My Generation: The Price

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by Rick Tavel
Special to Corvette Forum

? 6-26-2013 All rights reserved, do not duplicate without permission.

Like many Corvette ?true believers? I watched the 24 Hours of Le Mans with hopeful anticipation that the Corvette team would somehow be able to add victory number eight to their impressive twenty first century record of class wins at the legendary race. It would have been an impressive and fitting end for the final Le Mans appearance of the C6-R, next year the racing version of the new C7 will take its place. It was the first race in the last several years where the Corvette racing team was not the favorite going into Saturday’s race, arguably the most grueling endurance event for sports cars in the world. The two car Compuware C6R team qualified seventh and eighth in the GT Pro (GTE) class, behind the dominant two Aston Martin Vantages, Porsche’s two new 911 RSRs and two Ferrari 458 Italias and just ahead of the new SRT Viper GTS.

However, in what proved to be one of the most challenging and tragic Le Mans races in years, the Corvettes were prevented from adding an eighth Le Mans victory. Not only was the new competition a factor but the weather made the race one of the most difficult in recent times. Sadly, the GTE pole winning #95 Aston Martin driven by Allan Simonsen left the slippery track at the infamous Tertre Rouge resulting in a devastating wreck that took Simonsen’s life and cast a pall over the event. Thankfully all six members of the Corvette team survived the grueling 24 hours without incident due to their almost faultless driving. It was evident that the Corvette team’s sheer persistence, experience and skill paid off in their impressive finishing positions, even though the Aston Martins, Porsches and Ferraris were clearly faster. The #73 C6-R driven by Antonio Garcia, Jan Magnussen, and Jordan Taylor consistently improved their position moving from seventh to a just off the podium fourth place finish. And the #74 C6-R driven by Oliver Gavin, Tommy Milner, and Richard Westbrook improved their position two spots, finishing seventh.

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Prior to the race Corvette Racing Team Manager Doug Fehan admitted that this year the Corvettes were searching for more power to be able to compete with the newer, faster cars. And almost prophetically, it was the factory Porsche cars that finished first (#92) and second (#91) in class followed by the #97 Aston Martin. Afterwards Fehan praised the driving abilities of the six Corvette drivers. But perhaps it was veteran driver Tommy Milner who said it best, ?I’m really proud of all the guys at Corvette Racing ? both the crews and everyone involved.To perform in conditions like these shows how strong the team is.”

As Corvette aficionados we too should be proud of the six drivers and the entire Corvette team?proud of what they accomplished not only in the race, but of all the time spent behind the wheel or a computer testing and refining the car’s performance. For every hour they put in during an actual race they spend countless more hours testing and tuning the car so that it performs up to expectations. And there have been no GT cars more successful than the C5-R and the C6-R.

I’m also sure that as avid Corvette fans, we have all reflected on how lucky the Corvette drivers are to be able to ?live the dream,? able to spend countless hours racing our favorite cars, able to experience the thrill of victory with the whole world watching, have legions of fans and admirers, and to drive for a factory team. They know they’re lucky and will tell you that themselves. But they also know every that to win a race requires calculated risk, pushing your limits and the car’s. But they won’t tell you about the countless hours they spend testing, the thousands of hours of practice and hundreds of races to get where they are. They won’t tell you about the important times they have had to give up with their families, birthdays and anniversaries missed, times when they should have been with a family member during an illness or had to miss a child’s special event at school because they had to be in the car racing or testing. They won’t tell you about the agonizing hours of concern and worry their spouses and partners endure each time they get behind the wheel of the race car or the strain it puts on a marriage. That sacrifice is the cost of ?living the dream.?

Besides the sacrifice, the courage required to pilot a car as powerful as the Corvette C6-R and race it against others at speeds over 200 MPH must be recognized as well. It is something that successful drivers are almost oblivious to because once they start thinking about the dangers they face every second, once they let fear enter their thoughts performance will suffer. To face those dangers with the decreased grip that comes with foul weather faced this year at Le Mans takes a special kind of courage. Tommy Milner said, ?I?ve never been part of a Le Mans that had conditions as difficult as this. They changed on every lap and on every corner.? Then, a third of the way through the race comes nightfall. Oliver Gavin called it out, ?You had to wing it and take a big gamble sometimes.? Simply put, ?living the dream? requires not only sacrifice but also courage.

And they do it because they love it?the wheel to wheel battles against other drivers, the competition, they do it because they love to win. And of course they do it for us, their fans, despite the risks to their families and themselves. The love of what they do is their consolation and the justification for risking it all. But this year at Le Mans, the driver of the GT pole sitting Aston Martin Vantage, Allan Simonsen, paid the ultimate price when his car hit a barrier at the Tertre Rouge. An experienced 34 year old driver, he had raced at Le Mans seven times and raced in hundreds of other races all over the world. Originally from Denmark, he acquired the nickname of ?The Great Dane? in Australia where he frequently raced. Respected throughout the racing world, his social media biography simply stated, ?professional racing driver, living the dream.? He had driven that same turn countless times over the years but on the fourth lap, in the rain he became the first driver to lose his life in the 24 hours of Le Mans since Jo Gartner in 1986.

Though the design and safety of race cars has improved dramatically over the last few decades, we frequently forget just how dangerous racing can be. Serious injury and loss of life have been drastically reduced through use of the monocoque frame, the HANS device, improved fabrication materials, safety equipment and the improved crash barriers surrounding modern race tracks, but the risk and the danger is ever present. It’s something that we, as fans of the sport don’t like to think about. We?d rather think about the thrill of watching our favorite driver expertly hitting the apex at the Tetre Rouge corner and getting on the gas, passing another car down the long Mulsanne Straight at over 200 MPH. And rightfully so, as that is what it is all about, that is what keeps us coming back. But every so often we should reflect on what our Corvette drivers, and all racers, put on the line when they get behind the wheel. We should remember what they and their families are sacrificing. Allan Simonsen will no longer be able to cuddle up to his wife on a cold night or see his baby daughter grow up. As fans, we should remember just how expensive it can be to ?live the dream.?