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ALMS – Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring - 2001 GTS
Saleen Upset
Borcheller, Gavin & Konrad Take The Most Unlikely Of Victories
© Gary Horrocks

Sebring 2001, the 49th running of the 12 Hours, was the scene of one of the more improbable upsets in the recent history of sportscar racing: the new, underdeveloped and essentially untried Saleen S7-R not just finished at Sebring, but also defeated the vaunted Corvettes to win the GTS Class. On the eve of the 53rd 12 Hours, Gary Horrocks looks back four years to the Saleen's momentous Sebring win.

The Saleen supercar had debuted at the 2000 ALMS race at Laguna Seca and at the time, there were great plans for a factory team, to be anchored by Tommy Kendall, Terry Borcheller, Oliver Gavin and Ron Johnson. That the race debut came at what must be considered the home track for Saleen is rather fitting, especially as the street car was unveiled there the previous year.

Terry Borcheller: “I did some testing of the car in Europe, first with RML and then with Tommy Kendall, at Pembrey. It was very quick out of the box, but it also had typical new car issues. Before Laguna we were having problems with the power steering, and it was 40 minutes max. in the car, in those conditions. You just couldn’t do any more than that.”

The black, white and yellow car was quite a sight at Laguna Seca - but immediately there were concerns about whether this car was in the spirit of the rules or not. Those concerns turned to howls of protest when it was evident that the Saleen was as fast as it looked, despite arriving at the track quite late. Doug Fehan of Corvette Racing was one of the most vocal, claiming that the S7 was developed first of all as a race car, and that the street car came along almost as an after thought. Those at Saleen countered that the race version of the Saleen is actually much closer to production than the race version of the Corvette has ever been.

So at the time, the appearance of the Saleen was quite controversial, perhaps almost rivaling what is going on with the imminent appearance of the Maserati in the ALMS. But in hindsight, isn’t it all part of the growth and evolution of what sportscar racing has become in the modern era? However you looked at it though, both the Corvettes and the Saleen entered the 2001 season approved and legal in the eyes of the ACO.

But, heading into that 2001 ALMS season, something happened. The first race on the schedule was Texas, and the factory effort from Saleen was missing. In fact the only thing that could be connected to Saleen was the appearance of Borcheller, in one of the AVR Vipers, in which he finished second, earning him valuable points in his unlikely quest to become the GTS drivers champion.

dailysportscar.comWhen Sebring rolled around, two weeks after Texas, a Saleen was on the entry list - but instead of it being a full factory effort, it was considered as a semi-works effort, run by long time Porsche entrant Franz Konrad. It seemed that the Saleen factory was busy trying to fill the orders for their new super car and decided to forego the factory effort, instead offering their support to Konrad. With the disappearance of the factory team, Kendall also disappeared too, leaving Borcheller and Gavin to work with Konrad.

So GTS at Sebring worked out to be a David vs. Goliath contest between the factory might of GM and its Corvettes, fresh off victory at Daytona, and the new, relatively untried, and underfunded, Saleen. Even the transporter for Konrad said low dollar.

dailysportscar.comBorcheller – “I felt that as long as we could finish, we had a good chance. At that time, Corvette was not in its dominant form, and any time you have a car that is capable of top of the chart times, you have a chance.”

But how good could the Saleen chances be, going into Sebring, when the car’s reliability hadn’t yet been very good?

Oliver Gavin: “We tested at Willow Springs before Christmas. Ron, Tommy, Terry and I were all there. I think I got in five laps before we had problems, packed it up and went home. In February, we tested again, and again had problems. Going into Sebring, I think our longest run was 2.5 to 3 hours. At that point, it didn’t look like I’d be doing Sebring. Things got complicated, and that was when Franz took over.”

dailysportscar.comThings came together so late for the effort, that Gavin never arrived at Sebring until the Tuesday. “Yeah, I got the call late, but it felt good, as I was able to take the pole. I got on well with Terry and we were having a huge amount of fun. It really got to a point of us thinking that we were just not going to last, and just try to make the best of it. Even the Corvette guys were saying we wouldn’t last.”

Borcheller – “Reliability? Well, all I could say was that I hoped for it.”

What they were able to show was that the Saleen did appear to have the legs on the Corvette, at least at this stage in the respective careers of the cars. The race started with the Saleen setting the pace, and leading handily until around three hours in. Konrad then got hit in the back, and suffered a puncture. The damage from the hit did not appear to be too bad, but the rear bodywork started flapping and became a major concern. This incident caused them to fall two laps back, but strong driving, good fuel economy, combined with some problems for both Corvettes, allowed the Saleen back into the lead. This was turning out to be a classic endurance race between Saleen and Corvette.

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They held the lead, but not by much. While the #3 Corvette of Ron Fellows / Johnny O’Connell / Chris Kneifel challenged early on, mechanical issues slowed their effort, leaving it to Andy Pilgrim / Kelly Collins / Franck Freon in the #4 to take the battle to the Saleen. While both of the Corvettes had problems, none of them should have been considered to be major. Through it all, and against all expectations, the Saleen just kept going.

Gavin: “We were keeping pace and leading the Corvettes. I started to get a feeling that maybe it was possible for us to make it. We just had to keep it sensible. I knew we were getting close when I saw that Doug Fehan sat down on the wall, just watching us. To this day, I still remember that.”

Borcheller: “We were very consistent all race long, and despite the problem with the bodywork, things were still going our way. Near the end of the race though, I started to get paranoid. We were having issues with our brake lights and I was afraid that those problems could cost us the race.”

When the 12 hours came to an end, the improbable had happened. The Saleen didn’t just last the distance, it held together to take the class victory, winning by more than a lap over the #4 Corvette, and finishing sixth overall.

Borcheller – “Any time you are up against a factory, with all of their technological depth, manpower and dollars, it is an uphill battle. Were we the underdogs? Absolutely. We were for sure the underdogs.”

Up to now, this has to be the high point in the history of the Saleen S7-R. Yes, they were able to come through and win at Laguna later that year, but in ALMS competition, that was about it. The next year saw the car heavily penalized just before Sebring, with both weight and restrictor penalties.

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Borcheller: “It was very clear what Saleen Inc. needed to do. Yes, it disappointed both the ACO and the ALMS, but it had to be done. The factory just was not able to follow through. Franz did a very good job of developing the car, with very little money. He kept going, despite no real race development from the factory. To this day, I do not feel that Franz has gotten a percentage of the credit that he deserves for persevering with this car.”

What might have been. The potential was there. For years, Johnny O’Connell has said that the potential of this car was obvious. All it needed was a properly funded and serious effort behind it. As we now understand well, that is precisely what Jeff Giangrande has provided, with his ACEMCO Saleen. Can Giangrande’s team, with Terry Borcheller still involved (along with Johnny Mowlem and, at Sebring, Ralf Kelleners) bring this race car back to front-running life? The GT1 Class now features new cars from Corvette, Aston Martin and (the controversial) Maserati, plus the always quick Prodrive developed Ferrari 550 – but the Saleen, as Doug Fehan recently indicated, is now “wickedly fast”. .

The new season starts in just a few days…

 

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