As RACER celebrates Corvette Racing’s 20th anniversary at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, program manager Doug Fehan (pictured above with driver Antonio Garcia) offers his thoughts on how the uniquely American team has approached the classic French endurance race, and how, since its first appearance in 2000, the country has influenced the proud factory GT effort from Michigan.
“That it gets back to our early days before we ever came over here. And we knew, obviously, about the physical challenges of putting together a team, and getting them transported over here to compete. But there were other challenges as well. We knew coming over here, there were some real horror stories about how Americans were treated, and there wasn’t much to those stories, although it was a challenge that we knew we weren’t going to be openly embraced as Americans, OK. But we weren’t treated badly. We weren’t treated rudely, but we wanted to do things that would endear ourselves to not only the race, but to the town of Le Mans.
“Gary Claudio was our marketing manager and he was just a brilliant guy. I mean, he was a people person. He could come up with stuff that he thought would work, and would help us overcome the stigma of being Americans and actually try and get us to a point where they liked us, because we knew that would be helpful. I can remember coming over here the first year. Quite frankly, the Corvette had a terrible reputation. I mean, it was pimps, prostitutes, and drug dealers who owned Corvettes in France. And that’s a pretty tough image to shake. So, he put together just a magical plan. We went to scrutineering and it was our very first time here.
“We knew that French people were crazy about cowboy, western movies. They love American movies, all American movies. They watch the movies here in English, and they love cowboy movies. We’re going over there, we’re going to scrutineering and we’re all going to be in cowboy hats. So we showed up in cowboy hats, and the fans, they didn’t know what to think. They were loving it, but they just didn’t know what to think. This was their first exposure to an American team like this.
“And so, I also set up a program. We were down in the center of [Place du] Jacobin, which is just a big old parking lot in front of the cathedral. It’s kind of down in a hole, and the cars [entering scrutineering] arriving early would all be cordoned off and the people were not even allowed to get close. Each team had stanchions set up to keep them away. You know, just shooing them away.
“I said, ‘We’re not doing that.’ I said, ‘We get down, and I want you to open that up and the first kid that comes along, I want you to open the door up, get them in the car and let his parents take a picture of him inside the race car. And then line them up, and let’s do that for every kid that comes along before we get called up to scrutineering.’
“And I’ve got to tell you, the first parent was very reluctant, because they had spent their lifetime in Le Mans knowing you’re not supposed to get close to the cars. So when a team was inviting you to come to the car, you could see the reluctance to do that. But that first dad, I’ll never forget him and his little kid, was probably seven, eight years old, and the kid of course didn’t know any different. So he was excited. We got him in the car. David James put him in the car, his dad was snapping picture. Mom was in the background. Everybody was smiling. The next thing you know, the parents were lined up, the kids were lined up, to get their picture taken in the Corvette. It was a great moment in time.
“We finish scrutineering. And so you line up to do the official photograph in that prescribed area for the yearbook thing that they do. And so we all line up, got our hats on, take the picture and of course they’re shooing us away, ‘Allez, allez, go, go, go, go.’ I said, ‘No, no, no, just one minute.’ Claudio had gotten each of us a beret and a fake mustache. We took off the cowboy hats, put on berets and stuck on fake mustaches, and stood there and crossed our arms. The crowd broke out in applause.
“The tower on which the photographers were all gathered, you know, that bridge that they erect, was shaking so badly because they were laughing so hard they couldn’t take a picture. So they had to wait to get that thing settled down, snap the photographs. The audience is applauding. And the next day you look above the fold in La Sarthe, which is the regional paper, and our first trip there, there’s the Corvette team at scrutineering with berets and fake mustaches on.
“That was the first step in creating what we wanted to do, and that was traditions that would be tied to Corvette, because we knew the French culture was a tradition-based country. Its architecture, its history, its art, its literature, they revere that here. They have huge respect for that. Wonderful museums. They embrace the past.
“We wanted to do some things of course that would help endear us, and so when you look forward to all those things, Mike West playing the [the U.S. national anthem on] guitar at noon, that was huge here. That was huge. People love that. They look forward to it. Mike then had moved down because he went to go do Cadillac program and some other things. We needed something to replace that.
“We had the train horn. We brought that in. We blow that every noon. That’s a tradition. When we go to the driver parade, the beads like they do at Mardi Gras, that’s part of the tradition. When we finish scrutineering, we hand out posters to all the crowd. That’s our tradition. We have a huge banner thanking the people of Le Mans. You’ll see that in pictures. We unroll that and the drivers hold it up. ‘Thank you, people of Le Mans.’ That’s our tradition.
“That’s how we’ve ensconced ourselves. That’s how we’ve captured the hearts of the people here. And this race is centered around the people of Le Mans. [Everything] happens at the racetrack, but believe me, these people own this race, the people who live here. It’s been an amazing ride, and an amazing experience.”
Enjoy the full conversation with Fehan below: