Corvette Racing returns to the Rolex 24 at Daytona in search of a hat trick of GT Le Mans class wins, one year after an epic intra-team duel that saw Oliver Gavin’s No. 4 Corvette C7.R edge team-mate Antonio Garcia by a mere 0.034 seconds.
The new Ford GT stole many of the headlines in the buildup to last year’s race and 2014 winners Porsche appeared to have the field covered once the green flag fell, but in the final 30 minutes it was the stalwart Pratt & Miller squad that had its brace of Corvettes in position to race for the GT Le Mans class win.
What happened next has been entered into the tomes of sports car racing lore.
“Twenty four hour races unfold in any number of different ways,” Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan told Sportscar365. “Last year’s [race] was unique in that we had two cars on the same lap, both within striking distance of one another, and both were on a different pit strategy.
“The car that was leading had older tires and was moving on light fuel and running very, very well. The other car at that particular time, Antonio’s car, was on fresh tires and with a calculated fuel load to get them to the end.
“The No. 3 car was going to be faster than the No. 4 car, and was faster than the No. 4 car, which allowed him to get by the Porsche and then close in on the No. 4 car.
“So now, we’re probably 25 minutes from the conclusion of the race and it’s apparent that these two guys are going to have the capability to race to the end of the race, to actually race.
“Barring any catastrophic occurrence, we were going to finish 1-2.”
Chuck Houghton, who engineered the No. 4 Corvette that day, said it was a thrilling, and frightening, realization.
“The thing that I remember most is that that’s probably the most awake I’ve felt at the end of a 24-hour race in quite some time,” he said.
“To have the two team cars running back to back, nerve-wracking as it was, it was kind of nice to think that one of us is probably going to win and one of us is probably going to finish second.”
When it became apparent that the 54th edition of the Rolex 24 was going to be determined within the team, Fehan had to decide how to proceed.
“A 1-2 finish at the 24 Hours of Daytona is the dream that factories want to have,” he said. “It would be very easy to say hold position, let’s take this 1-2 finish, and we’ll call it a day.
“Having done this for a long time, I can tell you that that doesn’t necessarily equal the best result. A 1-2 finish isn’t your best result.
“Your best result is having a complete team knowing that they worked hard for 24 hours, they poured their heart and soul into everything that’s been done: every pit stop, every bit of strategy from the engineers, every ounce of driving skill and effort, has gone in to trying to win.
“To deny 50 percent of your team the ability to try and bring home that trophy is not a beneficial thing to have happen long term. I don’t want 50 percent of this team and drivers going home thinking that the 2016 24 Hours of Daytona is the race we could have won if they had just let us race.
“So, I was up on the stand and I talked to our chief engineer Doug Louth and I asked him, ‘What do you want to do?’ And he deferred back and said: ‘I don’t know, what do you think we should do?’
“And I said, ‘I think we should race.’ And he said, ‘Really?’ and I said, ‘No question.’
“I went down and talked to Jim Campbell [Chevrolet U.S Vice President, Performance Vehicles and Motorsport] and explained to him what we were going to do and why we were going to do it, he concurred.
“I then went to Mark Kent [General Motors Director of Racing] and Mark Reuss [President of General Motors North America] and explained to them what we were going to do and why we were going to do it, and they concurred.
“I then got back up on the stand and let the drivers know that we were going to race to determine who was going to win this 24 Hours of Daytona.
“You can only do that if you have just unequivocal trust in the guys who are behind the wheel, and all of our guys, all six of them that were at that event, we have that level of trust.”
“Everyone on the team knows that probably the worst thing that could have happened for us would be to have the cars in the situation they were in and have them come together and both of them not finish on the podium,” he said.
“Neither one of the guys in the car would do anything that would hurt the chances of us finishing 1-2, and I think GM and everyone in charge giving the the guys the chance to show that is pretty cool.”
Gavin picked up the story from there.
“I’ve got a reasonably solid memory of how it finished,” said Gavin. “I certainly remember getting the call from my engineer Chuck Houghton to say ‘we want you guys to race hard, clean, fair, but there can’t be any contact.’
“We knew it was going to be down to us two for the victory. Antonio has been one of the fastest guys in the C7 ever since it rolled onto the track a couple of years ago and I knew I had my work cut out to battle him.
“I also know him very well as a friend. We spend a lot of time together. He’s very smart, he’s intelligent, he picks his points when he’s going to attack somebody to pass them.
“So I knew that there were going to be different levels of strategy for him of how he was going to try and pass me.
“I was then trying to think of all of those things to come up with a plan to defend, to see, if he did get by me, where I could possible get him back.
“He tried coming down into the Bus Stop one lap and I was all the way to the inside. I was pretty aggressive in the way I did it, and the team came on the radio and said, ‘You can’t do that. You can’t be that aggressive. If you’re going to do that again, then you’re going to have to let him by.’
“So then I had to try and get myself positioned in the right way coming off of [Turn] 6 and then coming out of the Bus Stop.
“I knew that Antonio was strong through there and then one lap he got a tremendous run on me down the front straight, and then he got all around the outside of me into Turn 1, and that’s the bit that I think everyone has seen in the footage: him just getting by me. He was fully by me.”
Houghton saw the race flash out of their grasp in that moment.
“I had relegated us to finishing second!” he said.
Of course, that’s not where the story ended.
“We had walked the track earlier in the week and I noticed something that I had never really seen before from driving it,” said Gavin.
“[I saw] this tiny little crown in the road right in the middle of it, right as you’re going into Turn 1, and [Antonio] just got on the outside of it that.
“He just carried a little too much speed, and I thought if I can get inside into the apex on the inside of that crown just as fast as I possibly can, I can carry a bit more speed through the center and a better run off.
“He was all the way on the outside, I just got a really good exit, and it was so close to the two of us touching at that point. And I got back in front again.”
Garcia had one more chance and drafted up alongside Gavin onto the front stretch headed towards the checkered flag in what became one of most iconic moments in the race’s history.
“I had just enough of a run coming out of the bus stop and I was leaping out of the seat,” said Gavin. “I was screaming! Because we’re great friends, but ultimately we’re racers. We want to win just as much as the next person.
“The most amazing thing was Antonio showed massive respect on the track. The two of us raced cleanly and fairly, and you’ve got to give him massive credit for that.”
While both Houghton and Gavin said it took time to grasp the magnitude of what had transpired, Fehan knew immediately that the 2016 finish was an instant classic.
“We told them: race for it guys. Have at it,” he said. “I think what you saw was exactly what we anticipated would happen: the greatest racing to finish a 24-hour race in the history of 24-hour races.
“It was pretty cool. And at the end of the day, when that camera focused on that pit box, knowing what happened in those last three laps, you couldn’t tell which team won and which team didn’t because everybody felt the victory.
“And that’s because everybody felt they had a shot to win it. Had we not done, it would have been very clear which car won and which car finished second when you looked on their faces. But everyone was ecstatic.
“It was one of those moments in my own personal career that will always stand out as being really what this sport embodies and what Corvette Racing embodies.
“It was a wonderful moment in time.”