Pratt & Miller at the 24 Hours of Le Mans: A Day in the Life of the Day
As five o’ clock rolls around on Sunday afternoon, the Pratt & Miller Corvette Racing team is getting its second wind. Twenty-odd hours into the 24 Heures du Mans marathon and the finish line is finally in sight– literally and figuratively; the garage opens onto the racetrack’s historic grandstands. The Pratt & Miller team has persisted through an intense all-night battle with rivals Aston Martin and, finally, the blazing afternoon heat of the French countryside in summer.
The race started an hour later than normal, to avoid conflict with World Cup soccer. Race activity in the following hours has gone from frenetic to merely hectic. Qualifying fourth and fifth, the Corvettes start as they mean to finish; showing typical pace over the 8.5 mile Circuit de la Sarthe. They're only a few seconds slower than the not-so-ironically named 007 and 009 Astons. And then, less than an hour into the race, the team runs into its first major stumbling block. Johnny O’Connell, driver of the number 63 Corvette, radios-in to report a shunt on the back side of the circuit.
Just before the crash, Pratt & Millers’ trackside engineers were treated to a blizzard of blinking lights on their telemetry readouts. Wildly fluctuating oil and water pressure, tire temperatures and other data– all highlighted by insistent red and green warnings– blipped onto their screens. In a heartbeat, the mood in the garage shifts from anxious to serious.
The crew members prepare for the damaged car’s arrival. The garage grows quieter and more focused. Finally, the fierce baritone of the Corvette’s 7.0-liter V-8 can be heard bouncing off the pit lane walls. Seconds later, the car slides into its designated stall. Dan Binks and the crew of #63 leap into action, pneumatically raising the car, lowering it onto dollies and rolling it nose-first into the garage. With the race only a few hours old, the energy level is high. A dozen mechanics swarm over the car, like worker bees attending to the queen. Within 10 minutes, the crew has replaced the rear wing, wheel arch and tie rod. A few moments later, #63 fires up and roars out of the pit stall to rejoin the race.
The sound of the Corvette’s engine switching off is the hallmark of the Pratt & Miller pit stop; roaring in, the drivers kill the engine even before the car has come to a halt. Car up, refueling rig in, tires swapped. Done. The car drops back to the tarmac with an audible clunk. The driver whips the outrageous V-8 to life. The engine starts with a pop exponentially louder than a 12-gauge shotgun. Leaving the pits under full throttle, the powerplant’s loud enough to painful pierce an enclosed radio headset. No wonder the team doesn’t let the engine run in the garage. Pit lane is a precisely choreographed ballet that will start and finish again and again, until the waning hours of Sunday afternoon.
And then the most dramatic event of the race for the Pratt & Miller pit crew: the 63 car arrives in a cloud of smoke with a destroyed gearbox. As before, the team leaps into action, pushing the car into the garage. This time it goes ass-end first, as if to hide the Corvette’s all-important inner workings from their rivals. In an instant, they remove the rear deck. A cloud of milky, acrid oil smoke billowing from under the bodywork fills the garage. In times of crisis like this, crew members are their assigned responsibilities. Mechanics from both the 63 and 64 cars rush to one side of the garage to contribute all they can to the resuscitative effort.
Within minutes, they strip the rear of the car bare of its carbon-fiber skin, exposing its skeleton. Mechanics lean deep into the rear of the car and lift the smoking gearbox from its innards with asbestos-gloved hands. At Le Mans, gearbox replacement is prohibited by the regulations. So the team dives into the unit, removing its casing and exposing the six-speed box' intricate workings. The unit is intensely hot, melting into the rubberized floor covering. Forty-five minutes later, the 63 again roars out of the pit stall, the shafts and cogs of the cooked box lying on the counter in the tool trailer for later inspection.
After 24 grueling hours, the Corvettes cross the finish line in formation, the 64 a nose ahead of the 63. For the fifth time in six years, a Corvette wins the GT1 class at the 24 Hours. The race’s final image: Corvette Racing program manager Doug Fehan holding aloft the Stars and Stripes as the cars cross the line, his American muscle once again proving victorious in this seemingly endless crucible of speed.
[Thanks to Jim Durbin and the Pratt & Miller team for trackside access.]
Lesley Wimbush on Oct 29, 2006
Lucky, lucky you Mitch, to experience the real Le Mans. For me, the ALMS series is an event not to be missed on my calendar. I'm with you - as exciting as the actual race may be, for me it's just intoxicating to wander through the pits for hours, watching mechanics, observing the huge amount of prep work that goes on behind the scenes, the whole experience is just an overload of incredible sound and colour.
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