Wednesday
Jun172009

Toasting a decade of excellence for Corvette Racing

Photo by Regis LefeburePeter M. De Lorenzo is a national columnist who founded Autoextremist.com, a highly-regarded website devoted to news, commentary and analysis of the auto industry. He is considered to be one of the most influential voices commenting on the business today.Corvette Racing closed out its run in the soon-to-be-phased-out GT1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans with another victory last weekend, its remarkable sixth win in ten years of competing in the French endurance classic. For the record, Corvette Racing has won the top GT class at Le Mans in 2001, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006 and now 2009. This year Johnny O’Connell, Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia were the winning combination for Corvette Racing, completing 342 laps in their No. 63 Compuware Corvette C6.R - a full six laps ahead of its nearest competitor - the No. 73 Luc Alphand Aventures Corvette C6.R of Yann Clairay, Julien Jousse and Xavier Maassen. The second factory Corvette Racing team car, the No. 64 Compuware Corvette C6.R driven by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Marcel Fassler was knocked out of the lead in GT1 - and the race - in the 22nd hour with transaxle problems. The two team cars had staged a furious battle with each other the whole way up until that point.

It was Corvette Racing’s 16th podium finish at Le Mans since 2000, and it was the fourth Le Mans class win for O’Connell and Magnussen. The win was especially sweet for O’Connell as he became the first American driver to win four class titles in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was also the second consecutive Le Mans GT1 victory for Garcia, who was part of the winning Aston Martin team in last year’s running of the race. O’Connell, Magnussen and Garcia also won the 12 Hours of Sebring back in March.

Even though the triumphant weekend at the spectacular Circuit de la Sarthe added to the Corvette Racing legend, the numbers don’t even begin to tell the whole story.

From its inception in 1999 Corvette Racing has fought an uphill battle inside General Motors. With an operating budget that added up to be a mere fraction of the millions upon millions that the company expended on NASCAR, Corvette Racing has always been the stepchild that had to justify its existence every step of the way. Each and every triumph or championship that Corvette Racing delivered was almost treated as an afterthought within the company - except for the True Believers who knew better, of course - while tons of money were blithely thrown at NASCAR with no rhyme, reason or rationale except for the fact that NASCAR was the “it” buzz of the moment.

There have always been two distinct camps within GM marketing when it comes to Corvette Racing, and they’re made up of The True Believers who “get it” and understand the global power of the Corvette brand and “the others” - the executives who are continually blinded by the NASCAR marketing machine and who could never write the checks fast enough - while boasting of the “ROI” numbers that the France family circus delivered.

The problem is that those numbers have been bogus for some time now. NASCAR may still be the most popular form of motor sport in the U.S., but the value to the manufacturers involved in it has deteriorated, and drastically so too. When you combine empty grandstands with dramatically declining fan interest - and with manufacturer brand identification being virtually eliminated from the equation with the dreaded “Car of Tomorrow” - you have a sure-fire recipe for Not Good. The diminished TV eyeballs don’t help matters much either.

The real nitty-gritty of the “ROI” issue?

During the absolute peak of the NASCAR boom - roughly 1996 to the end of 2007 - the Detroit auto manufacturers saw their market share decline every single year. At most, the run of popularity in NASCAR only served to keep domestic-leaning auto consumers in the fold for a little while longer, it certainly didn’t stave off the manufacturers’ steeply declining market share and it did absolutely nothing to bring import-oriented consumers into the domestic fold.

The Corvette Racing program, on the other hand, was a “march to a different drummer” situation altogether. The Corvette Racing program injected a wildly foreign concept into the existing equation at GM and that is that it continually delivered a direct transference of advanced technology to a production automobile program. In other words, every dime that went into the Corvette Racing program was, for all intents and purposes, an extension of an ongoing, real-world research and development exercise that actually resulted in calculable benefits to the product the company put on the street. This “ROI” actually translated into a better production Corvette, which engendered even more loyalty from a group of pleased and satisfied enthusiast consumers unmatched by any other GM product. No other GM vehicle even comes close to the Corvette in those terms, as a matter of fact.

Not only that, but because of Corvette Racing’s high-visibility success in the most prestigious road racing event in the world - the 24 Hours of Le Mans - the Corvette is now a shining beacon of excellence that translates into an image of prestige and success around the world.

As I’ve said many, many times before in this column, the fact that GM failed to capitalize on Corvette Racing’s success all these years is beyond unfortunate. The success of the Corvette Racing program should have been the cornerstone of an ongoing GM corporate image campaign that projected the company’s advanced technical capabilities for all the world to see. But alas, that was not the case.

Corvette Racing succeeded in spite of the obstacles placed in front of it every step of the way and in spite of not being the “darling” of GM marketing’s budgetary appropriations when it came to racing.

That it became America’s premier production sports car team - winning 77 races, eight consecutive American Le Mans Series championships and six class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans - is a testament to the dedication, talent and sheer perseverance of everyone involved.

Congratulations are in order to Pratt&Miller Engineering in particular, who in ten years of designing, engineering and developing the Corvette racers has established itself as one of the premier racing entities in existence, and one considered by motorsports insiders to be every bit as capable as any other racing organization in the world - on any level.

And kudos, too, go out to the True Believers within GM who kept Corvette Racing alive and well over this phenomenal decade of the team’s success.

Doug Fehan, the program manager for Corvette Racing, commented on what the Corvette racing program - and racing at Le Mans - has meant: “From Corvette Racing’s inception, the 24 Hours of Le Mans has always been our objective. GM leadership shared that vision, and Le Mans became the cornerstone of our program for two important reasons. First, Corvette is the tip of GM’s technological spear, so racing production-based Corvettes was the most expedient way to accelerate the transfer of technology from racing to production. Second, we knew that Corvette was going to become a global brand. If Corvette was going to compete successfully in the marketplace with Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin, and other prestigious marques, then we had to transform the image of Corvette in the eyes of the world. Corvette’s performance credentials were already well established in North America, but we had to nurture a new respect for Corvette in the rest of the world. Le Mans provided the arena to accomplish that, and the results have far exceeded our expectations.”

I have to point out, however, that Corvette Racing - despite all of its success - has reached a critical juncture. And why, you might ask?

This Wednesday, GM is going to deliver the bad news to its NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that it is cutting back its involvement in NASCAR’s top-level series - for obvious reasons - and some big names are going to be in for a shock. Look for Hendrick Motorsports (and its satellites) to get cutbacks but remain intact as the lead GM team in NASCAR. Beyond that, however, it may get very ugly.

How this will affect Corvette Racing remains to be seen. The team is scheduled to debut an all-new GT2 version of the C6.R Corvette at the Mid-Ohio ALMS round in August and then run the remainder of this season, in preparation for the new “Global GT” regulations that will begin next season. We can only hope that those plans aren’t derailed.

I’ll let Doug Fehan sum up the impact of the Corvette Racing program and its latest victory at Le Mans with this: “It’s also representative of all the people who have been here since the beginning, who dedicated themselves to taking Corvette forward. At the end of the day, today’s victory is emblematic of what American teamwork and American spirit is about.”

I absolutely agree, and I take my hat off to everyone involved.

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