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by Larry Roberts

November 13, 1998

At the 1956 Pebble Beach sports car races, I was a crew member on a Triumph TR3 team that unfortunately didn't do very well.

To add insult to injury the winner of the "big bore" production car race was a Chevrolet Corvette, a car that we connoisseurs of sports cars considered a Detroit joke. Its driver, Dick Thompson, laughed all the way to the checkered flag. Unknown to most of us, Thompson was factory- backed and the car was, in fact, the property of Chevrolet.

And now the Chevrolet factory is returning to the fray with a team of specially-prepared standard Corvettes to do battle with the best endurance sports racers in the world.

According to the press releases we've received, the main purpose of the program is to help the company develop factory-supplied speed parts to owners of the new C5 Corvette so they can further enjoy their cars. I suspect that this is a case of rationalization and the true reason is that the Dodge Viper GTS V10 is making an international name for itself in endurance races such as the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It's a challenge that Chevrolet Motorsports must have found irritable.

It isn't that Chevrolet hasn't been successful in racing in recent years. The NASCAR Chevrolet Monte Carlo driven by Jeff Gordon has won a dozen Winston Cup races so far this year and has wrapped up the maker's championship for Chevrolet along with the championship for the driver. In the rough-and-tumble world of NASCAR Craftsman pickup racing, the Chevrolets have had things pretty much their own way since the inception of the series several years ago.

But the Corvette has a mystique of its own - a 45-year old name that has survived as "...the only true sports car made in America," according to Chevrolet publicity. But recently the upstart Dodge Viper has appeared on the scene to challenge that statement and has done it in a most convincing way. The French Oreca team of factory-backed Vipers recently won not only the FIA (Federation Internationale Automobile) GT2 endurance race at Laguna Seca Raceway, but also took the international GT2 championship as well. It's a challenge Chevrolet couldn't ignore.

Chevrolet was involved in sports car road racing in the SCCA Pro Racing Trans Am series until a few years ago, but that still-struggling operation has been declining in spectator popularity for several season. The crowds and TV coverage simply aren't there. Unlike the specially constructed "tube car" SCCA Trans Am Corvettes that have little similarity to showroom versions, FIA GT2 racers have to be pretty much based on production parts. The C5-R Corvette (the official designation of the new FIA GT2 car from Chevrolet) is based on the production car platform and running gear. It's low-tech (but highly refined) all-aluminum pushrod 5.7 liter third-generation "small block" V8 engine has been bored, tweeked and tuned to put out over 600 horses.

Ron Fellows, a first-class road racer who was almost unbeatable in Trans Am racing a few years back, has done nearly 5000 miles of testing in the new C5-R and is almost sure to be the lead driver of a three-man team. Its debut will be at the upcoming Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in January and will follow it up with an entry into the 12 hour race at Sebring (Fla.) later in the year, as well as contesting Don Panoz' Petit Le Mans series on North American tracks.

In 2000, Chevrolet Motorsports plans to run a team in the fabled 24 Hours of Le Mans to challenge the experienced French Viper team as well as the best GT2 and open sports-racers in the world. And that will also be a landmark entry, since the first time a factory-backed Corvette team ran there was in 1960, 40 years previous.

I won't be able to attend the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona next January to watch the shoot-out between the Corvettes and the Vipers, but I hope it's televised. It should be quite an event.

And I hope that the Chevrolet Corvette C5-R team has the forethought to invite the still-active Dick Thompson to be part of the festivities.