Corvette Racing Program Manager Doug Fehan Steps Down - Are Big Changes Coming?
Fehan has led Corvette Racing for 25 years achieving huge successby Michael Fira, on LISTEN 15:28
Doug Fehan, the long-standing Program Manager that has masterminded all of Corvette Racing’s successes ever since the factory-backed team made its debut all the way back in 1999, has parted ways with GM fresh off the heels of one of Corvette Racing’s best seasons to date.
The news came shortly after Oshkosh made it official that it had purchased Pratt & Miller, the company responsible for the building of all of Corvette Racing’s cars. Do these developments suggest that the writing is on the wall for the oldest American racing program that’s still active or will we see Corvette Racing change its focus in the not too distant future? Read on to find out more about the latest puzzle that sports car racing has thrown at us in recent days.
GM and Doug Fehan split after more than 30 years together
Corvette Racing is one of the most famous names in the world of sports car racing, the GM-backed factory team that’s been running Corvette-based GT race cars since the late ’90s being widely considered to be amongst the most professional that the sport has ever seen. Routinely the golden standard when it comes to pit work, race strategy, and car preparation, Corvette Racing has shown that, time and again, it is fearless in the face of adversity and knows how to bounce back from just about any situation.
Less than a month after completing what has been Corvette Racing’s 21st full season of racing in North America, we find out that the man whom many see as the patriarch of the program, Doug Fehan, will no longer be on the pit wall come January’s 24 Hours of Daytona to fulfill his role as Program Manager.
Fehan, a veteran of many racing programs within GM, has always been associated with Chevrolet although it was his two-decade-long tenure at the helm of Corvette Racing that has made him an unmissable figure in the paddock. During this time, Corvette Racing has reached never-before-seen levels of success, basically kneeling one GT racing giant after the other. The figures are telling in this case.
With 105 race victories to date, the (most often) yellow Corvettes proved to be the class of the field in IMSA, be it in GTS, GT1, GT, or GTLM where the team is the only one to have surpassed the 100-win benchmark in IMSA's long history.
These wins translate into 14 team championships and 13 manufacturer and driver titles.
The most recent bundle of teams’, drivers’, and manufacturers’ titles was achieved in 2020 when the two Corvette C8.R GTEs won six of the 11 races they contested. Add to that no less than eight class wins at Le Mans and also the fact that, in 2001, a Corvette Racing-run C5.R won the 24 Hours of Daytona outright and it’s easy to see just how amazing a program Fehan has led.
"Doug’s contributions to Corvette Racing go far beyond the unparalleled successes on the race track," said Jim Campbell, Chevrolet U.S. vice president, Performance and Motorsports, in a statement quoted by Autoweek. "He developed strong relationships between Corvette Racing and the Corvette Engineering, Design, Powertrain and Marketing teams, and a variety of corporate sponsors, along with the various series and sanctioning bodies in which Corvette Racing competed."
Campbell also said in his statement that "Doug’s passion and enthusiasm created an incredible connection with race fans around the world. Any fan who met Doug will never forget him," and that is precisely why the news of him leaving the team came as a shock to many. Most outlets have portrayed the end of the relationship between GM and Fehan as a peaceful one and so did we but Sportscar365.com walked a different path saying in the title of its story that Fehan was "axed" by GM, something that fans decried as a bid for sensationalism by the outlet. Sportscar365.com, though, backed its wording by saying that it had contacted Fehan who, despite refusing to comment on the matter, did allude to the fact that "a change in management within GM was one of the guiding factors behind the decision."
Pratt & Miller finds new owners and the future of Corvette Racing
The ’change in management’ that Fehan indicated coincides with the sale of Pratt & Miller (known also as Pratt & Miller Engineering or PME) which will be part of Oshkosh Defense’s portfolio moving forward. The industrial giant will reportedly pay $115 million for the company based out of New Hudson, Michigan. According to a statement released by PME CEO Matt Carroll, the motorsports side of the business will not be affected by the sale.
"Oshkosh is an ideal partner for us to apply that mindset to some of the most significant challenges facing customers today," said Carroll. "Together, we expect to grow our decade-long partnership and expand our pipeline of new business opportunities. We look forward to learning from one another and continuing to innovate to bring market-leading products to our customers."
Carroll refers to the connection that Oshkosh and PME have established especially since 2013 when PME added a defense division which has since grown steadily and has earned a number of contracts working with the American Military. That is, most likely, why Oshkosh decided to buy PME outright although the purchase includes all of PME’s assets and ongoing programs. "Pratt & Miller’s motorsports heritage has created a culture of speed and agility that has defined our success," added Matt Carroll who said that PME’s partnership with GM will remain unaffected.
However, the future looks tough for Corvette Racing in particular and we think herein lies the main reason behind Fehan’s departure. You see, throughout 2020, Corvette Racing fought against Porsche and BMW in the GTLM class which had been whittled down to just six cars following Ford’s decision to pull the plug on the GT program. With Porsche doing the same thing at the end of this year, it means that Corvette’s only factory-backed rival in 2021 might be BMW.
And that ’might’ is very important here because BMW Motorsport is known for its instability with its racing programs often lasting barely a few seasons. The North American GT effort, though, is different as Rahal-Letterman Lanigan Racing has campaigned BMW GT cars with backing from the Bavarian company since 2009. But BMW might shuffle the cards and continue to streamline its spending - as indicated by its announcement that the Formula E is involvement ends in 2021. Thus far, all we’ve heard is suggests that BMW is uncertain about its next move although most sources say that Munich’s top brass would like RLL to solely focus on IMSA’s four long-distance races: the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring, the Six Hours of Watkins Glen, and Petit Le Mans.
This would mean that, for the majority of the 2021 season, Corvette Racing would run unchallenged in a GTLM class that would draw immediate comparisons with the now-defunct GT1 category. Back in ’07-’08, the interest in GT1 had effectively dried out in North America meaning that Corvette Racing only met some semblance of opposition at Sebring but, beyond that, the C6.Rs battled among themselves for race wins and titles. If that will end up being the case in 2021 as well, will IMSA be ready to reconfirm the class for 2022? And, if not, what will GM do?
Some say that the end of GTLM would also mark the end for Corvette Racing as a whole, especially since making the C8.R GTE eligible to run in GT3 is a difficult task and not one that Corvette Racing is particularly fond of. According to Corvette Racing Team Manager Ben Johnson, "our priority is to make sure that we can continue to showcase Corvette at the highest level, be that in IMSA and in the WEC and Le Mans, [and] that requires factory efforts that display the car and demonstrates its potential." The underlining issue is that the GT3 platform has been conceived to cater towards privateers with factory-backed efforts being frowned upon since day one.
Sure, most manufacturers involved in GT3 racing are willing and do offer factory support to a select few private outfits but full-on Works assaults in GT3’s history have been few and far between with the latest also coming from GM’s yard, namely the Cadillac Racing program in the Pirelli World Challenge (now GT World Challenge America). Caddy never met the 25 cars sold over a two-year period rule but the SRO willingly looked elsewhere. Will Ratel’s people be ready to bend the rules once more for another one of GM’s brands? And here’s another question: would Corvette Racing effectively be ready to step down and battle private teams full-time?
The answer, we think, is a resounding no and that’s why we think GM wants new people at the helm of Corvette Racing. That’s because the team might change its focus a lot over the next couple of seasons and move up the ranks, not down the ranks. Currently, GM is represented in IMSA’s DPi category by Cadillac but the automotive giant has not confirmed, nor denied Cadillac’s interest in building an LMDh prototype.
We think that’s it’s entirely plausible for GM to greenlight an LMDh car but that would proudly sport the Corvette logo on its bodywork. Indeed, we mustn’t go further back in time than 2012 to find the latest Corvette prototype. Formally called the Corvette Daytona Prototype, the Coyote/Dallara-built tube-frame sports car met the Gen. III Daytona Prototype rules of the Grand-Am Championship before the car was modified to run in what is now the IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship. Taking cues from the seventh-generation Corvette, the DP car was successful and often drew comparisons with Hendrick’s GTP model from the ’80s.
Now, finally, the production Corvette would match the racing prototype as the C8 model is mid-engined, thus eliminating the dissonance that existed in the past that caused many fans to not show their support for a Corvette race car with the engine in the middle and not the front. The shift for Corvette Racing may prove to be even bigger as Cadillac’s chassis provider is Dallara and we see no reason why GM wouldn’t want to move forward with the Italian company since it did such a good job on the DPI-V.R which is still considered to be the best DPi out there. This, then, would mean that PME exits the picture as the company isn’t known for simply preparing cars built by others. Only time will tell if a Corvette prototype will be a thing once more but, in any case, it won’t happen before 2023.
Oh, and here's a little footnote. Cadillac has competed at Le Mans before with a bunch of Riley & Scott-based LMP900 prototypes tackling the race with no success between 2000 and 2002.
That effort was axed just as it seemed that it got itself on track and, as such, we think Caddy may not hold the best of reputations in the light of a prototype return at Le Mans. The Corvette, on the other hand, benefits from a sterling reputation, and, now, with the signing of Nick Tandy, Corvette’s got its hands on one of the sport’s biggest talent, the Englishman being part of Porsche’s factory LMP1 roster in 2017. Consider Tandy as the first driver of a future Corvette LMDh program.
Doug Fehan’s storied career in American motor racing stretches back to the late ’80s
Doug Fehan joined Chevrolet back in 1988. At the time, the Corvette was represented in two of the four categories of the IMSA GT Series which was then - as it is now - the leading professional sports car series in North America. While Hendricks Motorsport ran the Lola-based Corvette GTPs in the fledging GTP category, Protofab was busy campaigning the tube-framed C4-based models in GTO that had been designed by a team that also included Gary Pratt who would work with Fehan after forming Pratt & Miller together with Jim Miller.
But Fehan himself wasn’t part of any of those two operations as he became involved with the Bowtie’s Trans-Am program. By 1990, the factory-backed Spice Engineering outfit was running the Chevy Beretta, a car that had been racing in both Trans-Am and IMSA since 1987 and had been continuously improved upon. Tommy Kendall, who’d first driven the Beretta in IMSA in ’88, was the team’s most prominent driver and scored six wins out of 15 races to Chris Kneifel’s two wins. With the wins of the Oldsmobile camp being spread between three different drivers, Kendall bagged what would be the first of four Trans-Am crowns.
At the conclusion of the 1990 campaign, Fehan moved up by joining Jim Miller’s team, MTI Racing, which had received some support from Chevrolet to run Intrepid-badged GTP cars in IMSA. Miller, who’d by now formed Pratt & Miller, grew dissatisfied with the Spice chassis he had previously run and decided to build a car of his own with the design work being handled by Bill and Bob Riley who were his colleagues from the Protofab days. The Intrepid with its Katech-built 6.0-liter Chevy V-8 engine was often fast but neither Miller nor Tom Milner (of Prototype Technology Group fame) could turn it into a championship contender.
Up next for Fehan was a stint alongside Oldsmobile, a brand that, by the mid-’90s, was bent on proving it still had some blood running through its veins by throwing the Aurora V-8 engine in a variety of racing cars with the intent of showing off its technological prowess. The engine powered both the Oldsmobile Aurora GTS-1 machine and, in a different state of tune, could also be found in the middle of Doyle Racing’s Riley & Scott Mk. III-A. The car, yet another Bill Riley design, won both the 1996 edition of the 24 Hours of Daytona and that year’s 12 Hours of Sebring but it faltered at Le Mans.
Fehan though had to quickly put the frustration of missing out on a good result in France in the back of his mind because he was appointed Program Manager of the as-of-yet-unborn Corvette Racing team that same year. He then began working, together with Pratt & Miller, on what would become the Corvette C5.R, a GT2-spec machine that was built from the outset to rival Dodge’s Viper GTS.R which made its debut in ’96 as a GT1-class car but would run in GT2 from 1997 onwards due to the change in regulations.
"The (Corvette Racing) program started as an idea in the fall of 1996," said Fehan. "My boss at the time was Herb Fischel [then Director of Chevrolet Special Projects], and Herb and I had always shared the dream of competing at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, knowing full well that the opportunity was probably never going to come." The scenery changed when the Corvette C5 was introduced as "it gave us a great opportunity to put in a proposal to the GM management to race this dynamic new car," Fehan pointed out.
"We spent 1997 and 1998 developing the race vehicle," and we "put together what we thought was a bonafide GT race car. Then, when we got to that point, we’d look at the road-racing world and see if there was a spot that we could plug in and compete," Fehan remembered. Happily, both the C5 road car and its racing counterpart proved massively successful which basically sealed the continuation of the program for decades, its position not shaken even by the 2008 recession. We shall see now if and how it survives the current recession although we’re optimistic that it will come out the other end even stronger. After all, a Corvette has never won at Le Mans and that’s something that must be on everyone’s bucket list, even GM’s.