Tuesday, June 25, 2013

My Generation

The High Price of “Living the Dream” - Le Mans 2013
By Rick Tavel© 6-24-13  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 event 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 challenging 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 and finished seventh. 

 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.”

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

 As avid Corvette fans I’m sure that we have all had the thought one time or another of how lucky the Corvette drivers are to be able to “live the dream,” be able to spend countless hours racing our favorite cars, to be able to experience the thrill of victory in a world famous race, to have legions of fans and admirers, and to be sponsored by a factory team.  For those of us who have raced you know how important and what a full factory sponsorship means to a driver, knowing that you can take calculated risks, often necessary to win, knowing that if it doesn’t pay off the damages will not come out of your pocket.   And every race driver knows that to win a major race requires risk, pushing the limits of the car and yourself.  We can look at the Corvette racing team and think how fortunate they are to be able to be behind the wheel of a successful race car like the Corvette and have a full factory sponsorship.  And they are fortunate, they will tell you that themselves.   But what they won’t tell you is 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.  Those are just some of the hidden prices of “living the dream.”

 As fans we should remember the courage it takes to get behind the wheel of a car as powerful as the Corvette C6-R and race it against others at speeds over 200 MPH.  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 their performance will suffer.  It takes more than a little courage to race cars at the speeds required to win, even though they may not be conscious of it, but to do it in the rain takes a special kind of courage, rain like the miserable weather the drivers had to experience at this year’s Le Mans.  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 of course in addition to the rain there was the reduced visibility and the dismal, dreary pall that engulfed the track throughout much of the 24 hours.  Then add the reduced visibility of night.  Oliver Gavin called it out, “You had to wing it and take a big gamble sometimes.”  It takes a lot of courage to “live the dream” when that dream is driving for the Corvette racing team.

And they do it because they love it, they love the competition, the wheel to wheel battling with another car, 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 poll sitter, 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.  From Denmark, he had acquired the title of “The Great Dane” to Australians 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 liin a Le Mans endurance race since Jo Gartner in 1986.
Though the design and safety of race cars has improved dramatically over the last few decades, as fans we frequently forget just how dangerous racing can be.  Though with the safety of the moncoque  frame , the Hans device, improved fabrication materials, safety equipment and the improved crash barriers surrounding modern race tracks serious injury and loss of life has been drastically reduced, but the risk and the danger is ever present.   It’s things 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, that is what it is all about, that is what keeps us coming back.  But every so often we should think about what our Corvette drivers, and all race car drivers, are putting 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 .  We should remember as fans just how much it costs to “live the dream”.

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