Thursday
Jun092011

The Enduring Quest

For sports car and road racing enthusiasts, this weekend is one of the most anticipated on the summer racing calendar. The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of four of the greatest racing events in the world along with the Indianapolis 500, the Monaco Grand Prix, and the Daytona 500. Signature events all, and each special in their own right, these races define greatness and add chapters to their illustrious histories every time they’re run. Of the four, the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands out as the most prestigious endurance road racing event in the world. The round-the-clock race in the beautiful French countryside is one of the “must sees” of any racing enthusiast’s portfolio, and the unique atmosphere is almost indescribable to those who have never been there.

Peter 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.For Corvette Racing, the 24 Hours of Le Mans is more than just a race. The French endurance classic has served to define the existence of the program itself. And this year, as Chevrolet celebrates its 100th birthday and the team is making its 12th appearance at La Sarthe, Corvette Racing is commemorating the 10th anniversary of its first class win in the 24 Hours of Le Mans back in 2001. For those of you who have grown accustomed to the screaming yellow Corvettes superbly prepared and presented by Pratt & Miller Engineering, you may find it hard to believe that it wasn’t so very long ago that this program didn’t exist at all, not even as an idea.

Back when the idea for a new Corvette Racing operation was first broached back in 1997, GM and Chevrolet hadn’t formally entered a factory racing effort in a major league road racing series since the 1950s. When Zora Duntov and company brought the ill-fated Corvette SS roadster to Sebring back in 1957, little did anyone know that it would be, for all intents and purposes, the last time the factory was ever openly associated with a racing program, at least in road racing. I’m sure most of you reading this are aware of Chevrolet’s glorious history throughout the years as not-so-silent partners with some of the great efforts throughout American road racing history, like the Cunningham Corvette entries at Le Mans, the original Sting Ray racer, the brutally purposeful Corvette Grand Sports, the famed Jim Hall Chaparrals, the Penske Trans-Am Camaros, etc., etc., etc.

But a factory effort? Back in 1997 it was a very delicate and difficult sell.

Needless to say, it was the best decision that Chevrolet and GM Racing could have made. The Corvette Racing program has given the production Corvette its raison d’etre, and vice versa. The direct connection between the factory Corvette C6.R racers and the continual improvement of the production cars in terms of aerodynamics, suspension and braking systems, and overall efficiency due to the development work done by the racing team is real, measurable and ongoing. But what’s even more impressive is that Chevrolet engineers have provided critical help to the racing effort as well, like the time when the ACO first demanded air conditioning be added to the cars racing at Le Mans, and the experts in the HVAC discipline responded with an elegant solution, which they have subsequently made smaller and even more efficient since.

But that’s only a small part of what makes the Corvette racing program special. Beyond the obligatory “ROI” numbers that can be internally regurgitated at will when required, it’s the will, grit, determination and commitment to excellence by the people involved that have defined this team from the beginning. The collective effort from the talented people involved has resulted in one of the most accomplished racing teams of any kind in the world over the last decade. And the fact that it’s a local operation right here in Michigan is a source of pride for everyone in this business.

When you see the unabashed fervor for the Corvettes at Le Mans for yourself it puts everything in perspective. It’s genuine and heartfelt, and when I first witnessed it I must say I was taken aback and it immediately made me very proud. And it should make every American road racing enthusiast - no matter what your personal favorite brand of car is - very proud too.

Corvette Racing is embarking on yet another quest for greatness at this year’s edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It drives them, it consumes them, and yes, ultimately it will define them.

And believe me, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

« SCI Interview: Allan McNish | Main | Test Drive: 2011 BMW M3 coupe »