hometown hero to cheer when the world comes to race at Road Atlanta.