Johnny O’Connell had the same reaction any red-blooded American would have after he captured the title in the 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 14. O’Connell, a Flowery Branch resident, stood on the podium in front of a crowd estimated at nearly 100,000 fans, listening as the Stars Spangled Banner played in his honor, acknowledging his team’s win in the GT1 class of the famed LeMans Series endurance race in France.
"At that moment it’s hugely emotional," O’Connell said. "Your emotions are running wild, because you’ve been tested physically like you never get tested anywhere else in the world."
O’Connell, along with Spain’s Antonio Garcia and Denmark’s Jan Magnussen piloted the No. 63 Corvette to victory, finishing 15th overall but first in class at the race in the south of France that draws upward of 500,000 spectators. With the win, O’Connell now stands at four wins at LeMans and 38 wins in the GT1 class.
"LeMans is the biggest sports car race in the world," O’Connell added. "It is like Daytona is to NASCAR, and the Indy 500 is to the Indy series."
"I think this win was a testament to Johnny’s skill and determination to win," Chevy Racing communications director Rick Voegelin said. "I think this win meant more for Johnny than any other."
O’Connell credits this year’s win at LeMans, making him the first American to win four times in the race, to the fact that his car ran without any major hiccups. The only challenge with the car was a slow fueling rig that caused minor loss of track time with pitting.
Keeping his Corvette manned was another issue. After ending a shift driving at 2 a.m., O’Connell heard the unfortunate news that Magnussen was sick, from an unknown cause, and not able to continue racing. That forced O’Connell and Garcia to double-up and keep the car on the track with just two drivers.
"I took IVs to make sure I’d be in my best shape to race," O’Connell added. "The hardest part of the race was only getting about 45 minutes of sleep the entire time."
O’Connell’s car took the victory over its sister Corvette car. The No. 64 Corvette driven by Oliver Gavin, Olivier Beretta and Marcel Fassler had a broken gear box, allowing the O’Connell to lead his team to victory.
"The competition between our two cars was great," O’Connell said. "We were between 15-20 seconds off of each other most of the race, running each lap like it was qualifying."
With this latest win under his belt, O’Connell is ready for the next challenge joining the GT2 classification. The Chevrolet will now field a GT2 vehicle, and will compete in the class against Porsche, Ferrari and BMW.
"Winning this year’s Le Mans was a great way to close out this chapter of Corvette racing."
This season O’Connell also reached another milestone, becoming the first driver to win the 12 Hours of Sebring race eight times, with his win on March 21 in Sebring, Fla.