Corvette Racing: Once an upstart, now a cornerstone of worldwide endurance racing

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Jul 30, 2022 | Corvette, GRM+, Corvette Racing | Posted in Features | From the Feb. 2022 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Michael L. Levitt

Petit Le Mans was about a third of the way through its 10 hours at Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, and we were in the race paddock, in the Corvette trailer office, keeping one eye on the monitor that was airing the season finale of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.

Suddenly, the conversation came to a halt. All eyes were on the television. There was a very big, very scary crash, and a Corvette C8.R was involved. 

It’s Jordan Taylor.”

Wow. That’s bad. He had nowhere to go.”

There were replays.

The cars just parted in front of him, and he plowed into the rear of that Lamborghini that was just sitting there.”

He’s getting out! Amazing–the door still opens, but the front of the car is just gone.”

Taylor emerged from the wrecked No. 3 and unsteadily walked away. He’d managed to slow to 115 mph before hitting the Grasser Lamborghini Huracán GT3. That driver was uninjured as well. 

We try to build them strong,” said Josh Holder, recently minted Corvette vehicle chief engineer, as he sat with us for an afternoon interview. On the morning of Petit, with Taylor’s help, he had introduced the Z06 to the race crowd. 

Fortunately for Taylor and co-driver Antonio Garcia, they had already earned enough points to win IMSA’s 2021 GT Le Mans class season championship for Corvette before the crash. Because the car sure wasn’t going anywhere afterward.

In a visit to the media center after the race, a visibly shaken Taylor said, “Thankfully, Corvette, Chevrolet and Pratt Miller built a very strong car that kept me safe. It’s definitely a scary moment when you come over the crest in fifth gear and everyone stops on the other side.” 

The field was coming up on a green flag after a caution period when some cars had to nearly stop, and they crashed. It was an accordion effect. “It’s something we can learn from in the future on restart procedures,” Taylor said, “but thankfully I got out of the car and am okay, and we still had another Corvette in the fight.” The No. 4 Corvette led a race-high 313 laps, but with 10 minutes to go, it was hit by a faster Prototype car and suffered front suspension damage.

For Fans, By Fans

“Safety has always been our number-one priority,” explained Doug Fehan, Corvette program manager from 1998, when the team first hit the track in practice, until a year ago. The partially retired Fehan now serves as a program ambassador for the Corvette. 

Back to Holder: He’s a typical Corvette program employee, a fan of the car since childhood, a fan of the car now. Within GM, the program is called Corvette Island, and everyone wants to live there. There is no, for example, Spark or Malibu Island. Back home in Western Montana, a young Holder didn’t have posters of Batman or Farrah Fawcett on the walls–he had pictures of Corvettes.

These three faces (top to bottom) are part of the modern Corvette motorsports legacy: Josh Holder, recently minted Corvette vehicle chief engineer; team driver Jordan Taylor; and Doug Fehan, Corvette program manager from 1998 through 2020. Photography Credits: Courtesy GM (Holder), Courtesy IMSA

“I have my dream job as the chief engineer for Corvette. I was in grade school when I knew I wanted to be an engineer, and early on I knew I wanted to be an engineer on Corvette. I just knew it. As a lifelong fan, it means a lot for me to have the position I do now.

“My story is not unique on our team. It’s one of the few places left inside GM where you can really engineer something, really innovate at the tip of the spear. You can take some risks you couldn’t on, say, a full-sized pickup that is a mass-market seller, so for a lot of us it’s a dream job, and the tie-in to motorsports makes it all that much better.

“Before I worked for GM I bought a fifth-generation Corvette, a brand-new one, and I put a big-block in it. At the time, nobody knew how great the LS engine was going to be since it was so new. We’d put a big-block engine in a C4 and I thought, ‘I’m going to do that in a C5.’ I bought a brand-new Corvette in 1997, priced more than my annual salary, lived with roommates and ate ramen noodles to pay for it, and I shoved a big-block in that car. And I showed it to Dave Hill, then the chief engineer. I don’t know if he was impressed or scared, but anyway, that was sort of my entry into Corvette. He was my idol.

“I was given a chance to work on the team. I was willing to sweep the floor, I just wanted to be part of the car. It was all about working hard, getting along with people, being willing to learn–especially being willing to learn, and a lot of people are willing to learn, especially on the Corvette team. It’s so much fun.”

Fehan took us back to the origin of the Corvette racing program: “Where we are now isn’t an accident,” he told us. “In 1996, Herb Fishel, our director of racing, wanted a proposal for a Corvette program with an eye towards someday going to Le Mans. And I laid out a plan that was, frankly, radical in the eyes of GM. 

“To put it into perspective–and these are 1996 dollars we’re talking about–the most we had spent on a program was $250,000 a year. I asked for a two-year program spending $3 million, and then we would determine if and when and where we would go racing. That was the right way to do it, and I was only going to be involved if we did it the right way.

“In the eyes of GM, all they had ever raced for was a checkered flag and a trophy. Win on Sunday, sell on Monday. And I laid out all the ways I thought the race program could be integrated into corporate activity and customer activities and create something that was much greater than just victory lane.

Corvette’s modern competition program started with the C5, a winner at both Le Mans and Daytona. In 2005, the team moved to the C6, which finished first and second in its Le Mans debut. More wins and podiums followed. Photography Credits: Courtesy GM (C5 daytime), David S. Wallens (C5 nighttime), Richard Prince/GM (C6 pair)

“And one of the core values in that was technology transfer. And we began that right away. We inherited the C5 from [Corvette Chief Engineer] Dave Hill, and we started with those huge hydroformed rails, the largest hydroformed pieces in the world at the time–basically a thin-wall-steel tube-frame chassis. It was amazing. It was the first radical redesign of the Corvette really ever in terms of materials, methodology and everything it incorporated. It was groundbreaking.

“It was a great car, and one we thought was really worthy of doing a full factory program on. Keep in mind, it had never been done. There had never been a full factory Corvette race program ever in the history of the car.”

It wasn’t without challenges, though. “If you remember, the C5 had those little cat-whisker openings in the grille, and it also took in air underneath–which was fine for the production car, but it was an extremely difficult challenge for us to convert that limited space into all the ducting we needed for combustion air, engine cooling, brake cooling, all those things. When we got through with the C5–which was arguably a pretty successful run that we had with that bad boy–and we started right away on the C6, Dave Hill saw the value of what we were trying to achieve with the tech transfer. And he said, ‘What do you need from C6?’

“And we said, ‘First of all, we have to lose the flip-up headlights.’ And I can’t tell you the furor that created. But the timing was good on that because the technology was changing so rapidly, as we were moving from incandescent lighting, which had been around for about 100 years, to high-capacity discharge, transformers–technology that really wasn’t lending itself to flip-ups. So he acquiesced. He went right ahead and did it. Those friggin’ flip-up headlights were basically air brakes at Le Mans.

“Then we went to the powertrain. I asked if we could build a 6.0- or 7.0-liter small-block, and they said, ‘We looked at that and the piston speeds would be so high we really didn’t think it would be viable.’ And John Rice, who came from Powertrain and was assigned to the program, said, ‘Give me the go-ahead and I’ll build one.’ So he got with the guys at Katech and they put their shoulders to the wheel and they built a 7.0-liter small-block that we debuted and immediately won with. The Powertrain guys called us up and said, ‘How did you guys do that?’ And that became the Z06 motor. 

“Then C7 came around. Dave Hill had handed the reins to Tom Peters, who was a racer himself, and he loved what we were doing. Tadge Juechter, now Corvette executive chief engineer, was part of all that. He witnessed the engagement we had with the fans and how we were using that race program to sell cars. Keep in mind that we didn’t have magazine ads or TV commercials to sell the Corvette; we were doing it through racing, and selling every one. 

The C7, another winner on the international scene, was the last Corvette with the engine in front of the driver; Corvette went mid-engine with the C8. Photography Credits: Richard Prince/GM (C7), Jake Galstad (C8 pair)

“Then came the C8, and Tadge was tasked with that program. That was seven, maybe eight years ago. We sat down and he said, ‘Look, we’re going mid-engine.’ There’s huge value in the tech transfer that will take place, not just for the internal team-building aspect–which we had done, by the way, and we had all the guys at the Tech Center in Tadge’s group wearing Corvette hats, hanging Corvette posters in their cubicles. They had really, really adopted our race program, and they knew they were part of our team. We made sure they knew that what they were doing on the production side was vitally important to what we were developing on the racing side. 

“Tadge saw the value in that. We started this project together, worked hand in glove to bring us the C8.R, which is arguably the closest thing we’ve ever done performancewise to a race car that made it to production.”

Customer Race Cars Coming

This year was the end of the IMSA GT Le Mans class. Some races contained only two Corvettes and a mostly privateer Porsche. Next year, the Corvette will become a GT3 car, with one racing in IMSA and another overseas in the FIA World Endurance Championship. For the first time, Corvette will go for championships in two major series.

Fehan likes the idea. “It’s going to increase our level of engagement on a global basis. It’s not that Corvette hasn’t already carved out a name for itself overseas–and carved out, most importantly, respect. We’ve done that in a number of ways, not the least of which is winning Le Mans eight times. Running over there full time can only fortify that position.”

And then will come something Holder is working on now: a GT3 version of the Z06 that will be sold to customers and raced in IMSA. 

Coming soon to IMSA and abroad: The factory-developed Corvette Z06 GT3.R, with customer cars eventually offered. Photography Credit: Courtesy GM

“There’s been a lot of customer requests for it: ‘Hey, build us a race car. You can just send it out the back door in Bowling Green, but we want to race a Corvette,’” Holder explained. “So being able to do it in a professional way like we are with the Z06 GT3 car is exciting.

“It’s our first entry into building a customer race car, and we’ll be learning as we go, especially about which customers want to actually campaign the car. The development of the vehicle is well underway, so we know what the car is going to be like. I’ve just talked to one guy who wants two of them, but he just wants them as toys, and we have to campaign some cars. So we’re going to prioritize the people who actually want to race, so we can meet our commitments to the class.

“The aluminum frame will be built in Bowling Green, and that and a big box of other parts we’ll send to Pratt Miller, and they’ll modify the frame and start the build from there. We talk a lot about technology transfer. It’s not just a marketing slogan with Corvette.”

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Comments
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jb229
jb229 New Reader
7/30/22 9:20 p.m.

Thanks for one of the best articles I've read in this magazine over the years.  This sort of write-up is why I subscribe.

ThumperUSMC
ThumperUSMC GRM+ Member
7/31/22 11:32 a.m.

This is probably the best Corvette article I have read in a long, long time. Very informative of how it got done,

I have loved the Corvette since I was a kid, when my Dad got a 1953 Corvette. Yeah, it was very underpowered with the little 235 six cylinder in it, but I loved riding in it. Then in 1965, I bought my very first Corvette. It was a very abused 1957 with the 283 fuelie that was a very real "fill it up with oil and check the gas" car. I wish I had kept that motor now...LOL. Anyway, with the help of a friends dad, we took the body off and did a lot of repairs to the body where it was stress cracking, especially on the inboard areas of the body, we beefed up the frame and I got a 396 Mark IV Turbo Jet motor from a friends dad that was a Chevrolet dealer, at a real good price, and then we started on the mods that turned that car into a "Gasser". Was a great car, but then our "problem" in South East Asia got in the way and I ended up selling that car when I went into the Marines. I have had quite a few 'Vettes over the years, some newer, some older, but the two that I have kept over the years were ones that I really liked, but not a lot of other people did. The 1980 C3 and the 98 C5 Convertible. I built them the way I wanted, and both of them perform great, but on the roads only. Neither is a race car, but I do have plans to race the C5 IF I can find someone who can build a rollcage without totally destroying the interior part of the car. Someday, maybe...

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