Ron Fellows – “I’d Go Anywhere And Do Anything For Them”

dailysportscar.comRon Fellows really needs no introduction. If you follow racing in North America, you must be living under a rock if you have not heard of him – says Gary Horrocks. Most people, when they think of Ron, think of the Pratt & Miller Corvette team, but there is much more to him than that.

Ron got his start in Karts, and then progressed to F-1600 and then F-2000. As in many cases, Ron’s funding was less than his ability and he was forced to sit out racing for a while, doing natural gas pipeline work. When he had recovered financially, Ron went to work for Richard Spenard at his driving school and also returned to racing.

After bouncing around a bit, Ron started entering professional series, and raced in the Players GM Series from 1986 to 1992, winning it in ’89 at Mosport, driving a showroom stock Camaro. This Canadian Series was well supported back in its day, and many of the top notch Canadian drivers, such as Scott Maxwell, Richard Spenard and David Empringham. were highly visible in the series.

Ron enjoyed great success in the Trans Am Series in the late 80s and early 90s, first racing Fords for Jack Roush and then Tom Gloy, but despite garnering many victories was never able to get the elusive drivers championship. A call from General Motors led to Ron becoming a full factory supported driver.

During his stint in the Trans Am, he won 20 of the 95 races he entered and led the most laps for three straight years. But when factory support went away from this series, so did Ron. In the meantime, he did get a taste of prototype racing, driving a Ferrari 333SP to victory at Mosport in 1997 with Rob Morgan. Other drives did not garner real success, but did add to his experience base.

Efforts in NASCAR found Ron getting two wins in the Truck series, both at Watkins Glen, and three wins in five starts in the Busch Series. So far his efforts in the Winston Cup have not yet brought home the big prize yet, but judging from his drive at Sears Point this year, it should not be very far into the future before he does get a victory in the top NASCAR Series.

In 1998, GM started developing the Corvette for endurance racing and Ron became the primary development driver for that program. He was also involved in the initial testing for the Cadillac LMP project. Looking back, he made the correct choice to stay with the Corvette. And the rest, as they say, is history. Overall victory at Daytona in 2001, back to back class wins at both Sebring and Le Mans, ALMS GTS Drivers Champion for 2002…

In what may be a record for longest interview, Ron and I started this project at Sebring, and through various attempts and incarnations, this is what we arrived at. Special thanks must go to Lynda for being so patient at Laguna Seca, especially as dinner was calling, and to Ron for always finding the time to talk, even with so many meetings, debriefings and strategy sessions. He's had quite a season since that opening win in Florida.

dailysportscar.comIt just seems like yesterday, when the Saleen started to come on, you had stated that you wanted to be challenged. Now it seems you have more than you can handle with the strength of the Ferrari 550. Have you changed your mind?

Absolutely not. Bring it on. We all thrive off the competition. It is because of the competition that we have made the great progress in lap times in GTS. Every race we are under the lap record, even with the 10% smaller restrictor. We just have to keep digging deeper.

When the Saleen came on, yes we viewed it as a threat, but in reality it was a semi-threat. The effort was just too inconsistent. Borcheller was fast but he could not carry the effort himself.

(This is where I asked Ron if he had heard about the ACEMCO and Saleen announcement. He replied that he had not heard that at all, but was rather intrigued. I filled him in on the announcement, and his expression changed. It was quite easy to see what Ron was thinking about. Many times in the past, both Ron and teammate Johnny O’Connell have stated that the Saleen S7-R had great potential as a car, but was waiting for a team that was capable of developing it to its potential. Maybe this is it.)

Well, both Terry and Shane Lewis are good drivers. It could be interesting. Looks like GTS is the place.

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Besides some of the obvious reasons, what is the importance to you for being a factory driver, specifically for GM?

Being under contract to Chevrolet has been a wonderful experience for me. This situation gives me more stability and it provides a future for me and my family, and being associated with a team such as Pratt & Miller has been outstanding as they have given me tremendous support. They are as good as any top Winston Cup team. Just a look at their facility will give you an indication of how professional and serious they are about their effort. Another good point of being a factory driver is that I’ve never heard of GM struggling to pay their bills.

Considering your GM ties, I find it odd that your brother is racing a Ford.

He races for AER and their business is primarially Ford related. I first became associated with Bob McGraw of AER when Roush hooked us up, and he has stuck with me since the early days. He even went with me when I switched to GM, as a way to get some further GM business. The association of AER to a factory team has definitely increased their exposure. They have always been there for me, and it is a joy to continue to be associated with them.

You are rather tall for a sportscar driver. How tall are you and has your physical stature even been a hindrance in your racing career?

dailysportscar.comWell, I am 6’ 2” tall. Yeah, that is tall for a driver but not too tall for hockey.

In the early days I was open wheel crazy. In Canada, we have had F1 races since 1967, so open wheel racing has been king here. So that was my dream. I look back now and realize how unbelievably unrealistic that was, regardless of my physical limitations.

While I was driving in the Players GM Showroom Stock series, I also tried a few Formula Atlantic races. This was a bad situation for me and I was pretty frustrated. Harvey Hudes, who owned Mosport for many years, advised me that sportscars would be a good way for me to go. Looking back, I have to say it was good advice.

I was really fortunate in that I was able to step into the Trans Am Series and do pretty well right off. I was lucky enough to be able to drive for factory teams and be in good equipment. I started running a Merkur, which was probably the most powerful car I have driven with that turboed sewing machine motor, and then into a Mustang. In a way, it was my success as a Ford driver that really ended up leading me to driving for GM. In all actuality, I was a Ford driver, but was not really a true factory supported driver, as I was really contracted to the team. Well, I ended up winning the Detroit Trans Am race, which was sponsored that year by Chevrolet. You need to remember that that was a huge Trans Am race back then. It was Ford vs. Chevy in their back yard. Anyway, I won that year for Ford, and Herb Fishel of GM presented the winner’s trophy to me. He later called me, said I was a thorn in his side and hired me. I went back and won Detroit the following year for GM. Pretty cool, huh?

Change of tack now, how is the progress on safety and heat related driving comfort been coming along?

It’s been progressing in leaps and bounds. From back in 1999 and 2000, the progress has been incredible. It’s really been an evolving process, developing new and better materials. Between GM and Pratt & Miller, they both are very safety conscious and have a genuine concern for the drivers’ well being. Look at how our car is constructed. There is no mistaking that the driver is well protected. Our Vette is now actually much cooler inside that a Winston Cup car. You must remember though, with a V8 in front of you, there is only so much you can do, as power makes heat, but it is so much better than it has been in the past.

What about the HANS device?

I really don’t like it. Come on, I’m a hockey player. Really it is still too bulky, but it’s coming along. We were shown a video of an ASA car crashing by Tom Gideon, the GM Racing safety guru. From that, it is evident that we need to wear one and I have gotten used to it. It just has a ways to go for comfort.

You are very involved in the development of younger drivers with your kart series. How is it going?

The ‘Sunoco Ron Fellows Karting Championship presented by the Toronto Star Wheels’ is going great guns. We have more than doubled the entries, but that leads to logistic issues. Going from 130 entries to 300 has been tough, but it is going well. Paul Cook is doing a great job in taking care of it. We have been able to rely on long time partners such as Sunoco Canada for the support necessary to run this program. What we are trying to do is develop talent, but also to help develop long term corporate connections.

Canada has a rich history of great drivers, but I’m really concerned about where the next ones might come from. It really hasn’t been too difficult of a sell though. GM and GM Canada have stepped up support as well as Pfaff Motors of Ontario. This is a long term program and we have already seen some success from last season as there are three drivers from our series in the F2000 school series at Mosport right now.

What kind of advice would you give to an aspiring race car driver?

dailysportscar.comIt isn’t always the talent that sells you, as it is also a money business. I didn’t come from a wealthy family at all and I had to work hard to get where I am now. You can’t quit. You just need to keep going. I didn’t start in karts until I was 15, and it wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I started to make some real money. My best opportunities have come for me in my late 30s and early 40s. It is not always easy, but as you can see, the rewards can be great.

It has to be tough to balance your family schedule and also having your family at the races. Would you encourage your children to do the same?

I don’t know that I’d encourage them. It’s a tough business and obviously has a dangerous side, but if they are keen to pursue it, sure, I’d help out. Both of my boys have interest, but Lindsay, my daughter at college, is not interested in driving at all. Instead, she has expressed interest in doing something else in the racing business when she gets out of school.

OK, you have had some success in NASCAR, but just haven’t been able to get that elusive Winston Cup win yet. How do you feel about that series and do you feel accepted by the regulars?

We were terribly unlucky at Sears Point. The car was plenty good enough to win, but in hindsight I should maybe have done some things differently. It was a hot topic at the race, but the ruling was that you could race back to the flag on a yellow. Well, I raced back on a yellow, and was later spun out by Jeremy Mayfield because of it. Maybe I should have hung back and waited in line instead of passing then. It might have been very interesting if I hadn’t been spun.

As far as being accepted, I think so. I won in trucks and I won in the Busch Series. I think my association with the Earnhardt family has helped tremendously. The last two years I have gotten congratulations on my Le Mans results from the regulars, and I think the fun that Dale Sr had in the Vette at Daytona really created a buzz.

You made a comment, something along the lines that a win in NASCAR was bigger than even winning at Le Mans. Explain what you meant, as that statement didn’t really sit well with some extremely hardcore sportscar fans.

It really is the reality of what NASCAR has become in North America. Look at the payday. Le Mans is good, but leading and having the opportunity to win in NASCAR is huge. It is really a ripple effect that is far beyond the prize money. A win gains you huge notoriety, puts you in the annual all-star event they run, and opens so many opportunities. The privileges that you gain from winning a NASCAR event are just huge. But it all really comes down to the notoriety that you receive here at home from NASCAR as opposed to Le Mans.

What about the Cadillac program? What was the real objective and what was the potential?

I think they legitimately wanted to take on Audi and Panoz at Le Mans and get that overall win. Would it happen within three years? Probably not. I just don’t think they stuck around long enough.

I probably could have gone that way, but I chose to go with the Vette as they were in a position to win. Yes, to win at Le Mans overall would be good and that could still happen for me.

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Being in a GTS car, you are somewhat in the middle of the pack. How difficult is that when dealing with the traffic?

We’re fast enough that only a few cars are actually faster. You have maybe six cars faster than us in the race, so that is not really too difficult to handle. The real difficulty is passing the GT cars. There are so many of them out there and they’re pretty quick. You tend to come up on them in packs, and that can make overtaking rather difficult.

What would consider your favorite or best race that you have driven?

There have been many fun ones. There are a few wins in Trans Am that stand out, but I think that win in the Ferrari at Mosport with Rob Morgan was pretty cool. Getting pole with a new track record was nice, especially as that year was an off year for me. Most of the Busch races with Brian Pattie at NEMCO were enjoyable and very successful, but not all the best drives are always wins. I remember a Truck race at the Glen where I was driving for Pattie and we had troubles with our truck and didn’t make the race. We ended up striking a deal to take over another truck that was in the race. We put our engine in it and worked our butts off to make the truck as good as we could. I had to come from the back of the grid twice, but still managed to bring it home in third. That was pretty rewarding.

Not to put you out to pasture, but what do you see in the future for yourself?

My realistic goal at this time is to get a Cup win on a road course. I would like to continue to develop the relationship with DEI and maybe do a few ovals.

I also want to continue to build this program we have going here in Canada. I think it is important to give back to the sport, and to help those that are up and coming.

As far as Pratt & Miller, as long as they will keep me, I’ll stick around. It is simply the best race team I have been around. I can’t always say this, but for the members of this team, I’d go anywhere and do anything for them, and I think the feeling is mutual.

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