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
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.
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.
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.’”
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”
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
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
Robin Pratt of Pratt & Miller fame gets a hug from Dale on the
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.
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.
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
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).
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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