June in Europe means LeMans, and so far this century, Corvette has been the dominant force in the all-important GT1 category. The effect in Europe has been electrifying. Ten years ago in the U.K., a mention of Corvette to a well-informed non-car person often elicited the response: "wasn't the Corvette the car that Ralph Nader wrote about in Unsafe at Any Speed?" and then you had to explain about the Corvair, which was actually a pretty good car and that maybe Nader should have attacked the similarly designed Porsche 911 instead. All that has changed after seven years of racing successes at Le Mans. Corvette has joined Porsche and Ferrari and Aston Martin in the public conscience as a Supercar brand that everyone has now heard of. In the press and on TV, the Z06 performance versions of the C5 and C6 have seen rapturous praise, burying forever the view of European journalists that American cars "are great in a straight line but won't go around corners."
Last year, I led a group of NCRS members from the U.K. and the Netherlands on a backroads route through France for the first-ever NCRS Flight Judging in Europe. It was a great week of activities that was crowned when Corvette once again beat a strong Aston Martin challenge in the last few hours and won the race. So for 2007, we assumed we only had to repeat the formula to enjoy another win for the Yellow team. As you know by now, the race did not work out like that at all, but more on that in a future issue.
Our two-day Anglo/Dutch road trip could not have been better. my wife, Polly, using the Michelin maps to find a new set of smooth fast and empty D-roads to enjoy with the top down, was assisted by a Tom-Tom portable Sat-Nav, which is the ideal backup on such a trip. A new dimension was added this year when we were invited to race our newly restored '60 Corvette racer-the JRG Special-in the Le Mans Legends one-hour endurance race. This prestigious event follows the morning warm-up laps of the 24-hour competitors on the morning of the big race.
I built the red-striped, gold C1 with well-known vintage racer Bernie Chodosh over the previous twelve months. Our aim was to present a '60 Corvette in just the way it would have looked at American East Coast SCCA events in the early '60s with original drum brakes, steel wheels, factory hardtop, and a well-tuned 283.
The almost-finished car was first tried out on a long road drive from London to the Silverstone circuit in April and performed well, but when checking it the next day, we found it had a cracked cylinder head, so this had to be changed and was the start of a series of delays. On a test day at Mallory Park circuit, part of the wiring loom was fried, and by the time it was rewired, we were loading the car for LeMans.
In the Legends paddock, the car looked superb and attracted major attention. As it was partly paid for by my fees from writing this column for Corvette Fever, I was proud to display the CF stickers on the rear fenders. The total value of the 60 vintage cars competing must have easily exceeded $50 million. in our class of 1956 to 1960, over 2,000 cc, there were two Aston Martin DBR-1s, a '60 DB4 GT, a Jaguar D-type, and a priceless '59 Maserati T61 Birdcage. We were parked next to three Ford GT 40s, a '67 Lola T70 Mk III, and a mouth-watering selection of Ferraris, all of them with real Le Mans history. My favorite was the '65 327 Chevy-powered Bizzarrini 5300 GT.
On Thursday night, we had a two-hour qualifying session just before the final night practice for the 24-hours cars; we established our tool trolley and crew on the pit lane in front of the garages of the number 63/64 Team Chevrolet C6Rs. There had been heavy showers all day, and the track was wet. After the first lap, Bernie came in complaining of a misfire above 4,000 rpm that was seriously limiting our speed on the long Mulsanne straight. So we diagnosed ignition problems and found a loose wire on the coil. The lack of track test time was starting to show. It is unfortunately true that no amount of road time will show up faults that quickly become apparent when a race car is used in anger on a closed track; you just cannot sustain 6,000 rpm in top gear on a public road.
Attracted no doubt by the bellow of our open exhausts in front of his team pit, Corvette chief engineer Tom Wallace now appeared, accompanied by long-time Bowling Green plant manager Will Cooksey, and wanted to know all about the car. I was embarrassed by our predicament, but Tom knew exactly what we were going through because he is a weekend racer himself, and within moments we had several Pratt and Miller mechanics leaning over the front fenders and helping us with their tools.
With their assistance, we were able to complete enough laps to qualify, and I was gratified to see how many of the other cars had failed out on the circuit, but I suspected that our problems were deeper than just ignition.
Read what happened in both races in the next issue of CF.
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