A lot of sports lay the claim “we do this all for the fans, because if not for them, blah, blah, blah”. Yes, we get it, if we don’t pay to see you, you don’t get paid. What if I told you there was a racing series that is TOTALLY dedicated to giving fans the BEST experience possible. This day in age, it sounds impossible right? Wrong. The American LeMans Series is truly all about the fans, I got to experience a little bit of the “About the fan” atmosphere at the 2011 12 Hours of Sebring. The experience we received at this years 12 Hours of Sebring is what really stood out the most. Ya the racing in the GT class, between the Rahal Letterman Lanigan BMW Z4 GTE, the SRT Viper GTS, and the Falken Tire Porsche, was cool and all, but my 5 year old son Akira’s time at the Corvette Racing hauler will stick with me forever.
On Friday, around lunch, the American Lemans Series holds an autograph session. I had two Transporters I had made for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing and Rebellion Racing that I wanted to get signed, amongst just getting some other autographs. I thought about going to Corvette to get A.J. (Short for Akira Jitaro, gee can you tell where the shorted name came from?) some autographs but since they were set up next to Audi And their line was fudging huge I didn’t get in line. So, as the autograph hour dwindled down, Melanie (my wife) convinced me to get in line for A.J.. While we waited in line, a guy from the countries largest Corvette dealer in New Jersey, asked A.J. if he wanted to get his picture taken with the Corvette drivers. A.J. being shy shook his head no then hid behind me. I prodded him to do it he kept saying no. Then the guy asked if he wanted to look at the car up close. A.J. smiled huge and shook his head yes. They lead us into their paddock setup in between their two transporters, where they work on the cars, they let A.J. look inside it and look around at it. We then get back in line and they hand A.J. a hero card. The drivers start signing it and they notice A.J. is wearing his Corvette Racing shirt. They start giving him high fives and asking him who’s going to win on Saturday. Poor A.J. looked at me and stared blankly at them. I told Akira “Dude! your wearing their shirt! That’s who’s going to win!” A.J. tells them “Corvette!” they give him high fives again.
We get to the end of the line and the last driver goes to pass A.J. his hero card and a lady steals it off the table as he goes to reach for it. The C.R. (Corvette Racing) rep at the end looked at A.J. looked at the lady as she walked off shook his head and told the last driver to put A.J.’s name on the poster in front of him. They hand it to A.J., and A.J. looks at me and says, “but but I wanted that card”. I take back to the front and explain to the other C.R. rep there that someone stole his card off the table right in front of him. Instantly Tommy Milner, asks what’s his name, then signs and put’s a message on it. We go down the line again, get to the last driver Antonio Garcia, he slides the card to A.J. and ANOTHER lady tries to take it. Garcia slams his hand on it takes it from the lady, she starts complaining that she waited longer than the kid, he looks at her and said “This is his it is personalized for him”. He then slides it to A.J. again. I thanked him profusely then we went on.
That night before dinner I sent Tommy Milner and Corvette Racing a message via Twitter thanking them for what they did for A.J. and now he’s a fan for life. He responded “No problem! Enjoy the race tomorrow! Hopefully we’ll have a victory lane hat for Akira.” I told A.J. and he got excited, then all day Saturday he kept asking “Where’s Corvette”. With 10 minutes to go in the race Milner brings the car to 1st. Keep in mind at 1pm-2pm they were in 7th. Oliver Gavin, Richard Westbrook, and Milner fought back to catch the Risi Compitzione Ferrari 458. A.J. had fallen asleep in turn 17 right before he made the pass. Corvette went on to win the GT class at Sebring. We stood in victory lane to watch the ceremony and the ALMS TV crew starts filming A.J. sleeping in the wagon, and photographers start taking pictures of him sleeping. A.J. still doesn’t believe us that they filmed him sleeping. The next morning I send Milner another message about A.J. cheering them on until a couple laps before the pass for the lead, when A.J. fell asleep. When I told A.J. that Corvette had won when he woke up, his first question after dancing around was “Where’s my hat?” Milner sends me a message a couple hours later asking for our address so he can mail A.J. one of his victory lane hats!
It was a great weekend, had by all. I can’t say enough about the Corvette Racing crew, their drivers Milner, Gavin, Westbrook, Jordan Taylor, Jan Magnussen, and Antonio Garcia. They are a class act and a wonderful group of people. Wish them the best of luck in the 2013 ALMS season and at LeMans.