Corvettes have become a tradition at Le Mans. There was a day 49 years ago, when Briggs Cunningham first brought three of General Motor’s sports cars to France and the American entries, with their big V8s and fiberglass bodies, were viewed as plastic aliens from another planet. Twenty-four rain-soaked hours later, though, the Corvettes had gained both respect and Gallic sympathy. John Fitch and Bob Grossman had managed to keep the last of the three, the severely overheating #3 car, alive just long enough to cross the finish line, winning their class and placing a remarkable eighth overall.
Since then, the French have seen waves of American teams arrive and depart. Cobras, Chaparrals and GT40s have all invaded the Sarthe, and then, after a brief flurry, quietly disappeared. None have endured or captured the hearts of the enthusiastic French fans like the booming, raucous Corvettes.
It is important to distinguish Cunningham’s rather naive but historic beginnings with today’s polished Corvette Racing effort. However, it is just as important to observe that the current C6.Rs are using a modern variant of Ed Cole’s iconic small-block V8, the engine that powered the first Corvette entries at Le Mans. No other team can claim such an engineering legacy.
GM’s final race with the C6.Rs in the GT1 classification probably won’t be the last appearance of these great machines; privateer teams, like the French operation headed by Luc Alphand, will continue to run them in a number of different European races. However, the GT class at Le Mans is due for a complete overhaul in 2010, and until the ACO’s new rules are revealed, Corvette Racing will focus on its new GT2 car in the American Le Mans Series, beginning at Mid Ohio in August.
Le Mans, though, remains Le Mans—a race unto itself. Recent history, with the complementary addition of the European Le Mans Series and ALMS, and now even an Asian series, makes it easy to forget that for decades the French classic was a singular event, with some cars built to run only there. But the moment you arrive on French soil and realize the enormity of the event, there is no talk of the ALMS or LMS. Even in the Corvette Racing garage, there is no mention of GT2 testing. There is only Le Mans. The value of a win here makes whatever happens in other series seem inconsequential.