In typical style for Oliver Gavin, understatement has his driven his farewell to a full-time role with Corvette Racing. There was no year-long farewell tour or self-aggrandizing measures to ensure Corvette’s Iron Man was celebrated at every stop on IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship tour.
Ahead of 2020’s final round at Sebring, the Briton reflected on 19 years, 202 race starts, Le Mans wins and championships aplenty, first thoughts of semi-retirement, and the people who shaped his career at Corvette Racing as the life-changing 203rd start approaches.
“Well, it has been an amazing journey that I’ve had with Corvette Racing and the people that I’ve been working with, whether that was the first guys I was working with, the likes of Gary Pratt, Doug Fehan, Doug Louth, Steve Cole” he said. “There’s many, many, many people. And you get to see through those 19 years that a lot of those mainstays and those guys have either moved on from the race team or are still there, but they’re in a slightly lesser role. And it came to the point where I’m thinking about it. I know that the guys on the team are also thinking about it with the transition period and getting the next guys in who are going to be with the team for five, eight, 10 years.
“That’s been one of the cornerstones of their Corvette Racing program, the fact that they’ve been so loyal when they find someone that they know they like, they can trust, they know that this is going to deliver for them. Then they absolutely fully invest into them, and their racing career, and what they can actually deliver for the team and for the brand in Corvette. So I think that’s been one of the things that’s been so amazing about Corvette Racing. But I suppose it’s been a slowly evolving process over the last couple of years maybe that there’s been talk about (stepping back), but it’s really started to get focused through the summer. And that’s really when it all started to come into focus. It’s been an amazing journey.”
An open-wheel champion in Europe, Gavin was primed for a career in Formula 1 before a diversion to sports car emerged as the best way to remain active and earn a decent income. F1’s loss would soon prove to be America’s gift.
“I got a shot in the Saleen S7 with Terry Borcheller and Franz Konrad at Sebring in 2001,” he said. “And we were taking the Corvettes on and we won; we beat them there at Sebring in a car that had never really done any more than about three hours of running. And realistically, we never ever dreamt that we could actually win the race, but we pulled it off. And that was quite something. And at the end of that race, I came in for the very last pit stop at that race. And I remember as I pulled up, I saw two faces, not just the faces of my pit crew, but I saw two other faces. Gary Pratt and Doug Fehan was sitting there on the pit-wall watching that last pit stop.
“As I drove away, it was their look on their faces. They were like, ‘Oh s**t. I think we’ve lost.’ It was that sort of realization that they had that this is a car that was likely not going to fail and that we held all the cards at that point to win that race in 2001. So then it was (Corvette legend) Ron Fellows then started speaking to me, at Watkins Glen after I’d done a race with Jon Field and Intersport. He said, ‘Speak to Doug Fehan.’ I spoke to Doug at Laguna Seca towards the end of 2001, and then it took off from there.”
Behind the Corvette Racing name is Pratt & Miller Engineering, as Gavin would soon learn.
“Doug Fehan wanted to give me a contract there and then that weekend, but there was one big caveat — and this is a huge caveat — that Gary Pratt needed to see me driving one of his cars,” he continued. “Unless he saw me driving one of his cars, there’s no way that Doug could give me the contract. They had this agreement that no driver was signed without testing the car first. So I go to Sebring, November, 2001, and the 3 car’s got a test program already set out, and I’m just due to test the 4 car with Andy Pilgrim and Kelly Collins. Andy goes out, he sets a time. I get in. I go out. I beat that time. Andy then gets back in, and he beats my time. Then I go back out again, and I beat his time. And it keeps going like this. And I can see Gary Pratt’s getting more and more nervous, because he’s thinking, ‘When’s this going to stop?’
“It was at the end of that day that Doug Fehan and Gary Pratt came to me and said, ‘Look, we want you on board for next year, and we’ll offer you third-driver role alongside Ron Fellows and Johnny O’Connell.’ And from there onwards, it’s just been this unbelievable journey with some amazing teammates, with some fantastic crew chiefs, engineers, personnel, guys that have been so unbelievably generous with their time, whether that’s guys back at the shop or guys on the team at the time, guys I can really call friends, people that I’ve worked with for so many years and you establish a really good relationship with. And you are friends all about their families and their lives and what’s happening. And you’re speaking to them weekly.
“And so that’s been the really special thing. And I suppose that comes back to the way that Gary Pratt started running the team all those years ago, and it is that real family atmosphere. And when Gary stepped away somewhat from running the team, I suppose back in 2015, 2016 was when (team manager) Ben Johnson came along. Ben has still been able to carry on that feel of the team and that family atmosphere, that way that they view drivers and the way that they view personnel.”