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Performance with a French Accent: Chevy's Legacy at Le Mans

DETROIT - For more than 40 years, the boom of Chevrolet V-8 engines has resonated on the Mulsanne Straight, rumbled through Arnage and rocked Tetre Rouge. While Chevrolet is widely recognized as America's brand and the most successful manufacturer in American motorsports history, Chevrolet has been well represented in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Over there, Chevrolet performance has a French accent at the world's most famous endurance race.

The lure of Le Mans has proven irresistible for Chevrolet racers. The recent success of Corvette Racing's fleet of all-conquering Corvette C5-Rs at Le Mans was presaged by generations of Chevrolet-powered racers who raced production Corvettes, hand-built prototypes and home-built specials at the Circuit of the Sarthe. Chevrolet has a rich racing heritage in Europe that spans the spectrum form Briggs Cunningham's trio of solid-axle Corvettes and John Greenwood's bewinged warriors to Jim Hall's innovative Chaparral coupes and Billy Hagan's NASCAR-inspired Camaros. The following are highlights of Chevrolet's competition legacy at Le Mans.

1960: Cunningham Corvettes

It was Briggs Cunningham, a wealthy sportsman racer, aspiring car manufacturer and defender of America's Cup, who fulfilled Zora Arkus-Duntov's dream of Corvette competing at Le Mans. Cunningham fielded a trio of Corvettes at the French classic in 1960. Wearing the blue and white colors that traditionally identified American entries in international racing, the Team Cunningham Corvettes were driven by three pairs of racers: Cunningham and Bill Kimberly,

Dick Thompson and Fred Windridge, and John Fitch and Bob Grossman. Duntov was listed as a reserve driver (he had previously posted a class victory at Le Mans in a Porsche), but Zora did not drive a Corvette in his beloved race.

When the 55 entries were lined up for the traditional Le Mans according to engine size, the three Cunningham Corvettes occupied the first three spots with their 283-cubic-inch fuel-injected small-block V-8s. A fourth Corvette entered by airline pilot Lucky Casner under the Camoradi USA banner and driven by Lou Lilley and Fred Gamble rounded out the Corvette quartet. Team Camoradi's sponsors were chiefly race fans who yearned to see an American entry in the French classic.

The Cunningham Corvettes were in near-stock trim, with larger gas tanks, quick-fill gas caps, Halibrand magnesium wheels, oil coolers, driving lights, racing seats and heavy-duty suspension components among their limited modifications - an expression of Duntov's philosophy of using racing to develop high-performance components for future production vehicles.

Kimberley crashed Corvette No. 1 during a heavy rainstorm at the three-hour mark; the car was destroyed, but the driver escaped injury. Corvette No. 2 lost time when Thompson had to dig it out of one of the numerous sandpits that lined the circuit, and then the overtaxed engine expired spectacularly in the 20th hour with Windridge at the wheel. Meanwhile, Fitch and Grossman continued to circle the immense course, running as high as seventh during a cold and rainy night of racing. In the waning hours of the race, the engine overheated and lost coolant but regulations prohibited the team from refilling the radiator. Yankee ingenuity triumphed when team manager Alfred Momo ordered the crew to pack the engine with ice from the team's catering tent. Driving at reduced speed, the ice-cooled Chevy small-block powered the Cunningham team to an eighth-place finish overall and first in the big-bore GT class - the best finish by a Corvette until the arrival of Corvette Racing's C5-Rs. The Fitch/Grossman Corvette averaged 97.92 mph and completed 280 laps. The Camoradi Corvette was running 10th at the finish with a 96.3-mph average, but did not complete sufficient distance to be classified as an official finisher.

1966-67: Chaparral Coupes

Few cars have captured the imagination of motorsports aficionados as completely as the legendary Chaparral race cars from Midland, Texas. Owned and campaigned by Texas oilman Jim Hall, the Chaparrals enjoyed clandestine technical support from Chevrolet R&D. After Hall and his Chevy connections made the white Chaparrals the cars to beat on American soil in the U.S. Road Racing Championship and the unlimited Can-Am series, Hall set his sights on Europe's classic endurance races. With innovations such as fiberglass chassis, semi-automatic transmissions and moveable wings, Hall went to France to take on an armada of Ford GTs.

Hall's first foray to Le Mans was in 1967 with the Chaparral 2D coupe powered by a 327ci small-block and driven by Phil Hill, America's first Formula One champion, and Grand Prix ace Jo Bonnier. The car qualified 10th and retired after eight hours with a dead battery (Le Mans rules prohibited replacement).

The following year, the venerable 2D was retired in favor of the radical 2F, Hall's technical tour de force. The 2F sported a fiberglass chassis, a fuel-injected aluminum 427ci big-block Chevy V-8, and a driver-operated high-mounted rear wing that could be moved to a low-drag position on the straights and a high-downforce position in corners. Hill returned to Le Mans, teamed with Mike Spence, and the pair qualified the 2F second on the grid. Bruce Jennings and Bob Johnson drove a second identical Chaparral 2F.

The Johnson/Jennings entry lost time when Johnson opted for the escape road at Mulsanne corner, but Spence took the lead after avoiding the chaos of the Le Mans start. Johnson and Jennings retired after 10 hours, while Hill and Spence were slowed when the wing locked in the high-downforce position. With Hill running third at 5 a.m., the crew spotted transmission fluid during a routine pit stop, the product of a damaged oil seal. Three hours later, the car returned to battle with a rebuilt transmission, but ultimately retired after 18 arduous hours - the last Chaparral to run at Le Mans.

Chevrolet engines were a popular choice of prototype racers at Le Mans. Like their hot rodding counterparts in America, boutique car manufacturers recognized the versatility and performance of Chevy's V-8 powertrains. In 1966, a Chevrolet-powered Iso Rivolta driven by Edgar Berney and Pierre Noblet finished first in the over-5000 cc class, averaging 171.673 kph. The following year the Iso Grifo Prototipi of Regis Fraissinet and Jean de Mortemart came in ninth overall and first in the over-5000 cc class with a 5.3-liter Chevy small-block. The late '60s saw several English-built Lola T70 Mk III coupes take on Le Mans with Chevy power, but lack of development and testing produced early retirements.

1966-73: Sting Rays at Le Mans

Chevy's second-generation Corvette made its Le Mans debut in 1967 with Corvette legends Dick Guldstrand and Bob Bondurant sharing the driving duties. Entered by Dana Chevrolet, a Southern California dealership with an ambitious performance program, the red, white and blue coupe blitzed the Mulsanne Straight with big-block horsepower at 171 mph. The L-88 engine was not up to the task for the entire 24 hours, however, and the Corvette's day ended shortly before the halfway point. Today Bondurant uses Corvettes in his high-performance driving school.

European teams kept Chevy in the game at Le Mans during the late '60s and early '70s. Henri Greder was the mainstay of Corvette's racing programs at Circuit of the Sarthe. Greder and Bob Lutz (now GM vice chairman, North American product development) convinced Swiss racing patron Georges Filipinetti to campaign a two-car Corvette team at Le Mans in 1968 under the Scuderia Filipinetti banner. Greder and Umberto Maglioli dominated the competition in the GT class until the sixth hour when engine problems caused an early retirement, while teammates Sylvain Garant and Jean-Michel Giorgi lasted 14 hours until they were sidelined in an accident. In 1969 Greder and Reine Wisell were leading the GT class at the 16-hour mark but again retired; the pair went on to win seven of the 11 events that made up the 1969 Tour de France with their big-block Corvette. The car was then sold to Jean Claude Aubriet who entered it four more times in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from 1970-73. Greder and co-driver Marie-Claude Beaumonth drove the venerable Corvette to consecutive wins in the over-5000 cc class in 1973 and 1974. The Greder Corvette's six consecutive years at Le Mans set a record for appearances by a single chassis.

1972 marked the first appearance of Corvette icon John Greenwood at Le Mans. Teamed with comedian Dick Smothers, host of the popular Smothers Brothers television show, Greenwood's Corvette was painted like an American flag and raced on his sponsors' street radial tires. The Greenwood/Smothers entry qualified 38th and retired after 10 hours, lasting one hour longer than its team car driven by Alain Cudini and Bernard Darniche. Greenwood returned the following year with another two-car effort that included Chevy dealer Don Yenko, but without success.

When Greenwood came back to Le Mans in 1976, he was loaded for bear. In the intervening years he had developed a succession of outrageous wide-body Corvettes for SCCA and IMSA road racing competition. Affectionately dubbed the "Batmobiles," Greenwood's flared and spoilered creations were loosely based on production third-generation Corvette frames and infused with liberal doses of fuel-injected big-block power. Greenwood's machines were reported to have a top speed of 240 mph at Daytona, a level of performance that inspired Hot Rod magazine to proclaim them the fastest Corvettes in the world. (Gary Pratt, architect of the championship-winning Pratt & Miller team that campaigns Corvette Racing's C5-R coupes, was instrumental in building the Greenwood Corvettes.) Again wearing a patriotic American flag paint scheme, Greenwood harnessed the prodigious power of a fuel-injected big-block Chevy V-8 to qualify ninth. A brand-new fuel cell failed after five hours, ending the Greenwood chapter at Le Mans.

1981-82: Good Old Boys at Le Mans

Chevy's next competitive entries at Le Mans came from an unexpected quarter: NASCAR. Billy Hagan, who would later become the car owner for Winston Cup champion Terry Labonte, entered his Stratagraph Camaros in the road racing classic in 1981-82. Looking more like refugees from a short-track circuit than international endurance racers, Hagan's Camaros were driven by stock car standouts such as two-time Chevy Winston Cup champion Cale Yarborough and Carrera Panamerica winner Hershel McGriff. Hagan and IMSA road racer Gene Felton teamed up to post a best finish of 17th in 1982 in their third-generation Camaro.

1994-97: Callaway Corvettes

Corvette specialist Reeves Callaway was the force behind a series of rebodied fourth-generation Corvettes that competed at Le Mans. A Callaway Corvette was the fastest qualifier in the GT2 class in 1994, but was disqualified after 11 hours when it was refueled on the course. The following year, a Callaway Corvette finished ninth overall and second in the GT class with Indy car racer Johnny Unser sharing the driving duties, while a twin car from Agusta Racing came in 11th. The success of the production-based C4 Callaway Corvettes foreshadowed the arrival of the C5-R Corvettes that now dominate the GTS class at Le Mans.

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