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Jim Pedley: Corvette And Sebring Joined At The Fenders

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, March 16 2012

Corvette's and Sebring's histories have a great deal in common. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Doug Fehan took several seconds and one step backward on Thursday as he attempted to answer a question about two of his favorite subjects; the Sebring 12-hour race and Corvettes.

Finally, Fehan, General Motors’ program manager for Corvette Racing, hit on an answer which seemed to satisfy him after he was awkwardly asked: Um, er, duh, what does Sebring mean to Corvette?

“It cuts both ways,” Fehan said, during a telephone conversation. “It’s been a wonderful confluence.

“The two,” he said, “go hand in glove.”

The two, also, will also be celebrating anniversaries this weekend. Separate anniversaries. But, anniversaries which are also not-so-circuitously co-joined.

The race and Corvette, both turn 60 years old this weekend. The iconic Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring sports car race and the marque which is viewed by many as America’s first – and only – true sports car both made their debuts in 1953.

And, oh, the memories for fans of the two. Memories, which Fehan says, “represent the best of America.”

The SR-2.

Memories of SRs and and SSs; of small blocks and big blocks; of two-speed automatics and four-speed manuals; of GTs and prototypes; of factroy efforts and privateers; of the American Le Mans Series and of IMSA Camel GT; of The Flying Dentist and of Johnny O.

I asked Fehan if he thought there was a “golden era” for Corvette at Sebring.

Yep, he said. And that would be, he said “very selfishly”, the period which started in 1999.

“The reason I say that is because that is first time, as I put this program together and presented it to (GM racing boss) John Middlebrook under the direction of Herb Fishel, we were going to have a full-fledged, above-board, resource-dedicated racing program that was befitting of the name Corvette,” Fehan said. “The factory was actually going racing with the car. That had never, ever happened before at that level.

“Consequently, when you look at the results going forward from 1999, I think it’s pretty clear that it speaks to the quality of the car because the results, by any measure, have been pretty spectacular.”

Fehan, hedged, however, when asked if he had a favorite driver from his golden era. “That,” he said, “would be like asking somebody, ‘Who’s your favorite kid?’ They have all, each and every one of them, brought something very, very special to the party.”

Fehan did say that drivers like Ron Fellows, Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins, Johnny O’Connell and Chris Kneifel would certainly attend that party.

And with good seats at the party would be the Earnhardts – Dale Sr. and Dale Jr.

The mention of their names squeezed a wonderful anecdote out of Fehan. An anecdote which is set in

The Corvette SS at Sebring.

2001 and begins at Sebring as the two tested a Corvette for the 24-hour race at Daytona.

“Junior went out first and in typical Junior fashion, it took him about six laps to figure out the limits and he crashed the car,” Fehan said. “Not to the point where it wasn’t repairable, but it’s not good when you crash. So he didn’t waste any time putting the pedal to the metal.

“In the afternoon, dad got in the car and dad did it just the opposite way. Dad started out very slowly and worked his way up and worked his way up and worked his way up. Until he crashed the car.  He backed in at (Turn) 17.”

When the team took a lunch break, Fehan had his crew bring out the mangled parts to the car and stack them by the table where he and the Earnhardts were eating.

“Senior said, ‘How come those parts are there?’ I said, ‘Because when we get done eating, I want you guys to sign them all.’ He said, ‘Well how come?’ I said, ‘Because I’m going to sell ’em on Ebay to help recover the costs of you wrecking the car.’ ”

After lunch, a Sharpie was produced and the parts were all signed. They were indeed auctioned, but the money went to charity.

“We went on to the third day of testing and everything went great,” Fehan said.

“Those guys were so great. I mean they were humble. There was not an ego between the two of them. They were humbled to be a part of what we were doing. Amazing. It’s hard for me to talk about it without getting emtional.”

Appropriately, also being inducted into the Sebring Hall of Fame this weekend is O’Connell. And rightly so, Fehan said.

“Johnny might be one of the most under-publicized great drivers of our time,” Fehan said of O’Connell,

A 1,000 horsepower Corvette GTP competed in the IMSA Camel GT series in the mid-1980s.

who won five times in class in Vettes at Sebring. “When you look back at his road racing record, at the victories of which he’s been part of, he holds some records which are going to be very difficult for anyone to beat.”

This weekend, re-tooled Corvette C6-Rs will compete in the GT class. The No. 03 Compuware Corvette is driven by Jan Magnussen (Denmark) and Antonio Garcia (Spain), with 20-year-old Florida college student Jordan Taylor making his Corvette Racing competition debut as third driver. Oliver Gavin (UK) and Tommy Milner of Lake Mary, Fla., will share the No. 4 Compuware Corvette C6.R, with Richard Westbrook (UK) reprising his role as third driver in the long-distance events.

The green flag is scheduled to fall at 10:30 a.m. (EDT) Saturday, with live video on ESPN3.com. ABC will televise the race at 12 p.m. (EDT) on Sunday.

And Corvettes and Fehan will be there.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Friday, March 16 2012
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