A NEW ERA

| July 15, 2009

Corvette Racing approaches a decade of phenomenal American Le Mans success – by Kay Bell


This summer might be the worst ever for General Motors. Sales remain abysmal, factories are closing left and right, brands are being killed or sold off, and the company is even slashing its support of NASCAR.

There is, however, one bright spot for GM that deserves more publicity than it’s getting amid the doom and gloom: Corvette Racing’s decade of dominance.

NASCAR fans know Corvettes primarily as pace cars. But these impressive autos, with quite a racing history of their own, are wasted slowly circulating ovals. With its sixth class victory in the last nine years at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, Corvette Racing brought the curtain down on the most successful campaign in road-racing history. And starting in August, the ‘Vette Set is launching a new program that should go a long way toward establishing Corvette as a global presence.

The two-car factory team entered American Le Mans in 2000, and I’m proud to say its inaugural class victory came in my home state of Texas that same year. Since then, Corvette Racing has established itself as the most successful production team in the history of sportscar racing, winning 77 out of 102 races and claiming what is now called the GT1 Class crown every year since 2001.

As recently as 2004 (in what was then called the GTS Class), the bright yellow C5.R Corvettes squared off against Saleen, Dodge, Lamborghini and Ferrari and dusted them all. In that 2004 season, Corvette was perfect, winning every pole and every race.

Chevrolet retired the C5.Rs after that historic season and replaced them with the C6.R models that ran until now. The only downside to all this success is that fewer and fewer people wanted to keep having their racing helmets handed to them.

By 2008 Corvette’s only opposition was an Aston Martin team running a limited schedule. And this year, no one else even bothered to enter GT1; the two Corvettes spent the first half of the season competing only against each other.

Finishing 1-2 every time out is every race team’s dream, but intrasquad scrimmages aren’t the kind of competition Chevrolet wants. So in June, Corvette parked its GT1 cars for good and began the transition to a new era.

Now Corvette will run a brand-new car in the GT2 Class, which boasts the robust competition it faced in GT1 before it scared everybody off. So far this year, seven GT2 teams have fielded such cars as the Porsche 911, Ferrari F430, Panoz Esperante, BMW M3 and Dodge Viper.
The move to GT2 is something of an interim step for the Corvettes, which in 2010 will join all those other makes in a single, unified, worldwide GT class (including American Le Mans as well as the European Le Mans series).

The difference between the GT1 and GT2 machines is simultaneously small and large. The old and new Corvettes look fairly similar, though the GT2 cars will carry a new body inspired by the 2009 edition of the Corvette ZR1 that, if anything, looks a little more stylish and meaner than the somewhat squatty C6.R. But the cars’ inner workings are quite different.

Where the GT1 Corvettes were powered by massive 7.0 liter V-8s, the GT2 cars will run 6.0 liter versions of the LS7.R small-block V-8, making the GT2 car much closer to the production Corvettes. And for 2010, the engines will step down to a 5.5 liter, 500-horsepower version of the production GM small-block V8.

Corvette Racing seems energized by the challenge that lies ahead. Chevrolet knows that holding its own against Porsche, BMW, Ferrari and the like can only help Corvette as it pushes to increase its visibility as a global brand.

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