Dave Roberts, executive chairman of the Carlisle Company, created a vibrant paddock buzz when, in 2014, he offered Indy car ace Juan Montoya a ride in his Group 10 Corvette at the SportsCar Vintage Racing Association (SVRA) Sebring race. Montoya gladly accepted and was having a blast until the differential let go in the heat of competition. Roberts has done it again this year when he reached out to Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame auto racer Ron Fellows to offer him a ride in his yellow Z/28 1969 Camaro (BELOW).
“I think it took him all of six seconds to say, ‘How can I pass up that offer!,” Roberts says. “Ron’s a good friend. We’ve talked about going vintage racing for some time and with the big Trans Am 50th anniversary celebration going on I thought it was perfect timing.”
The SVRA is saluting Trans Am’s 50th birthday year at Sebring. Among those gathering are legendary drivers of the sport’s past as well as the Historic Trans Am owners with their documented, authentic cars from the classic era of 1966 through 1972. Today’s Trans Am series is sharing the stage as well along with hundreds of SVRA racers. Fellows and other legends on hand include event grand marshal Bob Tullius, George Follmer, Willy T. Ribbs, Jack Baldwin, Lyn St. James and Tom Yeager.
Certainly Fellows fits right in this weekend’s Trans Am theme as one of the series’ top all-time winners with 20 victories. If that isn’t impressive enough, his last win came at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, formerly known as Mosport, in 2014 after a 10-year absence.
“Jim Derhaag offered me that opportunity and it was a lot of fun,” says Fellows. “The first thing I noticed was how much more powerful the cars are. They are at about 850 horsepower and when I left Trans Am they were in the 600hp range. Derhaag Motorsports does a great job and we were able to win the pole and the race.”
While Fellows’ Trans Am accomplishments alone were enough to state his case as a top-tier driver his versatility and success across a number of disciplines is clearly hall-of-fame stuff. Despite an overall win in the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona and two class victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans he may be best known for his exploits at the wheel of NASCAR machines in that sanctioning body’s top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide (now Xfinity) and Trucks.
He came into NASCAR dubbed by the media as a “ringer” because teams looked for road course specialists such as Fellows and another road racer, Boris Said, for their mastery of those courses. The strategy paid off as Fellows picked up four Nationwide wins and two runner-up efforts in Cup competition. He also scored two wins in the trucks. All but one of these successes was at Watkins Glen (RIGHT, 2003, (LAT photo). The other, a Nationwide triumph, was at Montreal’s Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in 2008.
“Watkins Glen suits me because it’s like Mosport where I have a lot of miles,” Fellows says. “It has long, high speed corners which I am very comfortable with.”
For Fellows the foray into NASCAR was an opportunity to illustrate how his driving skills could make a difference. He found the cars a unique challenge because they were not originally designed with road racing in mind. He competed in the various NASCAR series between 1995 and 2013.
“I think its fair to say the NASCAR cars are not as sophisticated as sports cars,” Fellows says. “They were a handful with their 10-inch wide tires, low down-force and lots of power. Still, it’s a lot of fun banging doors.”
Fellows saw the NASCAR regulars develop their road racing skills over the years of his participation. Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart are among those on his list who grew into strong road racers.
“From 2003 to 2008 I think the number of skilled road racers in the field grew from around a half dozen to two dozen,” Fellows observes. “These drivers are ultra-competitive professionals and develop their versatility. Dale Junior came to race Corvettes. A lot of them spent hours on simulators. They do what it takes.”
Apart from the records and race victories at the core of Fellows’ career is his relationship with Chevrolet, a treasured association that endures today. He was hired by Chevy Racing in 1995 and was successful in Trans Am with Buz McCall’s AER team using Camaros. Despite amassing eight wins in two seasons, Fellows was out of a ride at the end of 1996.
It was during this time that McCall shared an observation with Fellows about his family values. Ron, his wife Lynda and their children – Lindsay, Sam and Patrick – always traveled to the races together. They lived authentic family values and others noticed not just what they were doing but the good nature and affection they showed one another.
“What Buz did was make me aware of my professional persona,” Fellows says. “I became more conscious that people noticed how we were living our lives. We were simply doing what we believed was the right thing for our family, but then I realized that it was a positive reflection on us. It was something Chevrolet respected.”
In other words, Ron Fellows was a great brand fit. By 1997 Herb Fishel, who was then executive director of GM racing and now a member of the Corvette Hall of Fame, tapped Fellows for a very important assignment: to become a member of the Gary Pratt and Jim Miller team (Pratt & Miller) to develop the Corvette C5 racecar. The group brought a car to the grid in 1999 and the following year they picked off their first ALMS win at Texas.
From there they were on a tear. In only their third season in 2001 they scored the overall win in the 24 Hours of Daytona (ABOVE, LAT photo). That same year they won four other ALMS races as well as the GTS class at Le Mans. Over the course of the next six ALMS seasons he amassed a stellar record of three successive driver championships and 19 additional race wins for a career total of 25. Three of those wins came here at Sebring in the iconic 12 Hour contest. He brought home a second Le Mans GTS class win in 2002 as well.
During this period he was part of Pratt & Miller’s development work of the next generation Corvette racecar, the C6. Illustrative of Chevy’s appreciation for Fellows’ contributions to their success, the company introduced the Limited Edition Ron Fellows GT1 Champion Corvette Z06 production model. It was the first signed special edition in the marques’ history.
Along with those successes with Corvette he also raced for another GM team, Cadillac, in World Challenge GT. Driving CTS-V racers he scored a victory in three successive seasons, 2004-’06. Through all the on-track competition Ron’s personable nature shined and fans voted him ALMS most popular driver in four successive seasons, from 2004 through ’07.
In 2007 he began a career transition that gradually de-emphasized driving to become an ambassador for the Corvette brand. Still, he competed at Le Mans, Sebring and Mosport in Corvettes as well as World Challenge GT for Cadillac and select NASCAR races.
In October 2008 he founded, along with John Morris and Brad Rambo, the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School at Spring Mountain Motor Resort near Las Vegas. No surprise, his school is part of the package Corvette customers can purchase with the car. Corvette, along with Hawk Performance and Michelin are sponsors. In motorsports, a world where relationships with companies can be fleeting, Fellows and Corvette are still involved after 21 years – a tribute to not just the man’s ability but his character as well.
Today the school uses the current generation Corvette C7 on two different track configurations, both over two miles long. Three progressive levels of classes are offered although licensed race drivers can start at level two. Rick Malone, a long-time and highly respected driving colleague of Fellows, is the chief instructor. He heads a staff of 26 drivers that includes Indy car race winner Richie Hearn and former NASCAR trucks driver Justin Johnson.
Fellows’ business interests expanded in 2011 when he became a part of an investment group called Canadian Motorsports Ventures, Limited, to purchase Ontario, Canada’s Mosport road course. A year later the team was able to secure title sponsorship, changing the facility’s name to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park.
Despite these business interests Fellows couldn’t quite get the fire to compete in a racecar out of his system. He continued selective races in NASCAR and was especially successful in Nationwide, scoring one of his career wins in 2008 and earning three top-fives in 2012. Then there was the surprise 2014 Trans Am win as well.
During this time Dave Roberts reached out too, offering Ron a ride in one of Nick Short’s CRP Racing Corvettes of the World Challenge GT. Roberts’ Cragar Wheel and Hawk Performance brands are team sponsors. The deal was for three races during the 2010 season. Fellows won two of them.
Roberts returned this year with another temptation for 58-year-old Ron to pull his helmet on again for the SVRA Group 6 races this weekend at one of the most historic road courses in the world. Dave’s 1969 Camaro Z/28 is modeled after the Roger Penske entry Mark Donohue drove to win that year’s Trans Am championship. This is the same car Roberts co-drove with Indy Lights champion and Indianapolis 500 veteran Alex Lloyd in the 2014 SVRA Brickyard Invitational Indy Legends Pro-Am race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Roberts, a regular driver with SVRA, is competing in Sebring events this weekend with a 2006 Pontiac GTO.
Unfortunately, not unlike Montoya’s SVRA adventure with Dave two years ago, mechanical gremlins have gotten in the way of the car guys getting together for a little fun. Fellows’ first SVRA weekend has been cut short when an engine bearing let go in the brutish vintage Camaro. While the damage is something short of catastrophic, the repairs are too extensive to fix for this weekend. Dave is looking ahead two weeks to have the car ready for the SVRA’s first visit to Amelia Island off the coast of Northern Florida.
“It’s just a shame, we were really getting down to some serious fun,” Fellows asserts. “Dave and I have discussed this for some time and it was always something I wanted to do. I did get three practice sessions in, and the car is a handful, but just a blast to drive.”
Now that he has gotten a taste of SVRA racing Fellows want another shot. As a dedicated father with some serious business interests, it’s just a matter of finding the time.
“My youngest son Patrick has dreams of an NHL hockey career so his games are one of events I schedule around. Honestly it’s just a matter of fitting into a schedule where family comes first.”
Roberts also is a major racer at heart both as an owner and a guy who gets up on the wheel. Among his long list of credentials is being a part of the driving team that won the Baja 1000 Sportsman UTV class in 2010. He owns several vintage cars including Pancho Carter’s 1987 Indy 500 Budweiser Lightning racer. He has among his numerous experiences a drive up the renowned hill climb at the famous Goodwood Festival of Speed. He has attended vintage races with Ron before, but this weekend was the first time he has been able to get the champion driver behind the wheel. Fellows sees American vintage racing ascending in prominence.
“Look at everything that is happening in the marketplace,” Fellows observes. “There are a variety of examples from retro styling to nostalgic rock and roll. Historic racing is clearly growing. My generation has the money and the interest. For those of us who deeply care about motorsports this is an important opportunity to get our kids involved.”