The 2012 Rolex 24 at Daytona, Jan. 28-29, marks a half-century of top-level sports car racing on the high banks and twisting infield of Daytona International Speedway. We're counting down to that milestone with a series of stories looking at some of the drivers, marques and stories that have shaped those 50 years. This week, a late entry for ORECA's Vipers delivers a deserved, but surprise win in 2000.
Viper's French Connection Delivers a Victory
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].”