Wednesday
Aug272008

Corvette Racing: Behind the Scenes

Photos by: John Thawley & John Dagys This weekend’s American Le Mans Series race at Detroit’s Bell Isle will mark a milestone for Corvette Racing. It will be the team’s 100th event in international competition. From the high banks at Daytona to the Mulsanne Straight at Le Mans, the Pratt & Miller team has racked 71 wins since debuting in 1999, with many victories, and seasons, still yet to come.

As part of its homecoming celebration this weekend in Detroit, Pratt & Miller opened its doors on Tuesday, giving members of the media a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most sophisticated race shops in the world. Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan led the tour of the New Hudson, Michigan facility, with other key personnel on hand as well. The event was also hosted in conjunction with tire partner Michelin.

photo by: John DagysMembers of the media were first treated to a special event, as one lucky customer took delivery of a Pratt & Miller Corvette C6RS. The 600hp car features race-inspired technology for the street. A close-up look at these machines showed an extreme amount of attention to detail, as well as a close tie-in to its motorsports partners. Katech supplies the 8.2-liter Corvette LS7 powerplant for the C6RS, which puts out a whopping 600 lbs.-ft. torque. As also seen on the Corvette ZR1, Michelin tires come stock on the C6RS, providing superior grip and durability for the road. Gary Pratt said Pratt & Miller is currently making one C6RS per month, but would like to double production in the near future.

As seen in the C6RS, relevance is a key component to Pratt & Miller’s philosophy. Steve Wesoloski, GM’s Road Racing Group Manager pointed out that technologies taken from the race car often go beyond the typical transition into production cars. Wesoloski, who got his start within the team as an engineer, still taps into those resources in GM’s line of production development today. He said there’s a lot of exchange between all departments within the company.

“The GT1 class allows a lot more extension and development on the car than the GT2 class, but we still have a dozen or so parts that come straight from Bowling Green [Kentucky] on the race car,” Wesoloski said. “We developed the 7.0-liter engine, taking the small block bore-and-stroke out to 7.0-liters from a 5.7-liter. We did that in 2001, before it was even thought of for the street, now in the Z06. Those developments of parts go back and forth to the production environment as well.”

photo by: John DagysAnother example comes from the C6.R’s air conditioning system. When the ACO made it mandatory for all GT1 and GT2 cars to implement a system, Pratt & Miller went straight to GM’s production car’s engineers who produce the air conditioning systems.

“We’re not air conditioning experts, but these guys are,” Fehan said. “When we needed air conditioning, we called them up. We built all the parts and integrated it into the car, but they did all the engineering and the sizing to operate it. That’s why this car represents the tip of the GM technological sphere. There’s great stuff to be done with it… and those things are GM innovations. This really represents the finest what GM has to offer.”

There’s also been a big exchange of technologies within the GM racing community as well. Wesoloski said the GM NASCAR team works hand-in-hand with Pratt & Miller. They have been able to provide tools developed on the Corvette program to its partners in other race series. A prime example is Pratt & Miller’s race engineering database that is now a NASCAR crew chief’s best friend at a race track.

photo by: John Thawley “The NASCAR guys used to carry around binders of notes and tracked [information],” Wesoloski explained. “They had to pull out those files. Now it’s all in a computer database that can be pulled up. ‘What did we do when we had a push in Turn 3 at Richmond?’ ‘There it is.’ They can pull up that kind of information. Those are the kind of things we’ve been able to trickle into all areas of racing.”

The next stop on the tour took us to the facility’s engineering department. There, Fehan showed how the company’s engineers work with high-tech CAD computer software to develop almost every part on the Corvette C6.Rs. They are able to create molds of nearly any dimension drawn on the computer. Then it was over to the machine prep area where the actual parts are created from the CAD drawings. Fehan stressed the level of detail that goes into each part produced. Even parts as small as a lug nut are made in-house, preventing outside variables from affecting the race program.

The attention to detail was put into effect just last weekend when Oliver Gavin suffered a serious accident in practice. The team was able to rebuild the car in two and a half hours, a task Fehan believes only could have been completed in time by his world-class crew. The team was able to work so quickly due to its preparation done back at the race shop. 

photo by: John Dagys“Mosport was a horrendous hit,” Fehan admitted. “Those parts they took out of the box [to repair the car] were already bolted on that racecar [before]. It had already been on the chassis setup plate, already had the toe-in and already had the alignment, caster and camber. All of that was done and put in that box, so when a situation like that arises, you bring that part out and bolt it on, and you’re good to go. You know it fits and you know it’s right. That’s what we spend all winter doing. All the spares you see have been put on the car, validated, aligned, set up and ready to go. That what allows us what we’re able to do.”

The tour ended in the race prep area where both Corvette Racing C6.Rs were getting ready for this weekend’s Detroit Sports Car Challenge. Fresh from their adventures at Mosport, the two GT1 contenders were stripped down, revealing small details often unseen at the race track. Despite the quick turnaround schedule, crew members seemed at ease as they continued work through the afternoon in a near spotless environment.

photo by: John Dagys“It’s pretty clear for people to see,” Fehan said. “When they come here, they begin to understand why we’ve been so successful. You can’t help but think that this building must emanate something good. We can actually see and witness it. And that all goes back to our great partnerships.”

After the tour, Fehan took time with trackbytes.com to talk about what the future holds for Corvette Racing and Pratt & Miller. First off, he said to expect an announcement regarding the team’s 2009 plans in the next few weeks. Later on Tuesday, the ACO met with Fehan and other representatives at Pratt & Miller to discuss the 2009 regulations. Fehan explains:

“Anytime you take a production car and build it into a racecar, you need some level of clarification of what you’re doing,” he said. “That’s what we’re doing today: putting the final clarifications on what we might have to do to race next year.”

It appears as though we’ll see the GT1 Corvette C6.Rs back on the ALMS grid in 2009, no matter the level of competition they will likely face. Rumors have surrounded the team may shift focus to the prototype ranks, but Fehan stressed the their future path won’t be decided overnight. They are content to wait it out to see how the rules pan out before committing to a specific program, presumably for 2010.

photo by: John Thawley

“We will continue to race no matter what, because there is no replacement for racing,” Fehan said. “It doesn’t matter if we have competition or no competition, we’re going to continue to race. Once the rules come out, we’ll have to evaluate them. It’s very important to look at what’s going on between gasoline and diesel [powered prototypes]. It’s not clear to us what that equivalency will be. It would be disastrous to go and commit funding to go build an Evo car, not knowing how the balance will portend itself as we go forward.

“We’re in no rush to go build something for the sake of building it. It has to make a whole lot of sense. There has to be a strong business case for it, not the least if we can be competitive enough to win overall. If we’re convinced with it, then we can move forward and look at the other aspects of it. But fundamentally, we need to see a whole lot more before we will commit to doing that.”

One potential scenario for 2009 could involve the possibility of supplying GT1 engines to customer teams that will run in LMP1. Corvette stalwart Luc Alphand Aventures has stated they want to go prototype racing next year, with the logical powerplant of choice  being a Chevrolet. The French team wants to follow in the footsteps of Charouz Racing System, which uses a GT1-spec Aston Martin engine to power its Lola B08/60 in the European-based Le Mans Series. Could we see the same kind of involvment from Chevy next year?

“We continue to explore all of those opportunities,” Fehan said. “Nothing has been firmed up in those areas, but we certainly are open for conversations. We evaluate every opportunity that comes along. We’re also going to be very careful on how we take the Corvette name forward. It’s not just a question of reaching out and grabbing everything that comes down the pipe.”

photo by: John Thawley Fehan stressed the importance of running a stable customer program. While he received pressure from sanctioning bodies in the past to put more customer cars on the track, he said the program has to be successful at the same time. He now feels the Corvette C6.R customer program is running at full-throttle, especially after last weekend’s 1-2 finish for Phoenix Carsport Racing in the FIA GT Championship race in Bucharest, Romania. SRT also campaigns a Corvette in FIA GT, and Luc Alphand Aventures currently has two C6.Rs in the Le Mans Series. All of these teams have enjoyed success, one way or another, this season.

“That’s when your program is ready to go,” Fehan said. “The beneficiary of that has been the customer. I think if you talk to any of our customers, they will be pretty happy with the product and the support we’re able to give it.”

While its future race program remains unknown for Corvette Racing, we know they won’t be vanishing anytime soon. It may be a little while before its long-term plans are unveiled, but we can be rest assured that the best is most likely yet to come for the Pratt & Miller organization. Here’s to the next 100 races.

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