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O’CONNELL: End of an Era for Cadillac

Johnny O’Connell reflects on end of era for Cadillac in PWC…

Photo: Richard Prince/Cadillac

I’ve always told my kids, that if you surround yourself with good people, good things will happen.

For the past 17 years I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by the best. Ten years racing for Corvette, where we won 41 races together, and seven years with Cadillac where we won 22 races, though two were taken away by PWC.

As you read this, you’ve already heard the news that we will no longer be racing our Cadillac ATS-V.R Coupes in World Challenge.

As I pause to reflect on the past seven years, man do I have some great memories.

The passion with which every member of the team approached each race was at a level that allowed us to achieve all that we did.

Four Championships in seven years is pretty impressive and well, but for one weekend at Road America in 2016 it would have been five straight.

I’ve said it before, in racing the driver is just the quarterback. In order to win, he needs an amazing team and the guys on Cadillac Racing were the best.

Over my career I’ve worked with some excellent engineers, but honestly none even come close to John Lankes who for the past seven years learned exactly what I liked in a car and delivered time after time.

Mike West my crew chief is regarded as the most gifted mechanic at Pratt and Miller, and his quiet and consistent leadership set the tone for a team that always worked and pulled together.

Brandon Wolf and Alex a.k.a. “Biscuit”, each day focused, confident, no mistakes and always giving me a fast and safe car.

Of course, all the guys on the No. 8 car, whether it be while Andy Pilgrim was there, or with Michael Cooper, we were a team.

Probably most important of all, was the leadership of team manager Steve Cole.

My first race for GM was in the Corvette at the 24 hours of Daytona in 2001. We won that race overall, with Steve engineering that car. We went on to win Le Mans, Sebring, Petit Le Mans, Championships at Corvette, and continued on with Cadillac doing the same. And man lots of memories.

That first year, 2011, to say it was a challenge would be an understatement.

The series gave us absolutely no power until the final three races, and we went the entire season as the only car without ABS brakes.

Our first win being at Mid-Ohio when we were running third and Randy Pobst and Mike Skeen tangled exiting the key hole. I was able to sneak by them both and the excitement from the team was amazing. We then finished out the year with a flag-to-flag win at Road Atlanta and wound up finishing second in that championship.

The years 2012 through 2015 would find us winning the championship each year, generally with it coming down to the last race when we would need to be perfect.

I would joke with the guys each morning as I walked in that each one of them looked like Joe Montana.
That we were a fourth quarter team and each time we delivered. Often with lots of excitement and drama like the year Audi brought in Rene Rast to help them out.

We took the win and the championship with two laps to go.

Or the time at Laguna Seca when Olivier Beretta and I had an epic battle all season long, and he steam rolled into me on the entry to the Corkscrew. We got going again, and even if he had not broke we were still in a good enough position to close that championship out.

I could go on and on and hey maybe someday I’ll write it all down in a book about both the Cadillac and Corvette times. The behind the scene stuff. It has been epic.

During my time driving for GM, I’ve truly been blessed. The leadership of Herb Fishel in the early days to Jim Campbell and Mark Kent, providing all the tools and personnel to showcase to the world the technology developed in racing and how it’s transferred to the street cars.

I mention that only because over the years there were so many times I was asked to drive pre-production cars, give my thoughts and help in getting them better.

The engineers on the production side of things at both Corvette and Cadillac are not just gifted intellectually, but also very strong drivers whose passion is displayed with each Corvette and V-Performance car that rolls off the assembly line.

And of course, one can’t forget Mark Reuss. Leadership at the top that is passionate beyond words not just about GM, but also driving.

I had the pleasure of doing some one-on-one coaching with him at Bondurant a few years back, the guy can drive, and it’s definitely rocking chair equity.

Finally, as I sit here reflecting, it strikes me that all told I’ve been lucky enough to win 63 races driving for GM.

Sixty-three! The number of the car I last won Le Mans with back in 2009 with Jan Magnussen and Antonio Garcia. In 17 years, there have been eight championships.

Again, blessed for the people I’ve been around, and well Gary Pratt and his team/family along with GM Powertrain, well there aren’t enough words to express my appreciation.

Looking forward to 2018, I most likely will be rated a Silver driver. Which kind of cracks me up as I can take pride in still being as fast as this country’s young guys.

I’m sure that over the next few weeks I’ll discuss things with GM about the future.

What opportunities there might be, as I take great pride and loyalty in my family at Cadillac and Chevrolet.

To all the fans that cheered us on over the years, you made everything that much more special. I can, to this day remember being a seven-year old kid and going to my first race at Lime Rock.

Seeing the cars, and meeting a driver changed the course of my life, and throughout my career it has always been special hearing someone tell me that what I did, who I was, set them on a path.

That’s not just good stuff. That’s great stuff! To everyone at Cadillac, thanks! It’s an honor representing you.

To everyone else stay hungry!

Johnny O'Connell (@JohnnyOConnell1) is a three-time American Le Mans Series champion and four-time class winner at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, driving for Team Cadillac in the Pirelli World Challenge.


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