The C5-R was the first factory supported Corvette racing car, and it won the 24 Hours of Le Mans three times.
During the first half of the last decade, a low silhouette racing sports car conquered not only American but also European racetracks. It was the Corvette C5-R, the first truly official racing effort of the famous American sports car. There is no official explanation for the change of heart from Chevy executives, after almost 45 years of complete disregard for racing Corvettes. However, the main objective for the investment was the desire to spread the reputation of the marque and improve sales.
The Corvette's choice for this assignment was a natural decision. However the claim that the racing program was also part of an international marketing and promotion effort is an exaggeration. Yes, the Corvette C5-R raced successfully at Le Mans, netting three class victories out of five starts, but the bulk of its racing efforts were done in the ALMS series. When the C5 Corvette arrived on the scene, everyone involved knew that when race-prepped it would be good enough to go head-to-head with the Saleen Mustangs, Porsches and Dodge Vipers in GT2/GTS sports car events in the North American theater.
Chevrolet Race Shop had an enormous task at hand to start from scratch by putting together a race team and design a GT2/GTS race car based around the production C5. Pratt & Miller Engineering was hired to develop and construct the chassis under the direction of chassis engineer Ken Brown. Katech Engine Building and Development would handle the engine side of the racing equation. By November of 1998, the group finished the test mule and was working hard to complete and shake-down chassis' #1 and #2 in time for their debut in March of 1999 at Sebring.
The actual race chassis' were built, sharing only basic key structural elements with the production road cars. A firewall was placed immediately behind the driver's seat in the cockpit, eliminating any rear visibility from inside the car. A large diffuser and wing were added to the rear, while a splitter and vents on the hood were added to the front. The distinctive front headlights were also replaced with protruding permanent units in place of the pop-up headlights on the standard production car. Upon its initial completion, the C5-R came with a 366 CID (6.0-liter) V8 engine.
This was replaced with a larger 427 CID (7.0 liter) engine several months later during the 1999 season and became the standard engine for the C5-R for the rest of its career. Katech Engine Development constructed the C5-R's engines, although they retained elements of the production LS1 units. The C5-R made its race debut in 1999 at the Daytona 24 Hours, finishing second in its class. Its main competitor in the GT2 was the Dodge Viper. During that season performances weren't brilliant and no wins were achieved, but gradually the team gained experience and the car was development into a more competitive configuration.
In 2000 results improved with two wins in ALMS races. The team also, for the first time, went beyond U.S. borders and participated in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, capturing 3rd and 4th places in the GTS class. 2001 was the first great year for the team and GM managers could see some return on their investment. The Corvette team won convincingly at La Sarthe, capturing the two highest steps of the podium and routing the opposition in the ALMS series with seven wins out of nine races. The Corvette C5-R was now firing all cylinders.
The C5-R retired from racing after winning the 2004 ALMS title with a total of 35 ALMS race wins out of 55 starts. In 2004 alone the car registered a 100 percent success record with 10 wins out of 10 starts, in addition to a class win at Le Mans, the last of them in Laguna Seca Raceway. "It's a very special year when you can go undefeated," said Doug Duchardt, GM Racing director, at the time. "This was an amazing effort from the beginning until the end. This is a great way to send out the C5-R."