The Secret to Corvette’s Success
Harris: It all started as a leap of faith, Fehan says
That name has had magical qualities for me since the day in 1964 when my dad and brother split the cost and bought a Stingray.
It was love at first sight for me. My family kept our car keys in a jar by the door and I used to get up early – something few teenage boys really like to do – just to beat my brother out the door and be able to drive his beautiful red Stingray to school. That didn’t make him happy, but it sure gave me a boost.
Now, these many years later, I split my time between a minivan and a compact, but the sight of a Corvette still brings a stirring in my chest and happy memories to mind. Of course, I’m certainly not alone. In its 60th year of production, GM’s Corvette brand remains one of the great success stories in the up-and-down world of American auto production.
In recent years, Corvette Racing, with its iconic sports cars, has been a major force in keeping the sleek Chevrolets that way. Going into this season, Corvette Racing had won 75 races in the American Le Mans Series presented by Tequila Patrón, eight ALMS manufacturers and team championships, and seven drivers’ championships. Add to that record seven class victories since 2001 at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and you have an honest-to-goodness automotive success story.
Doug Fehan, program manager for Corvette Racing, says the success of the current program was at least partially a matter of faith.
“The (Corvette Racing) program started as an idea in the fall of 1996,” Fehan (right) explained. “We spent 1997 and 1998 developing a race vehicle based on the C5 Corvette that was introduced to the public as a 1997 model.
“The concept for those two years was to put together what we thought was a bona-fide GT race car. Then, when we got to that point, we’d look at the road-racing world and see if there was a spot that we could plug in and compete.”
Fehan pointed out that, with American road racing in a state of flux in the late ’90s, there was no guarantee the new Corvette would ever race. The other part of that equation, he noted, was that the program was so secret that only a handful of people with GM knew it was happening. Fehan said the thinking was that, if the car that was being developed was not competitive or representative of the brand, the new race car would never compete.
Obviously, the project turned out to be a rousing success, in part thanks to the development of the super-competitive ALMS GT class where Corvette continues to shine, winning the last two races with its latest model – the C6.R.
This program has been so successful that not even the bleak recent economic challenges faced by GM put a damper on it. Of all the racing programs fielded by the company before the great downturn, only NASCAR and Corvette Racing survived.
And only the Corvette program came out of it unscathed.
“NASCAR took a significant cut,” Fehan (right) said. “Our program continued on and, quite frankly, received no cut. It was a testament to how we laid this program out to begin with, proving to have inarguable value to the corporation."
The relationship with the ALMS, which began competition in 1999, has also been a strong factor in Corvette Racing’s success story.
“When you look through this paddock and you see Corvette, Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Porsche, Lotus … at no point in my lifetime, at this level of professional racing, have you seen that wide a range of manufacturers taking what they build and sell and putting it in the challenging world of road-racing,” Fehan said. “We have more manufacturer involvement at a level that has never been realized in my lifetime.
“That tells you how important this series is and what it represents,” he added. “This is a series that you’re going to see technology. You’re going to see the latest in thinking, in materials, in aerodynamics and performance. You’re going to see it here because the manufacturers recognize the relevance. They see the importance of racing what you’re selling, and I’d like to think that Corvette kind of led the way on that.”
Mike Harris is the retired Auto Racing Writer for The Associated Press and remains a frequent contributor to a variety of racing outlets. He will file periodic reports on the American Le Mans Series to ALMS.com.