Everything doesn’t always go according to script, and the Formula 1 US Grand Prix on Sunday, October 21, was not exempt. Points leader, Lewis Hamilton, having won five of the last six F1 races at the Circuit of the Americas, was the odds-on favorite to win the race and lock up his fifth World Champion title. Neither was to happen, at least not on this particular F1 race day in Austin, Texas. But it wasn’t the only thing on the track that day that didn’t exactly go according to plan, which is where this story makes a sudden hairpin turn into a story about 19 vintage Corvettes.
A few years ago, Shawn Jones, Event Coordinator and Managing Partner at SRE Promotions, secured the Circuit of the Americas (COTA) for an annual Austin area Corvette gathering. As a result, a highlight of the annual “Corvette Invasion” has become the three-hour track opportunity on the only F1 track in the United States. Because of his involvement with the track, Shawn approached track management a few months ago about the possibility of using Corvettes for the F1 Drivers’ Parade before the US Grand Prix race scheduled for Sunday, October 21. After discussions with F1 officials, Shawn received word from COTA that F1 wanted twenty 1st, 2nd, and 3rd generation Corvette roadsters for the pre-race parade!
Most of the invited Corvette owners were from the Austin area, but since I have been involved in a couple of national events with Shawn, I was also invited to bring my 1963 Grand Sport roadster replica. I didn’t have to think twice about accepting the invitation and was wildly excited about the opportunity to drive an F1 driver around the track in my Corvette. Hundreds of thousands of people would be at the race and millions would be watching on television. What an awesome opportunity to show off a bunch of beautiful vintage Corvettes!
A couple of weeks before the race, Shawn notified me that he had sent photos of each recruited Corvette to F1 officials for review. They were pleased with each submission, but due to licensing restrictions, they wanted me to remove the race livery decals on my Grand Sport. This wasn’t a big deal because some of the decals on my car had started to fade and I had already purchased replacement decals. I asked Shawn if I could keep the number 10 decals on the car. Shawn checked with the F1 officials and even the number decals had to be removed. Again, not a big deal, and I wasn’t going to let that keep me from such a rare opportunity.
The morning of the race arrived and all of the Corvette drivers gathered in a parking lot a few miles from the track for a 7:30 a.m. drivers’ briefing prior to a parade of Corvettes over to the track parking area where we would meet with the F1 officials. It would be there that we would learn which F1 driver we would be assigned for the drivers’ parade. Nineteen Corvettes had arrived, but Shawn had already been informed that four other cars were also brought in for the parade…two vintage Alfa Romeos and two vintage Ford Highboy Hot Rods. Evidently, the Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team would have refused to compete in the race if the Alfa Romeos were not provided for their drivers to ride in, and the Ford Highboys were for Hamilton and Vettel who were running first and second in the points standings.
If you know that there are ten F1 teams that enter two cars each, you know that there are usually twenty cars competing in each race. That means twenty drivers would need a car to ride around the track in and the F1 officials would be selecting the twenty cars from the twenty-three available options. Since the four non-Corvette options were already designated for specific drivers, that left sixteen remaining drivers for the nineteen Corvettes. During the drivers’ briefing with the F1 officials, we learned that one of the remaining three Corvettes would lead the parade with a photographer in the passenger seat while the other two would be designated as “Follow Cars” and would be used to pick up a stranded F1 driver in the event of a breakdown during the parade lap.
As the F1 officials worked to apply windshield banners, each with an F1 driver’s name, to the selected Corvettes, I waited for my banner with nervous excitement. By the time there were only two or three banners left to be placed, I was sitting on the back of the passenger seat in my Grand Sport just in case the officials thought a driver might not be able to sit there because of my car’s built-in roll bar. It wasn’t long before all of the driver assignments had been made and the lead official approached me and said, “You’re going to be ‘Follow Car #1’ because you have a roll bar.” What?! Had I really removed all of the race livery decals on my Grand Sport and hauled it almost 400 miles from southwest Oklahoma to Austin so that I could be drive a “Follow Car?” Well, I guess I had! While I was undoubtedly momentarily disappointed, I was still excited about getting to drive in the parade. And Shawn Jones had volunteered to ride with me to assist if someone had the unlikely misfortune of breaking down during the parade, so we were going to have fun taking it all in regardless.
At approximately 11:00 a.m., everyone fired up their cars to let them warm up before we lined up in order and caravanned from the parking lot to the paddock area. As we drove through a mass of spectators, heads turned to watch our beautiful Corvettes pass by. Fans walking through the tunnel were treated to the exhilarating sounds of Corvette engines revving as we each passed through the tunnel on our way to the track. Once on the paddock, we waited in line for the cue to proceed to the track.
While we waited, Shawn and I talked about how awesome it was that we were right behind the Ford that Lewis Hamilton was assigned to. I also took a few photos at that point and, while doing so, noticed that the blue ’72 Corvette that was three cars ahead had a low rear tire. It wasn’t flat, but was definitely low on air, and I pointed it out to Shawn. A few minutes later we made our way onto the track and down the start/finish straight to our designated positions.
A red carpet was soon rolled out and a multitude of reporters, cameramen, and photographers surrounded our cars. F1 drivers then began making their way down the red carpet to their designated parade cars. Some of the drivers were interviewed as they made their way to their cars while others were interviewed after they had taken a seat in their car. As Shawn and I watched a large crowd of reporters surrounding Hamilton’s Ford as he approached nearby, someone near the Corvette with the low rear tire shouted, “That car has a flat tire!” We could both see the tire at this point and it was no longer just low, but almost completely flat!
Shawn jumped out of my car and found the lead official in charge of the parade lap. Red Bull driver Max Verstappen had already taken a seat on the rear deck of the ’72 Corvette with the flat tire and several cars had already started off. In a flash, Shawn brought Max back to the two available follow cars and said, “Here are two available Corvettes and you can pick which one you want to ride in.” Max took a quick look at the both Corvettes and said, “I want THAT one! It’s awesome!” As Max opened the passenger door, I told him he could sit on the back of the seat if he wanted. He respectfully commented, “Are you sure? I don’t want my shoes to get your seat dirty.” I had already noticed that his shoes looked quite clean and said, “It will be fine and I don’t mind at all.”
It was almost time for us to head off, but before we did, Max was interviewed by an F1 reporter doing live coverage of the event as well as a reporter from Sky Sports. F1 officials were now motioning for me to get moving, so I fired up the L88 engine under the hood and that put an end to the Sky Sports interview.
The slow parade pace around the 3.4-mile track enabled me to soak it all in. A couple of minutes into the parade lap, Max moved down to sit in the passenger seat and said, “I’m just going to sit in the seat now and enjoy the ride.” We visited about my Grand Sport, the race, his time in Austin, our families, and the fantastic fans that were in attendance cheering for him as we made our way around the track. Making our way around the final turn back onto the start/finish straight, Max asked me if I could let him out at a convenient location to his crew. We shook hands and I wished him luck as he got out of the car and thanked me the ride.
I still feel bad for the owner of the ’72 Corvette who was robbed by a flat tire of his opportunity to drive Max Verstappen around the track. But like I said, everything doesn’t always go according to script and this wasn’t the only thing on the track that day that didn’t exactly go according to plan. Hamilton wasn’t able to maintain his pole position start and finished third behind none other than Max Verstappen. Max, who made the biggest leap from qualifying position to finish position this year, moved from 18th at the beginning of the race to a second place finish and was voted “Driver of the Day” by fans after the race. And maybe, just maybe, a parade lap in a Corvette built for racing, helped Max start the race off on the right foot…or in this case, on the right tires.
Watch the F1’s Parade Footage Here:
Photos by Jeremy Welborn and David Valdez Photography