Text and Imagery by Jim Stevenson
©2005 Jim Stevenson
No use without permission
Marketing taglines very rarely ring true, but I can think of two that absolutely delivered this past weekend. The American Le Mans Series visited the scenic Mid Ohio Sports Car Course for an absolutely packed race meeting, and if you have not taken your Corvette out to an ALMS event, order your tickets now, pack the atlas and get ready for a reminder of why you bought your Corvette in the first place.
American Le Mans brags that their series is “For the Fans”, and GM talks about delivering “The Corvette Experience” to owners in a traveling road show.
Well, according to my seven-year-old son, they were right. Now he is impressed with electric trains and the simple pleasures of Peanut Butter Captain Crunch, but in this case, this really was one grand day to be a race fan, a Corvette owner and a Dad.
Why so great? It had just about everything that makes life great. Time with my son, time with my Corvette, time with some friends, racing, racing, racing, great food and sunshine a plenty. Oh and did I mention a lap of Mid Ohio? Well have more on that later.
Spring in Central Ohio is always a bit of a weather gamble, but Saturday, May 21, was absolutely perfect. After watching Formula One qualifying from Monaco, my good friends Brandon Montgomery (20) and his little brother Graham (7) cruised into our driveway in their Dad’s (Ed – age not disclosed) low-miles, red on silver, 1985 Corvette.
Michael and I packed into our 1978 black on red, four-speed Corvette, and together we pointed our cars north on interstate 71 out of Columbus. The drive up is effortless and includes about 30 miles of freeway driving, and then a really enjoyable country-road-run up State Route 314 to the track. But this part of Ohio is Amish country so while you are managing the throttle and enjoying the twists and turns, you absolutely have to be dialed in for Amish Buggies. Your only advanced warning is usually horse manure in the road!
But we managed to navigate the “Amish Rush Hour’ and pulled into Mid Ohio about 40 minutes after leaving Columbus.
For starters, kids under 12 are free, and it was only $25 bucks for the adults. Not bad considering the massive number of race series that were attending the race weekend, the park-like setting of this permanent terrain road circuit and what awaited us at “The Corvette Experience.”
After a bit of confusion about where we were allowed to park, it all got sorted out to our benefit, and we pulled on to the infield, and were ushered into a special Corvette Corral, and got to park with what appeared to be well over 100 Corvettes.
And this was just the start. We were greeted by a very friendly member of the on-site volunteer force for the “experience” and we got all the information we needed to take advantage of the day.
We were directed to a large tent next to the inside of the front straight, and low and behold, parked out front of the Corvette-branded tent was a test mule, silver Z06 and it was absolutely stunning.
The car is masculine, aggressive and is far more attractive in person than in photography. The subtle fender flares, flip up tail and more aggressive rubber looks so natural on the C6, and a small “GM” badge was tastefully located just in front of the doors on the lower front fenders. It was subtle, but really attractive and in some ways had the same distinctive quality of the “Scuderia Ferrari” badge upgrade available for production Ferraris.
After filling out some registration forms, were tangled up in all sorts of wrist bands that gave us access to the tent for cold soft drinks and water, and it also entered us for a drawing for a “hot pit” pass (access to the actual pit lane area during race conditions) and a lap in a pace car.
We also got registered for a parade lap for Corvette owners at the end of the day. Wow. That was really an unexpected bonus.
And then another unexpected surprise; Corvette Chief Engineer Dave Hill and members of the Corvette launch and marketing team were scheduled to give a talk regarding the new Z06 progress! What a fantastic opportunity to hear, straight from the engineer’s mouth, about the fastest production Corvette ever produced.
First, Hill acknowledged the hosts and organizers of the event, which were board members from the National Corvette Museum, and from the American Le Mans Series sanctioning body IMSA (International Motor Sports Association).
“We at GM are so impressed with the great progress and expansion that has happened at the museum, and it has really come a long way after having some money issues, but the future looks bright and if you have not been recently, it is time for a repeat visit,” Hill said.
“The National Corvette Museum is the only single-car make to have its own museum, that was founded, created and developed by owners,” Hill continued.
Regarding the Z06 progress, Hill had this to say:
“We are producing about four or five cars a day right now and they are ‘capture test fleet’ cars. We will produce about 125 of these test fleet cars and the cars that are here today were driven here from the factory.”
Hill also reviewed the sequence of C6 production, and in March they were doing convertibles and then power tops, and then they plan on completing the Z51 orders. He also thanked owners for their patience.
“This is the most compressed start up of a new model to date, and it is absolutely the highest quality standard we have ever set, and this has produced some slower delivery, but we know that Corvette owners will not be disappointed with the result.”
Further, Hill revealed that his team plans to complete over 500,000 test miles of evaluation on the Z06, and targeted July as a timeframe for when the “real Z06” production cars would ramp up, placing them in dealerships by the end of the summer.
In true engineer fashion, Hill could not resist pointing out some technical aspects and achievements including an SAE (Society of Automobile Engineers) certification of 505 horsepower for the new, hand-assembled, 427 cid Z06 engine.
If that doesn’t make you breathe funny, you might not really be a Corvette fan.
Hill also pointed out that the new Z06 will have 6.2 pounds per horsepower, which puts it ahead of every exotic car in the world, except for the stratospheric and barely drivable Enzo Ferrari.
Also under the tent was a bare Z06 chassis, the old Sunoco Penske Grand Sport racing car and several C6 display cars.
And to think that we not even seen any racing yet!
My crew and I raided the concession stands, and I have to say after over 15 years of touring racing circuits professionally, and as a fan, I have sampled track food from Miami to Monterey, and Mid Ohio absolutely has some of the best grub. Their burgers are a mystery, because they are so darn good, reasonably priced and have been good for over 15 years worth of visits.
They even had kid’s meals – complete with pretzels, Oreos, milk or juice and a full-sized grilled cheese for hamburger. All this love for only $4.50.
At this point we were primed and ready to drag out the folding chairs and park ourselves at the end of the back straight, the fastest part of the track, and take in some speed!
The American Le Mans Series features cars that compete at the famous 24 Hours of Le Mans in June, and since this race is their last before the big one, we were treated to a North American visit from a new entry, shaking down their Le Mans package. The Lego Star Wars sponsored Zytek (another big hit with the kids) was absolutely flying and in the closing moments of qualifying, shattered the track record for these cars in one minute 13 second range.
In the prototype class, there are two options for competitors to choose from, the larger P1 cars that have the most power, and the lighter, smaller-engine P2 category. These are basically F1 cars with bodywork and loads of fun to watch since they are open cockpit cars and you can see the driver. Plus the exotic iron (titanium and aluminum these days) under the bonnets really scream.
The GT ranks consist of two classes, the GT1 cars which include the yellow-liveried Corvette C6R, last year’s Corvette C5R; now in private hands, a factory-backed Maserati (based on the Enzo Ferrari), a Saleen S7 and a Viper.
GT2 is basically a Porsche 911 GT3 romp with some Panoz Esperantes, and the occasional Ferrari 360 Modena,
Also racing this weekend was the Porsche Cup Championship, the Formula BMW Series, the Cooper Tire Formula Ford Championship, and the always entertaining SCCA Speed World Challenge Series.
Everybody practiced and everyone but the ALMS Series got to race on Saturday.
For an additional $15 we opted to get paddock passes and it is worth every penny. Plus, once again, kids under 12 were free here too.
There is really not another circuit that gives the fans the access to the race teams like the paddock experience at Mid Ohio.
Gentleman racer Jim Trueman spruced up the old track to be able to accommodate world-class racing, and his vision is alive and well today. Trueman owned the Red Rood Inn hotel chain and the architecture of the track buildings looks familiar. Eleven days after his Truesports Indy Car Team won the 1986 Indy 500 with driver Bobby Rahal, Trueman succumbed to his cancer and the racing world lost a true gentleman, great business man and a very competent driver in his own right. But his daughter Michelle runs the place now, and his legacy seems to be in good hands.
Fans can actually climb steps and view the teams working in their garage stalls from a catwalk style observation deck. Off the back, one can look down into the garage, and from the front, the fans get a birds-eye view of the pit lane and front straight.
You can reach out and actually touch the cars – but I would not recommend it!
The day flew by with barely 15 minutes of down time on the track between series, and IMSA is to be commended for a job well done in keeping to a time table.
After a mandatory driver’s meeting back in the tent, we were given instructions about parade lap procedures, and returned to our cars. The only down side of the whole day was that I was not prepared to remove the layer of dust that covered my black car! Oh well.
We were promised two laps around the track with a group picture set up on the front straight at the end of the first lap. I popped the t-tops out, stowed them in the back, and we were off.
The parade crept around the track at a very slow place, but it was nice to get the perspective from on track, and to be able to look across at the back straight and see the parade of Corvettes in front of us.
Turn one is a deceiving left hander that has caught many a professional off guard but at 15 miles per hour, I wasn’t too sweaty about it. As we ran up through the gears to the famous “Keyhole”, I realized that we were going to take this one at speed!
The Keyhole is a 180 degree right hander that exits downhill and prepares the racer for a launch down the back straight. No launching for us, but we did get to go through pretty quickly.
As we chugged down the back straight, I had a chance or two to take a few pictures out of the roof – and hopefully you are looking at them now if they came out.
I had given up on any “speed driving” but that “give up” was a little too soon. As we approached the “Esses” once again, I realized that we were going to have a little bit of fun.
The Esses is a complex of turns set over some terrain changes. The first right hander can be taken faster than it looks, but the quick left is practically blind, and crests over a hill. I was having flash backs of famous CART Champ Car battles, and IMSA Prototype duals between some of the best machinery and finest drivers that took place right on this piece of real estate!
But no daydreaming here because as you reach the bottom of the hill on the exit, you are presented with a tight right hander that takes the track under a walk-over bridge and into the back, tree-lined part of the track called “Thunder Valley”, named so because the sound of the cars echoes through the trees.
Back down to slow pace, and IMSA was waiting to line us up in columns of three for a massive group shot. It was well organized and I hope to see the shot published somewhere. The group actually took up almost the entire front straight.
We were released for our second lap, and this one was much quicker with fewer “accordions” and then another surprise happened. We got a third lap around, and this one was fun! Nobody took any undo risk, did burnouts, or drove anywhere near the limits of the machinery, but I for one was grinning from ear to ear as I threw my car around the corners, “chasing” a beautiful Grand Sport. The sun was shining, the engine was humming, the car was sticking, my son was giggling and I could not have been much happier!
Slowly we exited the track, and chugged out way to the exits. Even though there was another presentation, and a movie to be shown in The Esses (James Garner in “Grand Prix”), it was time to take the cars and kids home.
Corvette Racing had qualified first and second in class and would go on to finish the same way, with the privateer C5R finishing a very respectable fourth.
On the way out Brandon and I mixed in with a red C5 and the Grand Sport, and our little four-car caravan cruised route 314 back to the interstate where we picked up a 1987 convertible. The trip back was a lot faster due in large part to less traffic and few patrol cars, and despite the interior noise of a C3 with windows down and roof panels out, Michael just about nodded off.
This is when he summed the day up and gave me the most satisfaction of the day.
“Dad, this was the best day ever.”
It was grand indeed.