USA Today writes about O'Connell at Sebring Whether it's racing or being raucous, the 12 Hours of Sebring seems to suit Johnny O'Connell's fearless and freewheeling personality perfectly.
Friday, on the eve of America's oldest endurance race, O'Connell and Corvette Racing teammate Jan Magnussen will make their annual trip to Turn 10 and experience the fun-loving side of Sebring International Raceway that's as famous as its bone-rattling pavement.
"(We) always make a point of going for an hour during the day and saying hi to everybody and then escaping," he says, laughing. "Once, I went over to hang out and was there 20 minutes when a beer bottle went flying over my head. People were lighting couches on fire. I'm like, 'Man, a redhead shouldn't be here.' "
Sebring, though, has been the ideal track for the three-time American Le Mans Series champion. Of O'Connell's 38 career victories, a record eight class wins have occurred at Sebring, the legendary track ( built as a World War II training facility) whose first race was in 1950.
After several seasons dominating the GT1 class, Corvette Racing will enter the newly combined GT class with a C6.R pitted against sports-car icons Jaguar, Porsche, Ferrari and BMW, and O'Connell's experience could be the key to starting its stand at Sebring.
"On any great team, there's an anchor, and Johnny is that guy," says Doug Fehan, the team's program manager. "He knows the track so very, very well. When you have that, it transcends that one guy and makes a huge difference."
O'Connell, 47, is making his 20th consecutive start on the punishing 3.7-mile course, and the Flowery Branch, Ga., resident is a fixture in the ALMS for many other reasons. He holds series records for starts (102), podium finishes (79), top fives (92) and top 10s (99).
But there was a point at which O'Connell seemed destined for another famous track: Indianapolis. In the Indy Racing League's inaugural year of 1996, he made four starts with two top 10s.
He was headed toward a top five at Las Vegas when his rear suspension failed, flipping his Reynard-Ford at 200 mph and leaving O'Connell "trying to stay small" skidding with his head inches from the asphalt. After a wreck at Indy left him injured, O'Connell decided "I'd much rather have a long sports car career than a short open-wheel career."
Said Fehan: "Open-wheel cars were his first love. But if you're not on the right team, it almost doesn't matter how talented you are. I think that's why he came to us. He went with a team he thought he could have success."
O'Connell says success will come a lot tougher for one of General Motors' most iconic American brands, and he relishes the thought.
"Before we'd go into a season knowing there's a good chance we could win every race," he says. "It'd be much nicer Monday to say we beat Porsche and Ferrari. You want to beat your competitors in the showroom. That makes the guys in Detroit really happy." USAToday.com
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