Bill Tower’s Sebring 2019 Corvette Racing Seminar, Pt 1

With Special Guests; Gary and Robin Pratt, and Ron Fellows

Dateline: 12-24-20 – This story was first published in the June 2019 issue of Vette Vues Magazine 

Note: There was a major earthquake in the Corvette Community on December 16, 2020 when and several other Corvette and road racing sites reported that Pratt & Miller was purchased by the Oshkosh Corporation for $115 Million. Along with the buyout there was a major shakeup of key players in the Corvette Racing Team. In March 2019 Bill Tower presented his third Corvette Racing Seminar on the Friday of the 12 Hours of Sebring weekend.

Gary Pratt is a man of few words, so it was an honor to have him there. His wife, Robin Pratt was on hand, and Ron Fellows was his usual engaging, live-wire self. As Gary and Robin are now out of the Corvette race car building and managing business, the 2019 event offers some perspective on life inside the Corvette Racing Team. Here is Pt. 1 or 2.

An extraordinary thing happened last year for the Corvette Racing Team. Road Atlanta was the final race of the 2018 IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship season and it was a real nail-biter. Antonio Garcia is an outstanding team driver, very methodical, technical, and rarely makes mistakes. But mistakes happen. The team and spectators were shocked when Garcia’s No. 3 C7.R smacked the wall. It wasn’t a bad crash and Garcia was able to drive into the pits.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

The Corvette Racing pit team is arguably the best. In five-minutes and 36-seconds the pit crew replaced the front fender, nose, and engine floor; and sent Garcia back out on the track in hunt for another championship. When the checker flag came down, the Corvette Racing Team won its 13th IMSA Team Championship and 12th Driver Championship in 20 years of racing! And here’s the kicker; for the 2018 racing season, the Corvette Racing Team did not come in 1st place in a single race.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

How could that happen? Modern factory-backed racing is a team sport; it’s all about teamwork; as tight, efficient, and professional as any other team professional sports team. In October 2018 in the days after the Road Atlanta success, Bill Tower and I were talking about a theme for his 2019 Corvette Racing History Seminar on the Friday of the 2019 12 Hours of Sebring event. I said, “Bill, the Corvette Racing Team just won its 13 Championship in 20 years without winning a single race. Do you know anyone at Pratt & Miller that would be willing to talk about the team’s amazing 20 years of racing?” Bill responded, “Sure, I know Gary Pratt, I’ll call him to see if he’d like to be our guest.” And that’s how the event got started. But it got even better. Not only was Gary Pratt willing to be a guest speaker, Bill got Gary’s wife Robin Pratt (the Mama Bear of the team) and Ron Fellows. What’a score!

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Tower is good friends with Steve Hurley, owner of Stingray Chevrolet, in Plant City, Florida. Stingray Chevrolet has become one of the regional Corvette centers. Other Chevrolet dealers send their tough warranty work to Stingray. The dealership is beautiful and in addition to displaying the new Chevy vehicles, Hurley has numerous classic Corvettes, Camaros, and even a late model COPO drag racing Camaro.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Ron Fellows needs no introduction to the Corvette world. Fellows was part of the development team for the first Pratt & Miller C5-R in 1998-1999. He scored the first C5-R win at Texas Motor Speedway in 2000. Fellows then took the ALMS GTS Championship in 2002, 2003, and 2004. He was also part of the Corvette Racing Team’s six consecutive ALMS GT1 manufacturers championship for Chevrolet. To celebrate Ron’s accomplishments, in 2007 Chevrolet offered the Ron Fellows: Z06 Special Edition. This is a true collectible Corvette, as only 399 cars were built and each one was signed by Fellows on the leather-covered armrest. In 2008 Fellows opened the Ron Fellows: Performance Driving School in Pahrump, Nevada.

Gary Pratt is the Senior Vice President of Pratt & Miller Engineering. The company is involved in Motorsports, Defense, Mobility, and Innovation Industries. They are the driving force behind the Corvette Racing Team. In addition to the team’s 13 Championships, they have eight Le Mans class wins to their credit. Robin Pratt is the company’s official Ambassador, aka “Mama Bear”. Robin looks after the drivers and crew and handles the promotion of the team.

After Steve Hurley introduced everyone, Bill Tower got the seminar going.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Bill Tower: Twenty years of Corvette Racing. Let’s peal the onion back to see how we got here. But first I want to honor Gary and Robyn. After I started working for Chevrolet I was working on the big-block program that we were having problems with. The basic engine could make lots of power, but it was breaking everything. One of my first racing assignments was to work with Smokey Yunick. Not many got along with Smokey, and I certainly didn’t. We were working on a project using ceramic cylinder walls, but we had trouble honing the things. Finally, I got a set done and Smokey had my engine on the dyno and I asked, “What did you do?” Smokey said, “It’s my shop and I’ll do what I want, or get out!” We got the ceramic walls to work, but they were too expensive.

I was drag racing a Top Fueler on my own time and after I got out of that, I was assigned to work on some NASCAR projects with Papa Joe Hendricks in the early ‘70s. Because of the gas crunch, we were working on aero for the racecars. That was a lot of fun for me. Smokey used to tell us that the underside tells the topside what to do. He knew that the air that flowed under the car was more important than the air that flows over the car.

Steve Hurley Gary, with over 100 wins with the three Corvette Racing generation car (the C5-R, C6.R, and C7.R), plus eight Le Mans class wins, that’s very impressive.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Gary Pratt: Well it seems like just yesterday, 22 years ago, that we started with the silver and black car and a very small team. Sportsman racing was in an upheaval and we didn’t know where we fit in. Ron and GM were great. We were hoping for at least a three-year deal, but Jim Miller was a long-term thinker. We made a lot of mistakes but learned from them.

We started picking up some engineers and now we have over 175. I’m basically surrounded by people that are much smarter than I am; we have a great team. At Sebring, the talk was that Corvettes are fast, but they’re not reliable. Well, we changed all that. We also built a lot of friendships. Ron, how did you get started driving for us?

Ron Fellows: The first test was in the fall of ’97 and we couldn’t get out of our way! In the beginning, the rules were all over the place. We prepared all of ’98 and were ready for Daytona in ’99 and came in 2nd. Sebring was tough to win and we didn’t get that 1st place win until ’02. By then Corvette’s strength was durability and reliability.

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Gary Pratt: We had all kinds of problems. You know, it’s all about not making mistakes and having great personnel. There was a time in my life when I wanted to be a racecar driver, but instead, I got into building racecars. To bring things up to the latest car, the addition of Chevrolet engineers is what has kept up in our 5th year with the C7.R. It has all worked out great.

Steve Hurley Tell us about the transition from the C5 to the C6 platform.

Gary Pratt: We didn’t do as much wind tunnel testing with the C5 as we did with the C6. We started to have a continuity of the crew. So today we have some crew members that have worked on our cars for over 20 years. That really helps, but we have to keep the guys up to date.

Steve Hurley Robin, please share with us when you knew the team was something really special.

Illustration by K. Scott Teeters

Robin Pratt: Steve, it was at our first Sebring race. I told GM that we needed a poster, but they weren’t getting it done. Ron’s uncle was a printer, so we got him to print the poster and I paid for the poster myself. We were the only team at the race that year with a poster and we gave them all out; the fans loved it, and it showed us we were on to something. So, Sebring is my favorites race. But it hasn’t always been easy, lots of times we got out butts kicked, but we were always gentlemen about it.

When we had our first win at Texas Motor Speedway in September 2000, it was SO hot. It was 118-degrees at the track and even hotter on the track and in the car. Plus we didn’t have air conditioning in the cars yet. Ron came in for a driver change and when he got out he was wobbling! I thought he needed to go to the hospital, but he wouldn’t go. So we took off his uniform and poured cold water over him. (Ron is nodding his head and the crowd is chuckling; Ron said, “I was sitting there in my underwear!”). We just put the hose over his head and gave him Gatorade and bananas. Ron got back in the car and won the race. Very heroic! The Vipers didn’t like that very much.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Ron Fellows: At our 100th win event we all worked very hard. What I miss the most about not driving is the people. Gary and Robin have a natural charisma that draws people to them. It took us two years to get that first win at Texas, but the team was dedicated. One of the engineers told me, “Ron, the ambient air temperature at the track is 118-degrees and out on the track it is 168!” This was long before we had driver cooling. It was so hot it hurt to breathe. At one point I got a good lead because one of the Viper drivers passed out. At first, we weren’t going to do the race in Texas, but we talked the team into it.

Gary Pratt: We were running two cars in long endurance races. Andy Pilgrim was also driving in that hot race. Andy is a hot weather guy and when we did the same cooling thing to him he said, “What are you doing?”

Then in 2001, we had Dale Earnhardt and his son, Dale Jr. drive for us at the Daytona Rolex 24 race. It was fantastic. Jr. was just 19 or 20-years old, just another kid with his hat on backward and not much road racing experience. Dale “The Intimidator” pushed really hard in practice. One time the car skidded out and all four tires blew out.

Photo by Richard Prince

But Dale and Dale Jr. were part of the team and got up to speed with turning right and left a lot. Dale flew in his own guys to work in the shop and be part of the team. Everyone knows what he was like on the track, but he was also a great jokester.

Bill Tower: When Dale signed on, because of his celebrity status, he drew a big crowd. Gary and Robin, you were very patient with all that, and were there any fun times with Dale?

Gary Pratt: Well, one time we were giving out tee shirts. Dale and Dale Jr. were just hanging out with the guys; they were really part of the team; no pressure; no attitude. Their attitude was you’re only as good as your last race. Well, twenty years later, we’re still here.

We have a photo of Dale on the high bank with a BIG smile on his face. You can imagine him thinking, “I’m having a lot of fun!” We’ll all remember him forever. Dale Sr. and Andy Pilgrim got along great; both very low-key guys. No one took credit; it was all the team. Dale was the kind of guy you felt like you knew for twenty years after five minutes.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Bill Tower: Andy is such a talent. He could “get” what the car was doing and relate it back to the mechanics.

Gary Pratt: Ron was faster in qualifying. Andy was a very patient driver, not quite as fast. He liked to save the tires and finish.

Ron Fellows: Looking back, Andy and I were the senior members. Gary wanted to hire drivers in their mid-30s who would be team players.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Gary Pratt: When we hired Ron, he was testing for GTP Cadillac and for Corvette. Ron felt the Corvettes were more fun.

Bill Tower: I loved the Cadillac racing. Did you feel you had more business stability with the Cadillac?

Gary Pratt: We had no contract with Cadillac; it was race-to-race. The Cadillac people wanted to win the very first race. The Corvette people saw Corvette Racing as more long-term.

Bill Tower: I thought the Corvette program put a lot into the Cadillac.

Photo by K. Scott Teeters

Gary Pratt: We didn’t have much to do with the Cadillac program. Our small shop only had 6,500 square-feet and we had one track driver that would set up the tent. Everyone just wanted to help. – Scott

To read and enjoy Pt. 2 of this story, CLICK HERE.