Thursday
Nov192009

Sports Car Insider Five Questions: Doug Fehan

Little did our SCi Five Questions’ guest know he’s had a bullseye on his back since I first started thinking about this deal. And why not? He’s charismatic, motivated and knows how to run a race program. Doug Fehan is not only well liked within the racing community, he’s won the American Le Mans Series “From The Fans” award so many times, they might as well call it the Doug Fehan Award.

Doug Fehan is responsible for assembling the most successful team in the history of the American Le Mans Series. Corvette Racing’s stable of drivers has excelled on the international sports car racing stage with a combined 14 American Le Mans Series championships, 17 Le Mans victories and 23 class triumphs at Sebring.

In 2009, Doug took Corvette Racing on a unique two-class challenge. The team started the season with a three-race final run with the dominating C6.R GT1. They ran at Sebring, Long Beach and then set out to reclaim GT1 class honors at Le Mans. Which they did.

Upon returning from Le Mans, the Pratt & Miller Corvette GT2 C6.R debuted at Mid-Ohio. This latest Corvette joins a GT class already populated by BMW, Dodge, Ferrari, Ford, Panoz and Porsche. The two-car factory effort continues campaigning on cellulosic E85 as it enhances the Series’ platform of alternative fuels.

Working in conjunction with GM Racing engineers and Pratt & Miller, Corvette Racing has scored 78 victories, including an overall win in the 2001 Daytona 24-hour race, six wins in the GT1 class at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and seven class wins at the 12 Hours of Sebring. The program’s eight consecutive manufacturer championships for Chevrolet put an exclamation point on Corvette Racing’s success under Fehan.

But enough of being nice to him… let’s plug in the hot seat and see if we can make him crack.

So, Doug, thanks for taking the time to play Five Questions. Let’s get to it.

JT: For nine months out of the year, as the head of Corvette Racing, you’re perhaps one of the most visible non-driving participants in the American Le Mans Series. Give us an idea what the off-season means to you from the standpoint of personal time and also how it impacts your role with the Corvette Racing Program.

DF: Actually, in many ways, the off-season is more hectic than the regular race season.  As an example, we have a ton of data and organizational stuff to go through, budgets to finalize, sponsorship deals to bring to fruition, convincing upper management that they got their money’s worth and, of course, some testing.  In addition, I do several speaking engagements at universities and various seminars, gigs at the Corvette Museum, some tours of our race facility, a lot of print interviews and at least one trip to Paris to serve on the FIA GT Technical Working Group Committee.  Mix in the holidays and Sebring is here before I even realize the season ended.  I do always try to work in a couple of personal travel days, usually around Thanksgiving and Christmas for some golf.  And I do find time in each day to work out as a stress reliever. But, as you can see, Corvette Racing is pretty much my life’s major interest and I like it that way.

This season saw the team make the switch from GT-1 cars to the new GT-2 program. What were some of the logistics involved… you know, things the average fan wouldn’t think about? Did it impact your business model, budgets, sponsor relationships?

This past year was arguably our most rigorous since the inception of the program.  We ran a couple races at the beginning of the year to stay sharp for our last GT1 appearance at Le Mans.  During that same time we were totally engaged in the design, build and testing of the new GT car, knowing we would debut at Mid-Ohio when we got back from Le Mans.  Just to challenge us a little more, GM declared bankruptcy.  Our charge at that juncture was to make certain our Corporate ROI (return on investment) was as strong as we could make it.  The guys who came in to look at all aspects of GM gave everything the Company was doing an extremely critical look/see.  All our hard work up to that point paid off and, fortunately, we made the cut.  Obviously, we were then faced with a reduced operating budget and we went to work to maximize what could be accomplished under those economic conditions.  All the sponsors were great during the entire process and all are returning. I think that entire process simply further galvanized an already very sound program.  We continue to focus on technology transfer (race car to production cars) and, of course, marketing. 

And on that same line, how did the drivers react to the change? Was there any disappointment where they viewed the class change as a step-down… or did they see it as a positive and look forward to seeing multiple competitors next to them on the grid?

You know, I really dislike the “step down” assessment that people sometimes attach with what we decided to do.  That is the primary reason I lobbied so hard to eliminate the GT1/GT2 nomenclature in the ALMS…it is very misleading.  In many ways, the GT2 (and I will only use that term once here) is a far more challenging design endeavor than the GT1 car.  The rules are far more limiting which puts great pressure and importance on all the little things you do and I believe that is actually what we do best.  Now, to answer your question, the drivers were totally geeked to get the GT car up and running.  They wanted competition and they knew where we would find it.  The ALMS has done a fantastic job of fostering and promoting GT racing and we are all very excited to go head-to-head with great manufacturers like Porsche, Ferrari, BMW, Jaguar, Ford and Panoz.

You’ve been at this most of your life; Talk to us about the personal balance you’ve accomplished. I mean, you’re always upbeat. You’re always even keeled when discussing situations with the media…  both positive and negative. And, you seem to be enjoying yourself more than most… how does that work?

I am actually flattered you would think that. Introspectively, I would have to say the answer is fairly simple.  When you love what you do it shows. Additionally,  there is no substitute for experience. Trust me, when you have done this as long as I have, you have made every mistake possible.  The idea is to make each one just once and hope you are around long enough that everyone eventually forgets about it!!! 

Driver egos. I recall reading Pat Riley’s (Miami Heat) comment that coaching a basketball team in this day and age, isn’t about coaching a team… it’s like managing 12 corporations. Chuck Daly (former Piston’s coach) countered with, “this is the only job where you get to boss around a bunch of millionaires.” With the talent pool at Corvette Racing, how do you manage the mix? I mean, these are highly competitive and motivated individuals… and it doesn’t appear they’d be easily ranked 1-6 in skills or desire. Knowing at some point (like Mid-Ohio 2008) they still have to compete against each other, how do you keep them together as a cohesive group without dulling their desire to win.

Interestingly enough, other than at the beginning of the program, I have never had to go out and ask a driver to be part of our team.  Each and every one of them came to us looking to be a part of what we do.  I think that provides a pretty sound foundation for moving drivers from the “ME” world to the “WE” world.  I suppose there are those who may consider me a hard-ass, but I always try to be a fair hard-ass and I think that garners respect.  I also think, regardless of their experience and skill level, they have all learned from what we do here and what we have accomplished…together…as a team…as a family.  They know, in the end, if they listen, work hard, follow directions, good things will happen.  They are all great guys and we are very fortunate to have them.  I would put them up against anybody.  I guess we pretty much have done that, haven’t we ☺?

If you weren’t doing this, what do you think you’d like to do? And, do you think you’d attain the same success?

Outside of this career, I think I am essentially unemployable…and I have tested that at times!!!   But, seriously, what I would like to do???  I actually have a laundry list of stuff!!!  I have a Builder’s License in the state of Michigan…love construction and design.  I enjoy public speaking and mentoring young people.  Of course the absolute ham that I am, I really enjoy broadcast and would welcome the opportunity to do a little TV/radio work.  At the close of business, anyone who gets to do what they love will always be a success.  I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by GREAT people…they are the successful ones…I am just the front guy.  I embrace and thoroughly enjoy that role.

And by the way, these were extremely cogent questions… you are a pretty damn talented guy yourself!!!!

I think you’re just saying that out of relief… next time we’re gonna come at you hard… see if we can’t make you cry. Seriously, thanks for taking the time… I’m well aware of your schedule… so please know I appreciate it. Good luck with next season… I’ve got a hunch we’ll know where to find you when the checker flag drops on 2010 Petit Le Mans.

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