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O’Connell Has Become Accidental Sports Car Star

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 28 2009
Johnny O'Connell has become a sports car superstar. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

Johnny O'Connell has become a sports car superstar. (Photo courtesy of the American Le Mans Series)

By Jonathan Ingram | Senior Writer

Sometimes upside down becomes right side up.

When a rear wishbone snapped on Johnny O’Connell’s Reynard chassis and it hit the wall in Turn 4 at the newly opened Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 1996, the car flipped and slid several hundred yards down the front straight upside down. It wasn’t what the successful sports car driver had in mind for his return to open-wheel racing.

The accident occurred at the second running of a race by the flegdling Indy Racing League. After a double-armed wave to the crowd, the redhead walked away.

That’s more than O’Connell could say the following May when an oil pump failure at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway during practice for the Indy 500 put his car into the wall.

“We were fast,” he said of the A.J. Foyt entry. “All of a sudden there was a mechanical failure.”

This time, the setback included injuries to his left foot and ankle. “Eight months later,” he said, “and I was walking again.”

O’Connell’s difficulties in open-wheel racing re-directed him into sports car endurance racing for a second time. The first time O’Connell got sidetracked in single seaters resulted from a test to enter British Formula 3 that didn’t work out.

“I would have loved to have had an open-wheel career,” he said. “I thought I was talented enough and gifted enough. But it just didn’t go that way. I’m very happy with the way things have turned out.”

On Sunday, O’Connell will make a league-leading 100th career start in the American Le Mans Series at Mosport in a factory Corvette C6.R. Along the way, he’s won three GT class championships with Corvette Racing and three times at the Le Mans 24-hour.

“It’s turned out to be better,” said O’Connell. “I never wanted to be an open-wheel driver on ovals. I was just a race car driver trying to make a living.”

Making a living would be an understatement for O’Connell’s sports car career, especially given both chapters. He’s a series staple and a star in the ALMS as well as one of the most highly recognized drivers  at the Sarthe circuit in Le Mans, where he has 12 career starts and four class victories.

In his first go-round in endurance racing, O’Connell drove the last GT car to win the Sebring 12-hour over-all. He piloted a Nissan 300 ZX Turbo to victory there in 1994 with John Morton and Steve Millen, the same trio that took the GTS class victory at Le Mans later that year. So went the first chapter of O’Connell’s sports car career before attempting to move into the IRL after Nissan elected to do likewise with its Infiniti V-8.

At Mosport, O’Connell is returning to the scene of his first ALMS victory in the series’ inaugural year of 1999, which came in a co-drive with Jan Magnussen aboard the redoubtable Panoz LMP-1 Roadster S.

“I have always loved that track,” he said. “My first race there was in a Mustang for Steve Saleen in a showroom stock race in 1989. I just totally fell in love with that place, Turn 1 and Turn 2, all the fast and sweeping corners. It was also my first 24-hour race.”

In that same year of 1989, O’Connell tested for a ride in British Formula 3 with Paul Stewart Racing. Despite a favorable test on the same day that David Coulthard, Gil de Ferran and Mika Salo also got into the car under the eye of former world champion Jackie Stewart, O’Connell didn’t get the ride.

“I had no money,” he said. So he went back to work as a driving instructor and showroom stock racer before landing the job with Nissan’s factory endurance racing team. How difficult was the transition? In between stints as a driving instructor, O’Connell used to search the tire walls at the Infineon Raceway to find suitable rubber for his under-funded racing efforts.

Looking back, O’Connell doesn’t see his over-all victories in the Nissan, Panoz or the Corvette C5-R at Daytona in 2001 as any more special than class victories. “A win is a win,” he said. But the effort at Daytona, where he co-drove with Ron Fellows, Franck Freon and Chris Kneifel, stands out, he said. It helped launch the ongoing success of GM Racing’s Corvette program with Pratt & Miller Engineering.

“That first win was invaluable to the Corvette program,” he said of the weekend when a C5-R co-driven by Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth. “It was my first race with the team and we were not thinking we would win over-all. We made no mistakes for 24 hours, not a single mistake. And having Big E there was pretty special.”

GM has stepped into the GT2 battle in the ALMS this summer from the GT1 class, once again looking for head-to-head competition for the Corvette against the same manufacturers it competes with in the marketplace such as Porsche, BMW and Ferrari.

“GT2 has really become fun again and it’s really motivated everybody at Corvette Racing,” said O’Connell, who once again will be co-driving with Magnussen at Mosport.

Along with Antonio Garcia, the duo scored Corvette’s final GT1 class victory at Le Mans in June. Unfortunately, Magnussen got sick early in the race weekend and O’Connell ended up driving 10 hours, which indicates he’s not slowing down at age 47.

– Jonathan Ingram can be reached at jingram@racintoday.com.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, August 28 2009
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