Long before the 8 victories at Le Mans and the 14 Championships won by the factory-based Corvette Racing team, there were only the “privateer” race teams campaigning Corvette. Because of a voluntary ban on racing by GM, it took people like Tommy Morrison, John Greenwood, Tony DeLorenzo, Jer Thompson, Doug Bergen, Bob Johnson, and others to build Corvette’s reputation as a competitor. Before all of them though, it was the Grady Davis Gulf Oil Racing Corvettes driven by Don Yenko and Dick Thompson, that were making history…
On June 11, 1955, Le Mans became the site of the worst disaster in motorsports history, when a car went off track into the crowd, killing 83 spectators and the driver. In response to this tragedy and a desire to avoid government intervention, GM joined others from the Automobile Manufacturers Association, and agreed to a ban on motorsports activity.
The desire to see and experience sports car racing continued though, so it was then that “privateer” racers took the wheel. Privateers bought their Corvettes from the dealership with whatever performance options they could get, and then modified them for racing. For teams that did well, they might begin to see “heavy-duty” parts show up from Chevrolet Engineering for “testing” on track.
Grady Davis, Vice President of Gulf Oil, was one such privateer. Using Gulf Oil research and development resources, and some clandestine heavy-duty help from Chevy engineers, he was able to give his drivers Corvettes that could win.
For drivers, he connected with Chevrolet dealer and racer, Don Yenko. Don was fiercely competitive, and a person who could understand what his cars were doing mechanically. Later he would become best known for his Yenko Camaros.
Dick Thompson, aka the “Flying Dentist” was on the team as well. Together Dick and Don began driving Corvettes for Gulf Oil Racing in 1961 and won the National Championship that year.
On February 11, 1962, Davis, Yenko and Thompson brought their Corvettes to the opening race in the World Sports Car Championship series at Daytona International Speedway. The two Gulf Oil Corvettes came in 1st and 2nd, with another Corvette privateer taking 3rd for a Corvette podium sweep. The team would go on to take the B Production class championship in 1962 and 1963 with Gulf Oil Corvettes.
This Croton watch was given to Don Yenko by Grady Davis after the 1963 racing season. The watch is engraved “To Don from Grady ‘63” on the back.
Author: Bob Bubnis, Associate Curator at the National Corvette Museum