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.

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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.

In addition, racing a car that more closely resembles the production car will speed the Corvette’s development. In recent years, several engine components as well as ceramic brakes and carbon-fiber body panels have helped migrate racecars to the street. Chevrolet also plans to use the racecar to spur work in such areas as weight reduction and fuel efficiency for the next iteration of the street car, expected in 2012.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

Mustang mania
I’m not forgetting about you Ford fans. This summer, I dropped by the Carroll Shelby manufacturing facility just outside the Las Vegas Speedway grounds. On top of being able to see how my fellow Texan still puts together vehicles, you can amble through the adjacent museum. It’s not large, but some of the cars housed there hold a big spot in automotive and racing history. Click on the “tours” link at www.shelbyautos.com for details. Plus, you’re likely to find the parking lot filled with Shelby’s hallmark creation, the Cobra Mustang.

Pony cars back on track?
Someone is reading my mind. AutoWeek says some manufacturers are fed up with all NASCAR vehicles looking the same. Ford and Dodge reportedly have submitted designs of the Mustang and the Challenger to run in the Nationwide Series. The autos are said to be much more like showroom models. Chevrolet and Toyota, however, apparently are happy with their Car of Tomorrow faux Impalas and Camrys. But putting at least two more stylish models into races would be a great step, taking us back to the fun “run what you brung” days of NASCAR.

Wanted: Kindergarten teacher
That’s not a real job ad, but it’s one NASCAR might consider placing if Kyle Busch doesn’t stop acting like a 5-year-old. The guy just can’t keep his mouth shut, particularly about the driver who took his spot at Hendrick Motorsports. Before the Michigan race, the younger Busch brother was at it again, this time calling out 88 fans for not appreciating his racing or attitude. News flash, Kyle: 88 fans aren’t the only ones. Sure, Kyle adds some color to a sport many say has gotten too corporate, but he often crosses that fine line between being entertainingly outrageous and being a jerk.

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