Corvette Racing boss Doug Fehan always wanted to bring America’s sport’s car to Le Mans with a modern, full-factory-backed effort to challenge the Europeans. After all, Le Mans is where legends are born, a pinnacle in motorsport where the world’s best come to compete, making it a fantastic place to test the mettle of the latest race-spec Chevy Corvette. Of course, just making it onto the grid at the Circuit de La Sarthe, let along succeeding there, is an enormous undertaking, with innumerable obstacles and setbacks along the way – including winning over the French people themselves.
Following a successful (albeit limited) run in the 1999 race season, Corvette Racing convinced General Motors to support a bid for the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans. To put two cars on track, Corvette Racing would need to juggle an incredible array of logistics and expenditures, including the transportation of some 50 tons of equipment and an army of staff and personnel. Even small things, like European power adapters and equipment fittings, added to the complications.
Getting the Chevy Corvette racing machines up to spec was a nightmare in and of itself, with the Corvette Racing Team going back and forth with the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (A.C.O.) just to get approval for entry. Engineers and mechanics poured over the rule book to get everything up to spec, only to have the A.C.O. reject the bid and outline further changes and modifications. After several rounds, the A.C.O. finally gave the team the green light.
Despite the perceived “international tensions” between the Americans and the French, Fehan assured the GM brass that it was all part of the process, a paying of dues, as it were. The effort that went into bringing the new American racers to Le Mans was justified by the prestige of the event. Although the Chevy Corvette nameplate (and Americans in general) didn’t enjoy the same status as some of the competing European brands, Fehan knew that a good performance in France would be huge for GM.
However, part of the battle would be for the hearts and minds of the international racing fans. But the Corvette Racing team had a plan for that too.
Fast forward to scrutineering for the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans, a public event where the A.C.O. checked over the race cars amid throngs of fans and photographers.
As the Corvette Racing team congregated for a publicity shot, team members quickly donned cowboy hats, much to the amusement of onlookers. As it turns out, the French had a soft spot for the old spaghetti western movies, and loved seeing the Americans dressed up alongside the brash new Corvette racers.
The team then swapped the cowboy hats for berets and fake mustaches, causing some of the photographers to laugh so hard, they could barely get a stable shot.
After the costume stunt at scrutineering, the Corvette Racing team opened the barriers and invited kids to sit in the driver’s seat, a break from tradition that typically put the cars well out of reach from your average fan.
The icebreaker worked, and pictures of the team wearing cowboy hats went international. America’s sports car was suddenly a fan favorite overseas.
The Corvette Racing team finished second and third in class in the 2000 24 Hours of Le Mans, only to return the following year for a class win. Numerous successes would follow, and in 2008, the A.C.O named a corner on the La Sarthe circuit after the Chevy Corvette.
And it all started with a few cowboy hats.