2016 was the year that I was able to go to the Mecca of sports car racing, Le Mans. Since Corvette Racing began winning races there back in 1960, I have dreamed of going to see the ultimate automobile endurance race. Thanks to my wife, Nancy, and the National Corvette Museum, I can finally check off this bucket list item. But the trip to France was so much more than watching a race – it involved experiencing Paris, northern France, Corvette legends, Corvette fans, and a new cadre of Corvette friends. And I learned something of significance.
The National Corvette Museum (NCM) tour was chronicled in an earlier post and retold in the NCM Magazine, “America’s Sports Car”.
50 NCM patrons made the trip to Le Mans, and each one of them has their own Corvette story. I want to share a few of them with you.
The Le Mans track is huge – one circuit around is about 8 ½ miles. The Grandstands are mostly centered at the start/finish line, but there are bleachers throughout the complex. Tickets are sold on a general admission basis (no reserved seats) or admission with seats in assigned grandstands. Although other events are held at the Le Mans track throughout the year, the 24 Hours race is the premier, significant event. Races have been held here since 1923 making it one of the oldest continuously operated endurance tracks in the world, similar to our own Indianapolis 500 dating back to 1911.
For people who are lucky or wealthy enough to rent accommodations near the track, or are pampered with huge luxury motor coaches, the experience is luxurious. Everyone else is relegated to the surrounding area camping in fields and sleeping in rented tents. Prior to our trip, France had endured significant periods of rain resulting in a muddy, Boy Scout-like experience for the campers. Our group was happy that the NCM provided a deluxe hotel in Angers, bus service to transport us to and from the track each day, and an awesome Corvette Corral reception area.
FRIDAY, June 17, 2016:
Our tour group arrived at the track on Friday morning to experience the pre-race festivities. Our hosts included General Motors executives, the local Corvette Club (who furnished the Corvette Corral, and lots of food), and Corvette owners from all over Europe. We began the day with a visit to Pit Row. Upon entering the interior of the track the NCM group immediately encountered legendary Corvette driver Ron Fellows (who offers the Corvette Driving School in Pahrump, Nevada, where a surprising number of our tour group has gone for the Corvette Driving experience).
Ron Fellows poses with the NCM Tour Group at the Le Mans Track
Along pit row, all the fans were peering into the garages of their favorite cars. We gathered at the Corvette garages watching the final preparations for the start of the race on Saturday. Nearby were the souvenir and apparel shops. The track was as crowded as Disneyland on a summer day. In the early afternoon we returned to the Corvette Corral for a pre-race rally and to meet three of the six drivers.
Meeting the Corvette drivers at the Corvette Corral
Next on agenda was transportation to the town of Le Mans for the “Parade of the Pilots” a long-standing tradition of the Le Mans Race. A few of us received grandstand seats with the dignitaries, courtesy of GM, affording us a close up view of the parade entrants and the TV personalities. Our greatest thrill was seeing Tommy Milner, Oliver Gavin, and Jordan Taylor interviewed on French TV at the reviewing stand.
The streets of the town were mobbed as everyone wanted to be part of the pageantry of cars and drivers.
We ended the day by returning to our hotel to prepare for Race Day!
SATURDAY, June 18, 2016:
Our tour group returned to the track early Saturday morning ready to witness the race. Our first stop was to see the "museum" dedicated to American drivers and American race cars. The Briggs Cunningham Corvettes were featured as part of early American history at Le Mans.
Our tickets, also courtesy of GM, were issued in a few groups occupying seats in grandstands between the Start/Finish line and Turn 1. After a few hours of race day shopping, we made our way to our seats filled with anticipation.
As the official Rolex clock approached the scheduled starting time the wind began to howl and torrential rains began pelting the track and fans. The downpour continued past 3:00 PM, the scheduled start of the race. The race officials decided to start the race on time, but for the safety of the drivers under a full course caution with all the cars following the pace car around the track. The rain finally subsided after about 30 minutes. Then the real racing began. While the cards had been stacked against Corvette (and all the other GTLM cars by one deceitful entry), the result of the race was a foregone conclusion. Regardless, Corvette enthusiasts cheered on our favorite sports car hoping for some "race luck".
What was the significance of this event to the NCM participants? Here are a few reflections that my Corvette-loving friends have allowed me to share with you.
Greg and Zach Rupcic “Father – Son Team” (Michigan): Greg (father) and Zach (son) made the trip as the only father-son couple in our NCM group. Greg last visited Paris in 1966 when he took leave from his post in Germany while on a tour of duty with the US Army, just before he left for Vietnam. It was very cool for him to return to Paris 50 years later to take a photo with Zach on the Eiffel Tower on the same spot he stood in 1966. The photos below show the “then” and “now”.
Greg has loved Corvettes all his life. For eleven years he has been watching the Corvettes race at the Road America track in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin. Conveniently, he only lives 87 miles from the track. But this was his first trip to Le Mans. Together, Greg and Zach stayed through the night to watch the entire race.
Everyone has a “first ride in a Corvette” story, but Greg’s is special. “All my life I loved Corvettes but never even got a ride in one. Then my wife bought me a Corvette for my sixtieth birthday. My first and only. I ordered a blue coupe with the Z51 package from the factory. When the dealer asked if I wanted to take one out for a test ride I said ‘no thanks’. I wanted my first Corvette ride to be in my own car. A few of my friends were amazed I didn't take a Corvette out for a test drive to see if I'd like it. I said, ‘are you kidding? It's a Corvette, the car I loved and wished for all my life’. I'll always remember the feeling of driving home from the Chevy dealer with my new Corvette. I was totally amazed with the power and handling of this car!”
Karen Renfrow and Mandy Ellingson “Mother – Daughter Team” (Kentucky): Karen (mother) and Mandy (daughter) made the trip as the only mother-daughter couple in our NCM group. Karen has been an employee of the National Corvette Museum for almost eleven years and, for this trip, was our official tour coordinator. Having an “insider” at the Museum was a real asset as we navigated all the complexities of taking 50 Corvette Fans to France. Mandy was a wonderful addition.
Karen and her husband, Jimmy, own a 60th Anniversary Grand Sport Coupe.
When I asked Karen and Mandy what the Le Mans Trip meant to them, Karen said, “Trip of a lifetime. Unforgettable Experience!”
Mandy echoed her sentiments, “Yes, Le Mans was definitely a trip of a lifetime, I would agree. I love absorbing different cultures, as well as being in the company of people with passions other than my own, so it was a great experience to be among Corvette enthusiasts! The entire trip with the museums, Normandy, with knowledgeable guides was a true experience I would never be able to recreate. I’m thankful to have the opportunity to be part of it and meet such a great group of people!”
Eve Thompson (Florida): Of the 50 NCM Tour participants, only one had been to Le Mans – Eve Thompson, wife of legendary Corvette Driver Dick Thompson. Eve has been around racing, race tracks, and race drivers all her life.
While Dick was inducted into the Le Mans Drivers Hall of Fame in 2013, he was unable to travel to Paris for the ceremony, and instead, was inducted in a small ceremony in his living room, with Eve, by a Le Mans Official. Later that year a tape of the presentation was shown to a very enthusiastic audience at the inaugural race meeting at the Texas Motor Speedway. Dick died on September 14, 2014.
Don, Shirley, Nancy and I were blessed to be able to learn so much from Eve about Le Mans. After traveling with her throughout Paris and France, it was great to finally get to the track. Eve joined us as we walked to the pits on Friday to tell us first-hand all about the track and the pageantry.
Everywhere we went at Le Mans, Corvette celebrities would see Eve and stop to give her a warm greeting. Here is a typical photo – Ron Fellows, legendary Corvette Racing Driver, with Eve. Notice the way-cool matching jackets? Only the famous or lucky own these jackets!
Don and Shirley Kingery (California): Nancy and I have no dearer friends than Don and Shirley Kingery, who live near us in Carlsbad, California! We share many passions including flying, classic Corvettes, new Corvettes, automobile racing, and good wine. Nancy was one of the first people who got wind of the proposed NCM trip to Le Mans in early 2016, and she immediately contacted Don and Shirley to see if they would join us. Instantly they said, “Heck Yes!” Don and Shirley have traveled the world with the airlines, and had been to Paris many times, but the four of us agreed that a trip to France and Le Mans together, especially with 50 Corvette Faithful, was an opportunity not to be missed!
Don bought his first Corvette, a red 1965 roadster 327/350, while at the U.S. Navy Top Gun School in Miramar, California. Don has owned at least one model of every generation of Corvette (except the C4) from his fully restored 1962 up to the modern cars. He currently owns two Corvettes: a beautifully restored 1967 Big Block Roadster and his newest Corvette, a 2016 Shark Grey Stingray. An equally enthusiastic racing fan, Shirley has many fond memories of watching and meeting the World’s best drivers. Together they have watched races all across the USA and in Europe, including Formula One. They took us to the Monterey Historic races last year and “showed us the ropes” for both the races and the auctions. Then in April, 2016, the four of us went with another friend to the Ron Fellows Driving School –what a blast! We always have fun with Don and Shirley, even though the energy consumed by the four of us sometimes leaves each of us exhausted!
When I asked Don what this trip meant to him and Shirley, he said, “After following Le Mans most of my adult life, I finally got there. Definitely a bucket list event! In some ways the setting was more primitive than expected (tents and sleeping bags everywhere, muddy access roads) and some ways more sophisticated (crazy balance-of-performance science). One of the best parts was the access we had to the teams, cars and drivers. This is the opposite of rigid and restrictive Formula 1 races where you can't get close to anything!”
Charley Robertson (Florida) and Janet Curran (California): You will never find a more devoted pair of Corvette Racing fans than Charley Robertson and Janet Curran.
I had met Janet years ago when we both participated in the NCM “Jay Leno Tour”. Out of the 50 NCM members on the Le Mans trip, Janet and I were the only ones who had done both tours. Janet is very active in arranging and conducting Corvette events from her base in Southern California. Janet owns a 2015 Corvette.
Charley is best known to the Corvette community as the person who keeps Corvette news continuously updated in social media (Facebook, email, Twitter, and more). She attends as many Corvette races per year as possible, traveling far and wide from her home in the Florida panhandle. Charley owns 2009, 2011, and 2014.
Charley and Janet met years ago at the creation of the C5 Registry, which evolved into a listserve and more social media. Although they lived on different coasts, they exchanged lots of Corvette Racing information by email and met face-to-face at NCM and other events. Charley planned to attend Le Mans with another friend, but when she backed out, Charley thought she would be alone. But sure enough, Janet (and even more friends) signed up for the Le Mans trip.
Although neither Janet nor Charley had ever been to Le Mans, they were savvy enough to snag two passes to the Start/Finish Suites directly above the Corvette Racing Pits/Garage. Talk about the best seats in the house?! We were all envious at their wisdom and good fortune to be right there with the Corvette Racing Team on Pit Row! Then Eve secured seats in the same suite. Three lucky ladies.
Charley shared this thought with me recently, “I will never forget this trip and the people I have met. I love France and Le Mans and I think I left my heart over there. I want to go back so bad …. maybe in 2018.”
Rebecca McCarty (Alabama) and Elizabeth (“Vereen”) Farrar (Mississippi): Equally passionate about Corvettes as Charley and Janet, we met a dynamic duo of Corvette ladies in Rebecca and Vereen.
Rebecca loves fast Corvettes, and the faster the better. In addition to a 1975 Corvette, Rebecca owns the highly-coveted 757 Horse Power Callaway Z06 Corvette. The special paint treatment and bright red color inspired Rebecca to nickname her car “Lip Stick Z06” and the car sports a license plate to match (“LIPSTIK”). Her amazing car has been featured in Corvette Forum.
Vereen bought her first and only Corvette in 2013 when she ordered a 2014 Torch Red Z51 coupe. Vereen nicknamed the car WolVereen (her favorite nickname). Rebecca and Vereen met on the Corvette forum when Rebecca noticed that Vereen was an Auburn fan and that they live only a couple hours away from each other. They met in person at a car show in Gulfport, MS. Then they attended the Ron Fellows driving school together, then went to the 2016 April Bash at the National Corvette Museum, and finally were travel partners on the Le Mans trip. Their friendship is so close, they have attended a few Auburn games together, driving their Corvettes to the games (of course).
Here is a photo of Rebecca and Vereen at the Louvre with Charley and Janet.
Vereen says, “I absolutely had a blast during the Le Mans trip. It was a nice introduction for first-timers in France, hitting most of the ‘must-sees’ in Paris, the fascinating D-Day beaches, and of course, the historic Le Mans race. But my most favorite memory about the trip: developing new friendships with some of the best people in world!”
Tom and Judy Overmeyer (Ohio) and Mel and Mary Kay Hahn (Arizona): I also met two couples who are passionate multi-Corvette Families.
Tom and Judy bought their first Corvette in 1996 and now own three: a classic 1961, a Resto-Rod 1962, and the 60th Anniversary 427 Corvette (one of my favorite models). Mel and Mary own four Corvettes: a C2 1963 Stingray, a C3 1977, a C4 1994, and a C5 2009.
Tom and Mel met as members of the Glass City Corvette Club in Toledo, Ohio. Mel joined that club after moving to Toledo in 2006, quickly meeting Tom and they have become good friends, a friendship that resulted in the couples traveling to Paris and Le Mans together. Although Mel and Mary Kay have since moved to Mesa, AZ, the couples still stay in touch.
Mel didn't own his first Corvette until 2001, so he joined the Corvette fraternity late in life. Mel says, “I always thought Corvettes were special, but I was struck by how passionate Vette owners were, and how many people had one of these cars. And Corvettes always seemed so gorgeous!! So clean and shiny...like jewelry!! They always stood out, somehow. And I remember being amazed at all the parts that were still available for the older models...and at owners who restored their older cars back to like new condition.. not for the money...but just because they wanted to. Passion. The cars were unique...and so were the people. That's what drew me to the hobby.” Mel’s 1963 Corvette is quite original and he has been working to restore it to 'top flight' condition. The 2009 Z06 GT1 was the first of only 17 black Z06s made in that GT1 Championship series, so it has a unique story and background..
Mel says, “For me, Le Mans was a chance to fulfill a bucket list dream of attending a Le Mans race and seeing the beaches of Normandy. We had actually been planning a trip to France that would include Paris, Normandy, and the 24hrs of Le Mans race!! Yes...the very same trip!!! I had even talked to Tom checking his interest in possibly joining us on a trip to France and the race, and he seemed interested. So when NCM announced the very trip we were thinking of, it was a dream come true!! I called Tom right away and we both signed up. Paris was exciting and beautiful. The history...the art...the monuments... the buildings/architecture...of course we all enjoyed it all. But I especially enjoyed Normandy as I have an uncle who landed there in 1944. He's 96 and still in good health. I took back a vial of sand from Omaha Beach where he landed and delivered it to him last Sept. He was very moved and very appreciative. Bottom line....being there with 50 other Corvette enthusiasts, organized by the Corvette Museum, to follow the Corvette Race team.... it doesn't get any better than that!!”
SATURDAY Night, June 18, 2016:
The race was exciting enough through the afternoon. But early on it became apparent that one manufacturer had secured an unfair advantage. Realizing that the race officials had been completely beguiled, interest in the race outcome dissipated for pretty much everyone. What should have been a thrilling race degenerated into a publicity stunt.
Losing interest in the non-race, by late afternoon many of the NCM tour group had drifted back to the Corvette Corral.
There we enjoyed a car show of Corvettes that had come from all over Europe to be part of the 24 Hours experience. Each of us was given a judging sheet and we inspected each car with enthusiasm. Our hosts held a raffle, and then served us a yummy dinner. We fared much better than the people in the tents!
As the Sun began to set, most of the NCM participants piled onto our tour bus to return to our hotel for the night. Some of us stayed all night to take in the full race experience. The cumulus clouds of the afternoon gave way to a full moon seen through a thin layer of high stratus clouds. As I walked alone back to our assigned grandstand seats I noticed that all the fans wanted to be as close to the action as possible, causing throngs to cling to the safety fencing. I felt stupid sitting all alone in the stands, so I joined the crowds looking for gaps that would give me a close up view of the race. I decided to walk as much of the track as I could.
I noticed that the private suites for the young, or beautiful, or rich had transformed into mini night clubs with food, drink and dancing. Except for the roar of the cars, you would never know that a race was in progress.
Without the advantage of a real race, the laps and hours droned on and on in ear-piercing monotony. I found entertainment by walking around the perimeter of the track to see the varied parts of the course and to watch how the drivers navigated the variety of turns. I felt the Corvettes had the most enjoyable sound, but loved the sound of the Aston Martins nearly as much. I was surprised that the independent Porsche and Ferrari teams out-performed their factory-sponsored brethren.
At eight hours the Corvettes were running P8 and P10. By 12 hours (3AM) they had improved to P5 and P9. At the 20 hour mark we were running P7 and P10, which was pretty depressing. Oddly at that point the Aston Martin cars were running P4 and P6, and if the performance adjustments had been fair, I feel 2016 would have been their year!
SUNDAY, June 19, 2016:
The NCM bus returned to the track at 8AM when the freshly-showered connected with the all-nighters. The realization that there would be no Corvette victory celebration gradually dawned on even the most optimistic Corvette fans.
By 3PM, when the race was over, the mood of disappointment had dissipated. We comforted each other with the hope that when our team returned to the States we still had a shot at winning the IMSA championship (which we did -- with aplomb!). All of us also had the knowledge that Corvette Racing, and the Corvette brand, is a class act that has endured for 50+ years, and always will.
As everyone knows, I’ve been a Corvette fanatic since I was 15 years old, and I cherish my Corvette friends as though they are family. But Le Mans taught me that Corvette People, from all over the World, are very special, and that we are blessed to share this passion for the one-and-only, continuously-produced, America’s Sports Car – Corvette!