Opel OPC Race Camp: Baptism of Fire in The "Green Hell"
Twelve months ago, the eight OPC Race Camp finalists were simply engineers, students, sales representatives or dentists. Following their baptism of fire in this year's 24-hour Nürburgring race, they are now also true racing drivers. They can look back on an exciting year of castings, racing driver trainings and increasingly challenging motorsport races. Professional racing car driver Manuel Reuter, who developed the project with Opel, trained the team from the very first day.
Alain Visser, Chief Marketing Officer, GM Europe, is enthusiastic about the future of this unique motorsport project. "The concept's success, from both a motor racing and a public interest perspective, has shown that the Race Camp is a motorsport venture with good prospects for the future. The concept has already become an Opel trademark." OPC Race Camp Project Leader Manuel Reuter is also pleased with the outcome: "If you look at what our eight candidates have achieved in such a short period of time, there can be no better endorsement for the OPC Race Camp concept. Our 24-hour race experiences also confirmed this. Despite constantly changing weather conditions, our guys were able to clock the fifth or sixth-fastest laps overall. The kind of accident or technical problem we had is just a part of motor racing." It's too bad that because of these setbacks we didn't get to complete the whole 24 hours. Nevertheless, our drivers have everything it takes to continue their participation in motorsport events." Former Opel works driver Joachim Winkelhock, who also worked on the project, says: "The road our candidates had to take is truly remarkable. We have to remember the fact that these people had almost nothing to do with active motorsport a year ago." Friends of motorsport that would otherwise experience car racing from the sidelines at best can rest assured: this is just the beginning for the OPC Race Camp.
OPC Race Camp: Motor racing dream began in spring 2007
The idea of the OPC Race Camp was born because the dream of being a racing driver often dissipates due to lack of sponsorship and a need for high investments. Its launch in the spring of 2007 broke new ground for Opel in the world of motorsport. The principle behind the event: instead of engaging experienced and well-known racing drivers in the 24-hour Nürburgring race, offer ambitious drivers with no motorsport experience the opportunity to discover their motor racing talents through a rigorous talent scouting process and numerous qualification stages. Those who have the necessary abilities then receive professional instruction to hone their skills and prepare them for competitive motor racing. Opel provides the professional training, cars and necessary organizational support for the Race Camp.
All expectations for the OPC Race Camp were exceeded when over 18,500 people applied to join. By using a random generator, 500 candidates were invited to come to the Opel Test Center in Dudenhofen. This number was then reduced to just eight through the four talent stages: several racing training exercises, racing driver license tests, competitive racing in the "Nürburgring Circuit Racing Challenge" and "Nürburgring Endurance Championship", as well as fitness tests and a winter training camp. Following a year's intensive training by Manuel Reuter and Jockel Winkelhock – both former Le Mans and 24-hour Nürburgring race winners – the grand finale of the first OPC Race Camp took place last weekend. The best eight, five Germans, two Austrians and one Swiss, proved their racing skills and qualified for the ultimate challenge: participation in the legendary 24-hour Nürburgring endurance race.
Best eight candidates on the grid at the Nürburgring
The Germans include Alex Plenagl, a professional alpine skier and member of the Bavarian State team from Munich/Bavaria, economics student Benjamin Scharf from Netphen/North Rhine-Westphalia, Christian Bach, automotive development engineer from Rechtenbach/Bavaria, Dr. Peter Pangert, a dentist from Rudolstadt/Thuringia and Christian Bollrath from Loehne/ North Rhine-Westphalia, who currently works in Atlanta, Georgia as managing director of a lighting systems manufacturer.
The OPC Race Camp team members from Austria are Stefan Leitner, a vehicle technology student from the Technical University of Graz, and Martin Karlhofer from Voitsberg, who has just successfully completed his studies in mechanical engineering and machining technology at the HTL Bulme engineering school. The Swiss member rounds off the OPC Race Camp Team: Kurt Wenger from Binningen, a sales representative for a Dutch high-tech bicycle manufacturer.
Wrapped in the unique atmosphere of the world's largest motorsport event, with around 220,000 spectators and 220 participating teams, the best eight OPC Race Camp candidates experienced all the highs and lows of motor racing. Bach, Karlhofer, Leitner and Wenger, with start number 105, were in the fiercely competitive "SP3-T" class (turbocharged vehicles up to two-liter displacement). In their 300 hp Astra OPC, which had been converted for racing by Opel's partner Kissling Motorsport, they fought their way to second place in their class, and to a 16th place overall, after an engine failure brought their brilliant efforts to a halt around 4:30 a.m. Until then, they were head-to-head with motor racing professionals such as Hans-Joachim Stuck and two-time world rallye champion Carlos Sainz. The second Race Camp car, driven by Bollrath, Pangert, Plenagl and Scharf, was involved in an accident shortly before the end of the second training session on Friday, resulting in a rollover at the end of the circuit's fastest section, called "Döttinger Höhe." The car was so badly damaged that it could not be repaired in time for the race. Dr. Pangert, who was driving the car at the time of the accident, was taken to hospital for a precautionary check-up. He was released that same weekend, and is doing fine.
In addition to the usual legion of brand fans, Opel added a special touch to the 24-hour race by providing a large group of OPC Race Camp tents, which mainly housed OPC clubs from Switzerland, Austria and Germany. The Opel team was also visited by a host of celebrities including Linda Bresonik, German national football player from SG Essen-Schönebeck, WBA middleweight boxing world champion Felix Sturm, professional motorcycle racer Alex Hofmann, as well as actors Shary Reeves, Thomas Darchinger, Timothy Peach, Ralph Herforth and Zora Holt, all of whom were intrigued by the Race Camp concept.
The participants themselves were all very pleased: "The Opel Race Camp is a great idea," says Kurt Wenger. "For me, it was the chance to make a big dream of mine come true. What I learned over the past months from these professional racing drivers, and the experiences I've had – it's just been fantastic. Aside from the motor racing aspect, I've also learned a lot about people, close co-operation and team sport. I will definitely try to keep my skills honed and do more motor racing in the future. I used to know Manuel Reuter and Jockel Winkelhock just from the media, but now we are a team. The professionalism I've seen during the Race Camp – the organizational details, the entire preparation program, and the work with the engineers and the media – has really impressed me."