When the terms “Chevrolet” and “racing” are mentioned together, most people think of the Corvette. Not only is it the most iconic muscle car ever, but it has also provided some of the most pivotal and influential moments in the history of Chevrolet racing. Here are just a few.
Corvette’s first Sebring race helps make Chevrolet America’s performance leader
In a gamble that even Zora Arkus-Duntov thought too risky, Ed Cole sent four Corvettes to the Sebring 12-hour endurance race in 1956. Overall, they fared poorly. But the efforts that went into putting them into the race had a monumental effect on the Corvette as a racecar, and on Chevrolet as a racing institution.
Team manager John Fitch’s pre-race testing produced numerous parts failures. Ad hoc attempts to deal with them on the fly rapidly evolved into a new quick-response system within Chevrolet’s engineering department. And, since Sebring rules forbade the use of non-production parts, the more robust components had to be immediately available through Chevrolet dealers, a situation that led to the creation of a new factory heavy-duty parts distribution system. Soon, Chevrolet was America’s premier source for race-inspired knowledge and hardware.
In March, 1957, Chevrolet was back at Sebring with a full-fledged factory effort introducing Ramjet fuel injection. Later that year, American auto manufacturers jointly agreed to shut the door on overt factory motorsports involvement. However, Chevrolet continued to quietly work with a select band of professional motorsport independents. The list included the legendary racecar builder Smokey Yunick, Jim Hall of Chaparral fame, and a young racer named Roger Penske.
With a few exceptions during the next quarter-century, Chevrolet officially wasn’t racing. But since its customers certainly were, it seemed fitting that the factory would help them remain competitive.
‘Never give up’ spirit generates admiration and respect for Corvette at 1960 Le Mans
From the beginning, the goal of Duntov’s 1957 Corvette SS program was an overall Le Mans victory, but that ambition became a casualty of the American auto industry’s 1957 racing ban. However, Duntov and Ed Cole found wealthy sportsman Briggs Cunningham a willing ally in a plan to capture a Le Mans class win for the Corvette in 1960. American road racing cars were still a curiosity in Europe then, so the four Corvettes appearing on the grid for the race were given considerable attention, but not much respect.
When John Fitch turned quicker lap times during the rainy night with Corvette No. 3 than cars bearing such noble marques as Ferrari, Porsche and Aston Martin, a few in the crowd took notice. At dawn, others, some of whom initially voiced surprise that any Corvettes were still running, also began to focus on the American cars.
As the race wound down, Corvette No. 3 was assured of a class win if it could make it to the end. Then, with team driver Bob Grossman at the wheel and less than four hours to go, the engine overheated. Rules prohibited adding fluids so late in the race. As spectators shouted encouragement and waved American flags, Grossman continued on, pitting often so his engine bay could be packed with ice.
Years later, Grossman would say the memory of the ovation he got on his last lap still gave him goose bumps. Five decades after its 1960 class victory, to the great delight of Le Mans spectators, the Fitch/Grossman No. 3 Corvette was back at Circuit d la Sarthe in 2010, with 93-year-old John Fitch at the wheel.
Shades of the ’50s: Corvettes rule in 1980s U.S. road racing
Rather than stand by in 1984 while privateers went road racing with their new C4 design, Corvette engineers took a page out of Ed Cole’s 30-year-old playbook and linked with top-flight independents, in a quasi factory competition effort that turned out to be almost too successful.
Teams led by Tommy Morrison, Kim Baker, Doug Rippie and John Powell participated in testing the cars for the Corvette racing group.
The result was a 19-for-19 win record in SCCA’s Escort Endurance Championship series, a clean-sweep performance that resulted in an invitation after the 1987 season for the Corvettes to race elsewhere. That led to the multi-million-dollar Corvette Challenge series of 1988 and ’89, which produced an extreme rarity at Chevrolet, a collectible batch of VIN-specific production C4 racers.
Corvette factory race team opens a new chapter in Chevrolet performance history
A turning point in Chevrolet’s approach to motorsports occurred in the late 1990s, when an unabashed Corvette factory racing team was established. Working with partners Pratt & Miller Engineering, Chevrolet stepped out from behind the curtain it had kept between itself and the racing arena since 1957.
Since 1999, Corvette Racing has garnered seven class wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and eight American Le Mans Series team championships. The group also booked an overall win at the Rolex 24 at Daytona in 2001, the year that an Earnhardt duo, Dale and Dale Jr., were co-drivers in one of the Corvette team cars.
Chevrolet V-8 race engine receives global recognition.
In a rare nod to the elegance of pushrod overhead valve engine design, the Corvette LS7.R engine that powered, with a perfect reliability record, the Compuware C6.R team to manufacturers, drivers and team championships in the 2006 American Le Mans Series, was named the Global Motorsport Engine of the Year.
Fifty key race engine engineers polled by England’s Race Car Engineering magazine made the selection. They praised the LS7.R engine for its compactness, simplicity, reliability and high specific output. Not coincidentally, those winning attributes have been inherent virtues of all Chevrolet small-block V-8s since 1955.
Magnificent Corvette effort produces 2011 Le Mans class win
Of all the great Corvette runs at Le Mans since 1960, none were more meaningful than the 2011 GTE Pro class victory, accomplished during Chevrolet’s Centennial year.
Team Corvette’s number 74 C6.R, driven by Jan Magnussen, Oliver Gavin and Richard Westbrook, was leading its class at dawn, when a collision put it out of the race. With seven hours to go, another of the Corvette Racing team’s C6.R entries, the No. 73 car driven by Olivier Beretta, Tommy Milner and Antonio Garcia, suddenly became the Corvette Racing team’s best hope for victory.
C6.R No. 73 was running a lap behind the AF Corse Ferrari that instantly became the frontrunner when their teammates’ car crashed. But, as the track became damp, the American car began gaining. Excellent pit stops helped put the Corvette within striking range, and with just two hours and 10 minutes to go, Milner slipped past the Ferrari, putting Corvette in the lead for the remainder of the race.
Counting Corvette Racing’s 2011 GTE Pro Class win, Corvette has won the coveted 24 Hours of Le Mans trophy seven times since 2001.