C5-R Retrospective
Part 2 – Daytona 2001
© Gary Horrocks

Part 2 of Gary Horrocks' C5-R story focuses on the Rolex 24 in 2001 – the posting on dailysportscar timed to coincide with the imminent running of the 43rd Rolex 24, Feb 5-6 2005.

Images by official GM photographer Richard Prince.

In 2001, Corvette Racing hit the big time. Buoyed up by the success they had in the latter half of the 2000 season, the team was ready to reach for the top. Success on the track built more success in the corporate structure and as the season wore on, the support within GM for the program became even stronger.

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While the team had its sights set on the ALMS Series and Le Mans, the first target was Daytona, where the entire team was anxious to get back and try to improve on the results of the previous year. But it was not a quiet, determined effort. It was probably one of the highest profile efforts that sportscar racing had seen in the US. To compliment the usual driver line up of Ron Fellows, Chris Kneifel, Andy Pilgrim, and Kelly Collins, the father and son Earnhardts joined the mix for the round the clock running, along with Franck Freon and Johnny O’Connell. Having the Earnhardts was a major publicity coup for both Corvette Racing and Grand Am, adding major prestige and hype, not to mention security headaches, to the Rolex 24.

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Gary Pratt: “When I heard that the Earnhardts were going to be with us, I was thinking that this was really going to be a real pain in the ass. We were testing (crew chief Frank Reciniti gives Dale Earnhardt a quick lesson on what's what in the cockpit - above) at Sebring and both of them crashed. I remember someone being on the radio to Jr, warning him of cold tires, and then bang – he crashed. Later, Dale Sr was hot on it and he had a big slide around 17. When we got the car back, all four tires were worn all the way through: I mean there was nothing left. He simply commented, in his own unique way, ‘well, I was doing all right till I lost the air in the tires.’”

dailysportscar.comTo the Earnhardts’ credit, instead of looking at this as play time, both Dale and Dale Jr. took this very seriously. They wanted to win, but Dale Sr especially was intrigued with the possibilities that road racing offered. He was even considering making the switch to running a Corvette when his NASCAR days ended. Unfortunately, fate was to intervene, causing this to all be another of those “what-if” situations.

On the right, a light moment in the paddock area prior to going into battle. L to R, Franck Freon, Chris Kneifel, Ron Fellows, Johnny O'Connell, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Dale Earnhardt, Sr., Kelly Collins, and Andy Pilgrim.

Gary Pratt: “As things went on, I was able to see them (the Earnhardts) in a different light. Dale Sr, in particular was really enjoying himself, enjoying the different atmosphere. It was so different from what he was used to. I have to admit, it was pretty cool getting to know him, especially in this way.”

dailysportscar.comAndy Pilgrim: “Dale was committed to this. He was competitive and make no mistake, he was here to win. Working with Dale was one of the highlights of my career. It was amazing to work with him. For somebody of his stature in racing, he was extremely humble. He came to us, asking us to make him a better driver. Like I’m going to tell a seven time NASCAR Champion how to drive?

“Dale was talking to me about the pass that I made at Petit Le Mans, and he said after he saw that, he wanted to be my teammate. It was from there that a close friendship was formed. I remember telling him once that I was headed up to the shop at Pratt & Miller, to practice driver changes. He replied, “well, I’ve got nothing going on. How about if I come up with you? In fact, why don’t you fly up in my plane?” So, we went up. It is still fresh in my mind, especially standing in line with Dale for some fast food. People just couldn’t believe it.”

Gary Pratt: “We picked up Dale and Andy at the airport. He wanted to see what it was like to get in and out in of the car in 30 seconds. On the way back to the airport, we stopped at Wendy’s for a burger. I still remember Dale commenting on how he liked it up here in Michigan. He wouldn’t have been able to do this back home. The attention would have been too much.”

It was at Daytona, that someone who would be a major ingredient to the driving talent was added. At first, he was only supposed to be driving in the longer races, but soon enough, that would change. Coming to Corvette Racing, Johnny O’Connell made what may have been perceived as a step backwards, going from a Panoz Prototype to the GTS Corvette, but he did not see it that way at all.

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Johnny O'Connell: “Moving from the prototypes to the GTS car with Corvette was an easy move to make. Quite simply, the Panoz team was not allowing me to be able to win races, and I would rather be in a situation where I had the tools to compete. I have no doubts about my being fast enough in a prototype, and I'm certain if you ask the everyday guys at Panoz, .they would agree with me. Doug Fehan and GM gave me an opportunity to again show I can win races... I was glad to jump at it.

“I will say, though, the first few times in the car, I was really wondering what I was doing. Coming from a prototype with those Michelin tires, and getting into a production-based car, it was quite an adjustment. At Daytona, Dale (Earnhardt Sr) was in a press conference, going on and on, heaping praise on the Corvette. ‘This Corvette has to be one of the most amazing cars I have ever driven. It stops well, it goes well, it corners well…’ Man, I’m down there, biting my lip, trying not to laugh, thinking ‘this thing really stinks! I hate to think what one of those Cup car is like’. It was all a matter of me adjusting to racing a production based car again, but as we went on, this Corvette became closer and closer to a prototype.”

Practice for the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona saw the Corvettes at or near the front in all of the sessions, but when it came down to qualifying, Scott Maxwell was able to put the Byztek Porsche GT1 on the class pole, with a lap time that was about half a second better than Fellows was able to manage in the #2 Corvette. Pilgrim ended up third in class, a further 0.2 seconds back. Traffic, and changing track conditions, caught the team out, but the race would be a different story.

Here (below), Robin Pratt of Pratt & Miller fame gets a hug from Dale on the grid.

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The race started dry, but less than two hours in, the rains came. From then on, it was wet or intermediate tires. The wets that Goodyear supplies have always been good in bad conditions, and this race really suited them well. It was at around that same two-hour mark that the #2 car took the lead in GTS.

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The experience and excellence of the team was shining through, as even though the conditions were horrendous, the C5-Rs were driven faultlessly. Aided by quick and efficient stops, the #2 car was able to increase its class lead and move up to fourth overall, while the #3 was third in class and seventh overall.

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In the middle of the night, Ron Fellows had an anxious moment when the brake pedal went to the floor, but the problem was quickly solved when a broken wheel nut was found. Later on, in the morning hours, the engine started cutting out on Johnny O’Connell. The problem was traced out to a sensor lead that was shorting out in the standing water that was trapped in the cockpit. A few holes were drilled into the floor to drain the water, and after the repositioning of the sensor, the car was back to running like a clock. A wet clock, but still a clock.

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When the checkered flag finally dropped at the end of a very wet 24 hours, Corvette got its win, marking the second year in a row that a production based car won outright at Daytona. The #2 car of Fellows, Kneifel, O’Connell and Freon took the overall honors (with only minutes remaining it was mathematically
impossible for anyone to catch Corvette #2, allowing Ron Fellows the luxury of a leisurely visit to pit lane – above), while the #3 team car (Earnhardt x2, Pilgrim, Collins) finished second in class, fourth overall. It might have been even closer if a half-shaft hadn’t broken just after midnight, when Dale Sr was in the car (replacement underway, below).

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Gary Pratt: “I was focused on car #2 throughout the race. Yes, it was exciting, but it was also a hard race. It was, for some reason, the most emotional that I have ever been over a win. After the last year, I just didn’t think we’d ever have a chance to win overall again. I thought that would just not be possible, but thankfully for the #2 car, it was a perfect race. Every stop was pretty much tires- fuel- drivers. There were no spins and there were no wheels off the track all race long. It was quite amazing, especially considering the weather.”

Ron Fellows: “Daytona 2001 was memorable for a number of reasons; the Earnhardts being in the Corvette with us was certainly one of them. We had come so close the year before, racing the ORECA Dodge Vipers for the overall win, and had come up short (30.8 seconds, after 24 hours). I remember being bitterly disappointed and exhausted. I never thought we would get another shot to win overall again.

“The race was going extremely well for the # 2 car. It was Johnny's first race for Corvette and also Franck Freon's first race driving with Chris Kneifel and I. I recall resting in a motorhome, one eye closed and one eye on the television monitor, when I saw the overall leading Dyson car with smoke pouring out of one of its side pods. I thought that they were replaying a previous year's misfortune for the Dyson team. Shortly after that, Doug Fehan came into the motorhome and said that they needed me back in the car to go to the end. Fehan said that Dyson was out and we have a shot to win with this thing overall.

“I took over from Franck and it immediately started pouring with rain; there were still at least a couple of hours to go in the race but we stayed out of trouble. Driving into Victory Lane at Daytona was a moment I will never forget - along with getting a big bear-hug from Dale Sr. in winner's circle, and being presented our winning Rolex watches by World Champion Jackie Stewart, another of my childhood heroes. It was a great win.”

Andy Pilgrim: “I still have a picture in my office of Dale and I. In that picture, he is telling me “second place sucks, doesn’t it?” We had many good moments, but unfortunately, as we all know, it ended tragically.”

Daytona, in essence, was a swan song for Chris Kneifel. “Winning at Daytona was, in a way, a nice way for me to almost end my driving career, although at the time, I didn’t know it was about to happen. I had been approached in ‘98 by Wally Dallenbach, about working for CART. So, here it was, just after Daytona and it had been quite some time since I had last heard from him, but Wally called me. I thought he was calling to congratulate me on the win, but instead, he asked me, ‘are you ready? Can you come to Detroit next week?’

“Well, it wasn’t easy, but I made the decision to give up racing and go to work with CART. I viewed it as the right thing to do, and winning Daytona made it an easier decision to make. What I was being offered was a once in a lifetime offer. I knew it would be a sacrifice, but I was already in my 22nd year of racing. So what if I drove for another five more years; what would I get? More trophies?

“So, I made the decision to stop driving. I took Wally up on the offer to join CART, but doing that was bitter-sweet. The hardest part wasn’t stopping driving. It was leaving the people. The people that you care about. The people that you love. Ron, Doug, Gary, Robin, JR… I do miss the people. But, I was able to stop on my own terms.”

Chris was back in the car at Sebring, but Daytona was really the end of him being so heavily involved with the team.

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Two weeks after the emotional high from the triumph at Daytona, tragedy occurred back at the same track, when Dale Earnhardt crashed on the last lap of the 500. It wasn’t just the racing world that was shocked. It was headline news across the US.

Obviously, it was a crushing blow to the people of Corvette Racing, and even to this day, there is still a feeling of loss. In a sign of respect to their fallen friend and teammate, both cars ran the remainder of the season with a tribute sticker on the left front fender.

Unfortunately, Corvette Racing was not able to return to Daytona to defend the crown. Politics, changes in regulations and even entire philosophies concerning racing, meant that Grand Am and the ALMS went their separate ways as far as regulations were concerned. It would become increasingly difficult or even feasible to run a car in both series. For Corvette Racing to appear again at Daytona would require significant changes to the car that were not considered practical. In fact, by the time the 2002 event rolled around, it was almost like their victory didn’t happen. The event souvenirs, which typically feature the winner from the previous season, were completely devoid of any mention or reference to the yellow Corvettes.

Johnny O’Connell: “I think that for all of us, drivers and crew, it was really hard to not return to Daytona. That was such a special event for us, and we all thought we could win it again. I was told that the Doran team, which did a great job winning in 2002, still did not do as many laps as the Corvette team did in 2000. We were all hoping that the next year, which would have been the 50th anniversary of the Corvette, would see us return. I do need to point out that Andy Pilgrim did compete with another team in a Corvette, and won his class. Andy is a great driver and it was nice to see him get a Rolex.

“I had won in class previously at Le Mans in 1994 (GTS class, Nissan), but winning Daytona overall was personally a more important achievement. Few guys have wins at Daytona, Le Mans and Sebring and it was nice to add that to my resume. Also, getting to know and race with Dale Earnhardt at Daytona.... well you can't put into words how special that was. Several times during the race I got to draft with him on the oval portions... and that was certainly something I won't ever forget.”

While Daytona 2001 may have been unforgettable for those involved with Corvette Racing, even bigger things were on the horizon. The team was about to embark on one of the most dominant streaks that sportscar racing has ever seen…

 

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