As Corvette Racing has just concluded their final race as an all professional factory effort at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, we thought we would spotlight an artifact in our collection that celebrates the very first win at that historic race for the Pratt & Miller era of Corvette Racing.
In 1996, the Corvette Racing project began with the blessing of John Middlebrook, General Manager of Chevrolet, and Herb Fishel, Director of GM Motorsports. Program Manager, Doug Fehan, connected with Gary Pratt and Jim Miller, who would build their race car based on the all-new C5 Corvette. With driver Ron Fellows testing it, they would continue to develop the C5-R until 1999 when they would begin racing in the new American Le Mans Series. Gary Claudio, Corvette Marketing Manager, was ready to make sure everyone in the world would take notice.
In 2001, with only two seasons behind them, the two-car Corvette Racing team took the overall win at the 24 Hours of Daytona in the #2 Corvette driven by Ron Fellows, Johnny O’Connell, and Chris Kneifel. The #3 Corvette came in second in class and was famously driven by Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jr., Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. Inspired by Dale, who would tragically lose his life on that same track not long afterwards, Corvette Racing crossed the ocean to race at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. They faced incredible adversity, but at the end of the 24-hour battle, they stood victorious on the podium with the first and second place trophies.
Gary Claudio remembers that moment vividly. “I recall standing on the podium looking down at this crowd, this ocean of people, as our National Anthem was played. They were all celebrating with us. They had adopted us. We had come hat in hand, humble, honoring the tradition of Le Mans, and they had accepted us. They loved the sound of that ground-pounding-American thunder and would flock to the fence when our cars would go down the Mulsanne Straight. Watching them now chant “Viva La Corvette” was a profound moment for all of us. We set out to compete internationally and represent GM, the Corvette, and the loyal patrons who loved and drove these cars, and we had won. We made history that day and would go on to do it seven more times.”
Designed to commemorate this win, this Le Mans ring was donated to the National Corvette Museum by Mr. Claudio, as he saw this as the place for it. “It represents the hard work of the team, the sweat, the blood, the dedication, the passion, and the love that is best summed up in one word… Corvette.”
Author: Bob Bubnis, Curator of Collections, Exhibits Manager at the National Corvette Museum