When Olly lined up for the start of his first American Le Mans Series race at Road Atlanta, the day after his 28th birthday in September 2000, he had no idea that some 12 years later he would be celebrating a very special Centenary.
In this weekend’s ninth and penultimate round of the 2012 ALMS season at Virginia International Raceway, the Northamptonshire, UK-based Corvette Racing driver will be making his 100th start. All but three of those have been with the GM giant, and the partnership between team and driver has proved to be extremely beneficial. Three Championship titles and four class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans to date, the British driver currently has a healthy lead in this year’s GT championship standings and a fourth title is almost within reach.
Here are some of his thoughts on the last 12 years of competition in North America.
Q What were your first impressions of the ALMS when you started?
A Racing in the USA for me was very new, but it was a bright new world and a land of opportunity. The Series had ties to European racing though its links to the ACO and Le Mans but ran their races in a quite unique way. There was a real buzz and a great atmosphere and my first two races were two of the biggest, Petit Le Mans in 2000 and the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2001. I went from one to the other thinking, wow, this is amazing – huge crowds, Spring Break in Florida, carnival atmosphere, lots of wild activity going on all around you. I’d have been crazy not to want to be involved with it all!
At Sebring I was entered with Franz Konrad and Terry Borcheller in a Saleen and it was always a bit wild racing with Franz. The car was very new so we had no spare bodywork and as the weekend went on there were bits patched up and hanging off all over the place. I remember the back of the car coming adrift and Franz coming into the pits, leaping out of the car and fixing it himself with duct tape and lock wire. I was so fresh to sportscar racing, I was open mouthed to it all and every sense was on overload. There was lots to take in as it was all so different to the open-wheel racing I’d done in Europe: different strategies, the mix of classes, traffic, managing tires and fuel, and driving for such a long time! I’d done a few Grand Am races before, but going racing into the dark was unusual and strange. At Sebring we had two hours to go and I thought I was only going to be in the car for an hour and came into the pits ready to get out, with belts loosened, when I suddenly saw both Franz and Terry on the pit wall with no helmets on. Terry’s eyes were big as saucers and they were yelling at the mechanics to shove me back in to go to the end. We ended up winning the GTS class, my second ever race, so it was a good introduction.
Q Is there one race that has stood out above all others?
A Our win at Petit Le Mans in 2010 was pretty extraordinary and there’s a whole range of emotions about that one. We hadn’t won a race all year and it had been a tough season for us, with changes to the driver pairings mid-season and lots of questions being asked of both me and Jan Magnussen, who was then driving with me.
We had Emmanuel Collard with us for the endurance races and he’d had a tough year and was low on confidence so only drove one stint, with Jan and I sharing the rest between us. We worked our socks off but the Risi Ferrari was always about 8-10 seconds ahead of us, the whole race. And then they ran out of fuel on the last corner of the last lap and the victory was ours. You just have to look at photos and see the expression on everyone’s faces; it was amazing, to finish a 10-hour race like that. It had looked almost to the end that it wasn’t going our way but it proves that it’s never over until you’re over the finish line. It was very tough on Risi, but that’s racing.
Q What are the highlights of your 12 years in the ALMS?
A Championships are great things to get and you have to work hard to achieve them. My first one in 2005 was very emotional as my wife Helen and I had just had our third child a week before. I’d been worried that he’d be late coming and I couldn’t be in two places at once, and there was big pressure on us to win but it all worked out and when I drove the car over the line at Laguna Seca in California it was an incredible feeling.
In 2006 it was again a tough one, this time against Prodrive and Aston Martin Racing. Pedro Lamy, Darren Turner, Stéphane Sarrazin and Tomas Enge – you’d want to race against them all the time given a chance. The competition was electric every time we went out and it was consistently tough and fast but very fair. Likewise in 2007, my third Championship, another great year which had some great battles…you remember not just the races you win but the battles you fight towards those victories.
I had a golden period of racing with Olivier [Beretta] and Jan [Magnussen] with so much success, we worked very well together. This year the relationship and synergy between me and Tommy Milner and Richard Westbrook is also great – let’s hope it’s the start of another winning era!
A big highlight over the years has been the people. There’s a family atmosphere in and around the series I haven’t seen anywhere else, whether it’s the fans, the Corvette corrals and the regulars we see there, the teams, media, everyone. There’s also a great family atmosphere at Corvette Racing and Gary and Robin Pratt have done an amazing job creating it that way. Everyone gels and works together brilliantly – my crew chief Brian Hoye, the guys on the No.4 car, all my smart, intelligent and great engineers over the years.
Add to that the people we race against, fantastic teams like Flying Lizards, Risi, Prodrive, Extreme Speed and BMW, John Hindhaugh and Jeremy Shaw who bring it alive for a worldwide audience, Dr Greg, the IMSA pit officials; great people who provide great memories. They are the family you have within the ALMS, and the organizers run a fantastic series.
Q Who would you say have been your best rivals over the years?
A I’d have to say Prodrive in its different guises, first with the Ferrari 550s and then with the Aston Martins, although the guys we’re currently battling with at BMW, ESM and Flying Lizard have done amazingly over the last few years.
But, strange though it might be, for me as a Brit, my best memories are of racing those Prodrive guys in 2003 and then from 2006-08. They were a wholly British team and you could see that the way they did their racing was different to us and how we did it, but it led to some fantastic battles and racing. We had different philosophies, but so many times it came down to the tiniest of margins on track. There was a massive amount of respect between the two teams on every level – drivers, crew, engineers, and a lot are still in touch with each other which is great to see. No one wanted to talk to each other much before a race, but as soon as it was finished you’d find a good part of each team going out drinking together, all talking it through. It was great to see and you realise now that it was a special period.