GM shaking off rust for 2000 Le Mans

On Motor Sports

June 13, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

EPERNAY, France -- Herb Fishel, the executive director of General Motors Motor Sports, sat looking out over the vineyards in the heart of French champagne country, talking about Cadillac's coming return to the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Yesterday, he watched as GM's Corvettes paced the start of the 67th Le Mans race that was to end early this morning, and through the days leading up to that start, he would study what it took to really win.

He'd take notes on inspections. He'd watch practices. He'd note fuel economy, the number of stops cars make, the number of driver changes and any other detail that might make a difference.

But, on this day, he was stopping to look at entertainment facilities for next year's Le Mans race, when Cadillac will be in the race, and talk about what it means for General Motors to be returning to the international endurance racing scene for the first time in 50 years.

"It just seemed a natural to come back," Fishel said. "The year 2000. Cadillac's 100th anniversary. Plus the new focus on Europe. It's making a tremendous statement for GM and our products on the European front. We know what Europeans appreciate in cars and all our competition have very substantial motor sports programs."

If an American car company is going to try to sell a car in Europe -- and GM is introducing a luxury Cadillac to the European market -- it had better show it can compete with such European cars as BMW, Porsche, Mercedes and Audi.

"This is going to present the company in a context in which it hasn't been presented before -- as an aggressive company seeking to demonstrate the powers of its engineering and technology."

The 24 Hours of Le Mans is the natural venue.

"But more than that," said Fishel, 58, "Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and, most recently, the Daytona 500 are the three most prestigious and significant motor sports events in the world. And next year, General Motors will be competing at all three."

Fishel, who speaks quietly of the passion he feels for cars, has spearheaded General Motors' planned three-year assault on the prestigious endurance race.

And, obviously, there are risks. What if the car doesn't race well?

"I don't have time for the risks," Fishel said. "I'm too busy thinking about all there is to gain. You know, in general, people involved in motor racing are positive, can-do people."

Fishel grew up among Winston Cup teams in North Carolina and became a race fan early on. And he has a firm belief that, beyond the stock car and open-wheel fans, there has always been a "cadre of sports car fans" in the United States.

And now, with this year's birth of the new American Le Mans Series, which takes in Le Petit Le Mans, near Atlanta;, Sebring; the 12-Hours of Daytona, and Elkhart Lake, Fishel said there will be even more interest.

Le Mans, Fishel said, has been intriguing him for years. He started reading about it in the 1950s and knows the history. He knows Cadillac was at Le Mans in that early rock 'n' roll decade and campaigned two cars with Briggs Cunningham and Phil Walters, who finished 11th overall, and with Sam and Miles Collier, who took 10th.

He knows the last American team to win Le Mans was GM's nemesis, Ford. It was 1967 and the legendary Ford team of Dan Gurney and A. J. Foyt won. They drove 2,630.197 miles at an average speed of 135.482 mph.

In 2000, it will be 33 years since Ford competed and won.

"Le Mans has always stood on its own," Fishel said. "Ford won it once and never felt it had to come back. It was like winning an all-day sucker."

Now it's GM's turn to try.

Fishel is overseeing the three-year program that will begin with a Cadillac competing in the Grand Touring (GT) category for the overall title, and a Corvette in the Grand Touring Sedan (GTS) competition.

There will be six drivers, who have yet to be named. A few in the running are Canadian sports car driver Ron Fellows, who has driven for GM for a number of years, and IRL driver Scott Sharp, who grew up in the sports car world.

But Fishel said he didn't think there would be a lot of "crossover drivers," like in the old days, when Gurney, Foyt and Mario Andretti took a break from their regular season rides to participate in special sports car efforts. Now, seasons are too long and schedules overlap.

But many drivers will want the chance, just as Fishel wants the chance for GM to take its best shot at the world's most challenging race.

"It's taken a long time for an American manufacturer to come back," Fishel said. "But I've always had a vision that said it was important to compete at Le Mans."

Winston cutback

Before the Winston Cup race at Michigan this weekend, the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. said its Winston brand won't renew its contract with the Travis Carter team of driver Jimmy Spencer for next season. The Winston brand does not plan future sponsorships of a Winston Cup Series car.

While there was some speculation that this is, perhaps, an early sign of Winston leaving racing all together, RJR's sports marketing enterprises president Cliff Pennell said the company is "fortunate to be the series sponsor of the largest and fastest-growing series in Motor Sports, and we simply want to focus our efforts."

The Winston Cup series will be in Pocono, Pa., next weekend.

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