For more than a decade, Johnny O'Connell was living the American dream – an American driver leading the charge in the factory Pratt & Miller Corvette team in the American Le Mans Series. Plenty of race wins, titles, and victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans followed.
After the 2010 ALMS season, Corvette Racing shook up its lineup and “Johnny O” moved onto a new venture within the GM family. He shifted to sprint racing, without co-drivers, in Cadillac's Pirelli World Challenge program starting in 2011. A year later, he's back on top with a GT class championship ahead of teammate Andy Pilgrim in a Cadillac 1-2.
“It's definitely a different mindset,” O'Connell says. “I loved my time at Corvette Racing, and I was able to have two great teammates in Jan Magnussen and Ron Fellows.
“But this is back to my roots, in not sharing a car. That aspect I really, really enjoyed. Then it's also about being able to tune the car exactly how I want without any sacrifice on driver comfort or car setup. There are perks involved.”
Cadillac has not come into PWC's GT ranks and swept the field as might have been expected given the resources. O'Connell rates the competition level in World Challenge GT on par with the top at ALMS, if not as deep. His other job since leaving Corvette is providing color commentary on ALMS TV broadcasts.
“The competition in ALMS goes deeper – as in, within GT right now, there's 8-10 cars that are a threat to be fast. In World Challenge, there's basically six to worry about. But those six are all top guys who could go into ALMS and be fast and competitive there.”
From O'Connell's perspective, the first year with Cadillac was a learning year and made greater strides come year two, the one just completed.
“The biggest thing was we were able to get into the wind tunnel, and we could spend a few days working to really increase downforce and those kinds of things,” he says. “The second is that we competed all of 2011 without ABS – and that so was a tradeoff. Budgets were tight, but our team manager Steve Cole had to make the decisions – where is the money best spent?
“Over the winter, we not only got wind tunnel time, but got the ABS as well. It was a remarkable addition to the car. Our lap times improved, and so did the raceability aspect. Those were the two most positive gains.”
Reliability has also been a strong suit. In two years, O'Connell completed all but one lap, with the only lap not completed when he needed a tire replaced at Mosport. The atmosphere at Cadillac Racing, too, O'Connell says reflects the early years at Corvette Racing when the legendary Corvette vs. Viper battles took place, and Corvette often came out ahead.
“A very cool aspect about where Cadillac Racing is right now, is that it has the exact same feel that Corvette Racing did in the early days when we were really winning everything,” he says. “There's a very healthy atmosphere within the team.”
Without having a co-driver to compromise on setup, driving position and data analysis, O'Connell says he finds more strength by pushing himself to greater results.
“Yeah I have a teammate who's very strong and very fast,” he admits. “But you get to a point in your career where outside influences don't matter as much as what you need to do within yourself, personally.
“For myself, it's every session getting everything I can out of the car. Then relating that information to my engineer. Does Andy push me? Yes, but so do the Volvos. It's your competition that is your motivating force, and drives you forward.”
O'Connell won three races in 2012 – the season opener in St. Petersburg following a penalty assessed to Porsche's Lawson Aschenbach – and swept the doubleheader round in Detroit. The Detroit wins were particularly important from a GM perspective.
“The Detroit weekend was spectacular – anytime you can win two races in front of the president of General Motors, you have to consider that a pretty good weekend and it's good for job security!” he admits.
“But starting out the season, winning at St. Pete, was key. We've had a consistent performance in getting the car on the podium. I've been lucky in the last two years to win five races, and to finish second and win this year was the proper progression.”
The pure anger of the Cadillac CTS-V is something else that's grown on O'Connell throughout the two years. Speaking from personal experience having done two ride-alongs, one with O'Connell at Sonoma, the ride in the car is spectacular. It's a true ground-pounder that O'Connell has enjoyed as much, if not more so than the ‘Vettes.
“It's a trip, isn't it?” he jokes. “I know JR Hildebrand was completely jacked up about it. Guys that have been in the two-seater IndyCar or Formula 1 car and they come up to me and are like, ‘Dude, this was so much better!'
“You get assaulted with the violence of the engine, and the braking, and it's a much more – I don't know if it's claustrophobic – but very cool deal.
“Once people do it, they can understand why we're half deaf.”
For more insights from this year's Pirelli World Challenge GT champion, check out O'Connell's stint as an online driving instructor on the SAFEisFAST website. One sample question from the mailbag is below.
As your career developed, how important was it that you had a background in open-wheel racing before switching to sports cars? My goal is to win Le Mans and a lot of people tell me that I should start out in formula cars, then switch to sports cars later. What is your take on that?
O'Connell's response: “Good question. If you think that you are going to have a career in prototypes then I would say yes, you need that formula car experience. Learning about downforce and the rear-engine platform would help you immensely. But if not, then the most important thing is track time. Most guys learn the most in go karting, and then carry those skills and racecraft from there, usually attending Bondurant or another school to learn the techniques used in cars.”