Corvette Racing History
DETROIT-- Zora Arkus-Duntov was a racer first, Corvette chief engineer second. Had it not been for his vision, his boundless lust for competition, and his engineering genius, the Chevrolet Corvette of the mid-50's might have died on the vine.
Ford had a magnificent opportunity to seize the day when they introduced their V8-powered Thunderbird in 1955. That car had an aura of excitement about it, and it borrowed some of that zing from a Ford heritage that was rich with racing tradition.
Curiously enough, Zora Duntov had a good bit to do with Ford's racing success. In the 1940's, the Russian-born emigrant began putting his stamp on American motorsports when he developed and sold the famed Ardun cylinder heads for the Ford "Flathead" V8. The Ardun heads provided a higher compression ratio and made Ford's V8 a winner, on and off the track.
Zora saw the Corvette concept car at the 1952 GM Motorama exhibit in New York, and wrote a lengthy critique to Chevrolet's then-chief engineer, Ed Cole. Far from being insulted by this brash young upstart's numerous criticisms, Cole was impressed with what he read, and he managed to hire Duntov soon thereafter.
Zora didn't become Corvette chief engineer until much later in his career - the GM system of the 50's didn't include chief engineer titles for individual car lines - but he was the car's chief engineer in practice, almost from the beginning.
The Chevy Small-Block V8
Possibly unknown to Duntov before he came to work at GM was the fact that Ed Cole was busy developing a V8 engine that would turn Chevy's fortunes around. The years of Ford V8 dominance were about to come to an end.
Zora saw the new Chevy Small-Block's considerable potential almost instantly. The under-powered Corvette with its relatively anemic 6-cylinder engine and 2-speed automatic transmission desperately needed an injection of excitement, and Cole's V8 was just what the doctor ordered.
With Cole's support, Zora saw to it that the small-block got shoehorned into the engine bay of the 1955 Corvette. Then he started a process of relentless massaging and tweaking that goes on to this day. He may not have imagined that years later NASCAR engine builders would learn how to easily squeeze 800 hp or more out of the small-block, but he was on fire with the possibilities.
Corvette Goes Racing
During NASCAR Speedweeks at Daytona Beach in 1956, a trio of Chevrolet Corvettes set, prepped by the incomparable Smoky Yunick, numerous acceleration and speed records, and Zora shared driving chores with several other well-know racers of the day, including John Fitch and Betty Skelton. Zora personally set a new record for the flying mile, exceeding 150 mph.
Emboldened by this early success, Chevrolet mounted an assault on the Sebring 12-hour race the following month. In its first foray into the international racing scene Corvette put the world on notice that it was a genuine contender. The John Fitch/Walt Hansgen entry finished first-in-class.
By the end of that year the Corvette's reputation as a world-class sports car was cemented when "The Flying Dentist", Dr. Dick Thompson, drove his Corvette to an SCCA Class C Production national championship.
The race-bred components that resulted from the Sebring effort and Dr. Dick's championship SCCA season became Regular Production Options (RPOs) the very next year. It was part of Zora's genius that throughout his career he used racing as a device for improving the Corvette - for putting into practice on the showroom floor what was learned at the track. In 1957, an enthusiast could walk into any Chevrolet dealership and order a Corvette with options like fuel injection, heavy-duty brakes and steering components, and drive off in a car that was virtually race-ready.
In the ensuing years, with constant prodding from Zora, Corvette dominated American production-class road racing with victories at all of the major racing venues, as well as numerous regional and national championships.
Dr. Thompson says of Corvette's meteoric rise, "When I began racing my production Corvette in 1956, nobody else was racing Corvettes. By 1962, when I won my fifth national title driving a Corvette, they were completely dominant. Corvette drivers were competing against each other. If another production car was faster, we'd protest them because it was impossible to beat us legally. Corvettes were simply that good".
The Corvette Legend Grows
In 1960, team owner Briggs Cunningham took a trio of Corvettes to LeMans. In a remarkable demonstration, the #3 car, with John Fitch and Bob Grossman at the wheel, finished eighth overall - leaving in the dust many of the finest sports and all-out racing cars of the era. The Corvette's international reputation had begun.
In 1963, Chevy rolled out the Corvette Sting Ray, and it included the Z06 option package - with all sorts of race-bred goodies. As always, Duntov was intent on using what he learned at the track to improve the breed. Zora's vision was paying off, and Corvette sales increased eightfold between 1956 and 1966.
In 1967, Zora unleashed his awe-inspiring L88 engine. It transformed America's by-then premier sports and grand touring machine into a fire-breather. Competition-ready L88-powered Corvettes were winners in such diverse venues as NHRA and IHRA drag strips, road courses like Sebring, superspeedways like Daytona, and even the Bonneville Salt Flats, where a '67 L88 set the A Grand Touring record at 192.879 mph.
GM's decision to honor the Automobile Manufacturers Association's ban on competition might have taken open factory support out of the picture, but with encouragement from Zora, and a race-ready car right off the showroom floor, private competitors were having a field day.
The third-generation Corvette, introduced in 1968, continued the winning ways of its predecessors. In fact, Corvettes totally dominated in the late 60's and early 70's. Corvettes won sixteen SCCA national A- and B-Production titles, and finished as high as third overall at both Daytona and Sebring. In the late 70's and early 80's, Corvettes went Trans-Am racing, and though the competition was formidable, Corvettes continued to finish out front. By the end of the 1978 season they had earned the SCCA Trans-Am Category II title, and by the end of the 1979 season they did the same in Category I.
The Legend Continues
By the mid-70's, Zora Duntov was nearing the end of his Chevrolet career, and was no longer exercising the kind of control over the Corvette's destiny that he had in previous years. But Corvette's racing pedigree had assumed a life of its own, and the legend continued to grow.
A more exotic Corvette took to the track in 1980. The IMSA GTP Corvette, fielded by Chevrolet dealer Rick Hendrick, reached speeds well in excess of 200 mph by virtue of its 1,200-horsepower, turbocharged Chevrolet engine, and had Corvette fans cheering from coast to coast.
Racing at the same time were Corvettes of a different nature. Labeled "Showroom Stock", they were as close to a street-driven production car as imaginable. In the mid-80's, when new Corvette chief engineer, Dave McLellan rolled out the great fourth-generation Corvette, it was all over for the competition. Things quickly reached the point where the question wasn't which car would win, but which Corvette would win - a situation similar to the one described earlier by Dick Thompson. By 1987, after winning every SCCA Showroom Stock Series race (nineteen in a row), despite the best efforts of manufacturers like Porsche, Corvette was simply legislated out of the series.
Undaunted, Chevrolet launched its own race series, The Corvette Challenge. In 1988 and 1989, identically-prepared C4 Corvettes with some of the world's best drivers aboard competed for million-dollar purses, and produced some of the most thrilling showroom stock racing ever.
In 1990, McLellan, an avid student of Zora Duntov, realized his own high-performance Corvette dream when the incredible ZR-1 was introduced. With its high-revving, DOHC LT5 V8, and the growing sophistication of the C4 (thanks to lessons learned in showroom stock racing), the ZR-1 electrified enthusiasts.
On March 2, 1990, ZR-1 fired a shot heard round the world. Long-time endurance racer Tommy Morrison took a bone-stock ZR-1, and a small group of Corvette-experienced drivers (including three Corvette engineers), to Firestone's test track in Fort Stockton, Texas. There, the ZR-1 proceeded to shatter three world records, one of which had been on the books for almost 50 years. Morrison's ZR-1 set new speed and endurance records for 24-hours, 5,000 miles and 5,000 kilometers. A stunning achievement for what was then a brand-new car, and another notch in Corvette's motorsports belt.
C4 Corvettes, including the ZR-1, posted many wins during the '90s and were a staple at SCCA and other race series events throughout their existence. As was true from the beginning, the Corvette continued to be a car that weekend and professional racers alike could win with.
A New Legend Is Born
In 1992 Dave McLellan retired, and Dave Hill took over the reins as Corvette chief engineer.
Inspired by Corvette's reputation and heritage, Hill was determined to take the car to a new level, and with the introduction of the C5 in 1997 he and his team proved they were up to the task.
Under Hill a big part of the Corvette mission continues to be expanding the performance envelope - making the car a sure-fire winner on the racetrack. But Hill is also dedicated to the notion that the Corvette can be civilized and refined at the same time - a goal seemingly at odds with the slam-bang durability required on the track.
The C5 proved right out of the box that Hill's performance and refinement goals were not mutually exclusive. C5 Corvettes have already begun to dominate SCCA events, as well as other regional and local competitions, and the refined nature of the car has attracted thousands of new Corvette buyers.
In 1999, the Corvette hardtop was introduced. It is the lightest, stiffest and quickest member of the C5 family, and it is the platform upon which Hill and his team are building a new and exciting racing capability for Corvette.
So good was the car's potential, a GM Performance Parts package was immediately introduced to provide all of the race-proven bits and pieces necessary for a C5 owner to go Corvette racing at a relatively low cost. All part of the Corvette high-performance plan.
The Newly Introduced Z06 For 2001 Is Another Step In That Plan
Jim Campbell, Corvette brand manager and the man responsible for marketing the Corvette, actively participates in the plan with his support of the C5-R Corvette - a purpose-built GTS racer using an unusual number of production car components. It's spreading the Corvette name far and wide by taking on the world's best in the international endurance-racing arena.
It's not unusual for a new race team to take 2-3 years to get up to speed, but in its first season, (1999) the C5-R team competed in six races, finished third-in-class in its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, and went on to capture two second-in-class finishes at Sears Point and Laguna Seca. At this year's Rolex 24, the C5-R captured a remarkable second-place overall finish.
Against this background, Chevrolet is launching its 2001-model Corvettes, complete with more performance, more agility and more refinement. The new Z06 Corvette, offering a competitive ready-to-race package for hardcore enthusiasts, fits very well into the Corvette strategy, and continues a proud tradition of motorsports excellence first enunciated by Zora Arkus-Duntov so many years ago.