Corvette Legends of Le Mans

Photo: Richard PrinceThe 24 Hours of Le Mans on June 12-13, 2010 will mark the 50th anniversary of Corvette’s first participation in the world’s most prestigious sports car race.

1960 Le Mans: Cunningham Corvette

  • 283 cid V8 producing 290 horsepower
  • Rochester mechanical fuel injection
  • 4-speed manual transmission
  • Positraction limited slip differential
  • Heavy-duty brake and suspension package
  • 37-gallon fiberglass fuel tank
  • Halibrand center-hub quick release magnesium wheels

Briggs Cunningham, a wealthy sportsman racer, aspiring car manufacturer and defender of America’s Cup, 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 class victories at Le Mans in a Porsche), but Zora did not drive a Corvette at Le Mans.

Photo: Richard PrinceWhen the 55 entries were lined up for the traditional Le Mans start according to engine size, the three Cunningham Corvettes occupied the first three spots with their 283-cubic-inch fuel-injected small-block V8s. 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.

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 it was mired in one of the numerous sandpits that lined the circuit, and then the overtaxed engine expired in the 20th hour. 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. Team manager Alfred Momo instructed 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 large displacement (4.0-5.0 liters) GT category – 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 tenth at the finish with a 96.3-mph average, but did not complete sufficient distance to be classified as an official finisher.

1967 Le Mans: Dana Chevrolet Corvette

  • 427 cid V8 producing 560 horsepower
  • 4-speed close ratio manual transmission
  • Positraction limited slip differential
  • Heavy-duty brake and suspension package

Photo: Richard PrinceChevy’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.

1973 Le Mans: Greenwood Corvette

  • 427 cid V8 producing over 600 horsepower
  • 4-speed close ratio manual transmission
  • Positraction limited slip differential
  • Heavy-duty brake and suspension package

This 1969 Corvette race car was one of three team cars sponsored by BF Goodrich during 1971-73 to showcase their new line of T/A Radials. The No. 49 competed in the “Triple Crown” of sports car racing: the 12 Hours of Sebring, 24 Hours of Daytona, and the 1973 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The three team cars (Nos. 48, 49 and 50) were owned and campaigned by John Greenwood. The No. 49 was driven by top road course drivers of the period including John Greendyke, John Greenwood, Robert R. Johnson, Dick Smothers, and Don Yenko.

The car’s first major win was in the GT class at the 1972 Watkins Glen six-hour race driven by Greenwood and Smothers. In 1973 it was campaigned at the 12 Hours of Sebring and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Photo: Richard PrinceThis 1969 L-88 Corvette was used by John Greenwood as a PR car initially. When the No. 50 car was heavily damaged in a crash in 1972, he was required by his contract with BFG to field two cars. He then converted the No. 49 to a race car, installing a notched rear end, quick-replacement radiator, quick camber adjustment, and a new Chevrolet ZL-1 aluminum 427-cubic-inch engine producing over 750 horsepower at 6500 rpm.  The car race on shaved radial street tires.

It was restored to concours condition in 2008 by Corvette Repair of Valley Stream, N.Y., and it made its debut at The Quail Motorsports 2008 event where it received “Best in Class” for Sebring Race Cars. The car also received the prestigious Amelia Award at the 2009 Amelia Island Concours. The car was awarded the American Heritage Award in 2009, the highest award for non-street Corvettes by the National Corvette Restorers Society.

The car has a complete ownership history, John Greenwood’s letter of authenticity, and original bill of sale. This car retains its original rear clip, all gauges, mirrors, dash, T-tops, removable radiator brackets, Minilite wheels, trailing arms, camber adjustment screws, etc. The car is currently owned by John Thompson of Atherton, Calif., the fifth owner of the car.

Photo: Richard Prince2011 Le Mans Tribute Corvette Z06

  • 7.0-liter LS7 V8 producing 505 horsepower
  • 6-speed manual transmission with launch control
  • Aluminum frame structure and magnesium engine cradle
  • Z07 Performance Package with Brembo carbon ceramic brakes, Michelin PS2 tires, and Magnetic Selective Ride Control
  • Carbon fiber fenders, floor panels, front splitter and rockers

Chevrolet created this special Corvette Z06 – the first 2011 Corvette manufactured with VIN 001 – to celebrate Corvette’s 50 years of Le Mans racing heritage. GM Design Center created a modern version of the No. 3 Cunningham Corvette that won the large displacement GT class in the 1960 24 Hours of Le Mans. Wearing the traditional white and blue American racing colors, this unique Corvette Z06 was equipped with special features at the Corvette assembly plant in Bowling Green, Ky.

Photo: Richard PrinceThis one-of-a-kind Corvette will become the property of the National Corvette Museum at the Labor Day Hall of Fame event.

All Photos Courtesey of Richard Prince Photography

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