DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- The French ORECA team was intent on coming home with some silverware when it packed up to leave for the Rolex 24 At Daytona in 2000. The target was class victory in the GTO division and perhaps, thought team boss Hugues de Chaunac, even a place on the overall podium.
Yet it could never have imagined that its production-based Dodge Viper would prevail over the much faster prototypes and win the endurance classic outright. Sure, all the purebred racers went out or were delayed that year, but ORECA’s victory was much more than a case of last man standing at Daytona International Speedway.
ORECA’s V10-engined muscle cars were involved in a dogfight for class honors lasting the whole race. It just so happened that the confrontation between the factory Dodge team and Corvette Racing in the GTO class turned into the battle for outright victory come the race’s closing hours on Sunday morning.
And what a battle! The winning Dodge Viper GTS-R driven by Olivier Beretta, Karl Wendlinger and Dominique Dupuy only briefly had the luxury of a lead of a full lap, with the race still being fought out at breakneck speed as it entered its final hour. The Viper’s final margin of victory over the best of the Chevrolet Corvette C5-Rs was a shade over half a minute, at that time the closest finish in the history of the 24 hour-race at Daytona. It was also the first outright triumph for an American production-based car.
The victory was all the more remarkable because ORECA and Dodge weren’t even supposed to be going to Daytona. The team had mounted one-car campaigns at the 24 Hours in 1997 and ’99, but the race wasn’t initially on a program that centered on taking Chrysler, Dodge’s parent, into the prototype category at the Le Mans 24 Hours.
De Chaunac remembers getting a call from Chrysler motorsport boss Lou Patane in November ’99.
“It was a very late decision taken by Chrysler and Dodge,” he explains. “We got the green light only six to eight weeks before the race, so it was a very short timeframe. But at the same time we knew the car very well.”
ORECA already had two class wins with the Viper at Le Mans to its name, not to mention championship successes on both sides of the Atlantic. But from 1999, it had a new rival in the form of Chevrolet and the potent Corvette C5.R.
Three Vipers were ranged against two Corvettes at Daytona in 2000, and each of the five cars would take a turn in the class lead at some stage of a thrilling race. The GTO fight was initially distilled into a three-way battle between the winning No. 91 Viper, the No. 93 sister car driven by David Donohue, Ni Amorim and Jean-Philippe Belloc, and the best of the Pratt & Miller-run Corvettes shared by Andy Pilgrim, Kelly Collins and Franck Freon. The second ’Vette, in which Ron Fellows was joined by Justin Bell and Chris Kneifel, lost time after early delays.
Beretta drove a strong stint during the night to break away from teammate Donohue and the Pilgrim Corvette. It was the kind of performance that the Monaco driver would become famous for in a long sports car career, but it was all the more remarkable given that he was suffering from chickenpox.
“I was really feeling bad and had to call the doctor at 5 a.m., but when your car is leading, there’s no way you’ll give up,” he recalls. “It was a race I really wanted to win, and then there was the Rolex watch [the prize on offer to class and overall winners].”
Such was the rate of attrition among the prototypes that the best of the Vipers was sitting an amazing second overall just 10 hours into the race. The only car standing between ORECA and victory was Dyson Racing’s Riley & Scott, winner of the previous year’s Rolex 24.
That remained the case for another 10 hours until, with just four hours to go, its Lincoln-badged Ford engine dropped onto four cylinders. It was only a matter of time before it was overhauled by the best of the GTO cars.
Which brand of GTO car it would be remained in doubt, however. The challenge of the Pilgrim/Collins/Freon car had fallen away on Sunday morning, but the Fellows/Bell/Kneifel entry worked its way back into the picture as the race wore on. They’d lost time in the early stages, with two slow stops and then a refueling glitch that briefly stranded the car out on the circuit, but their flat-out pace and clever strategy had brought them back onto the lead lap.
What they didn’t know as they charged after the Viper was that its drivers were having to nurse fifth gear through the final couple of hours of the race.
“We had to be careful to manage each gear change when we went into fifth. It was an old H-pattern gearbox and, whenever possible, we would try to miss out fifth gear," says Beretta. “At the same time, the Corvette was running fast and pushing us hard.”
De Chaunac remembers being particularly concerned about the transmission as the race drew to a close. Reassurance came from the man out in the car on the Daytona International Speedway.
“Karl was in the car for the finish and we asked him about the gearbox with something like 20 minutes to go,” says de Chaunac. “His reply was, ‘Hugues, you sound stressed, don’t worry, everything is under control...”
It was, but only just. The Corvette crossed the line 30.879 seconds after the Viper, taking an overall victory that was as deserved as it was unexpected.