Chevy’s Legacy at Le Mans: Performance with a French Accent
Corvette’s 45-Year Heritage at the 24 Hours of Le Mans
LE MANS, France – This year’s edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, to be contested on June 18-19, marks Corvette’s 45th anniversary at the Circuit of the Sarthe. In 1960, the thunder of a GM small-block V-8 engine first rocked Tertre Rouge, resonated on the Mulsanne Straight, and rumbled through Arnage. While Chevrolet is widely recognized as an iconic American brand and the most successful manufacturer in American motorsports history, Chevrolet also 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.
Corvette Racing’s recent success at Le Mans was presaged by generations of Chevrolet-powered drivers who raced production Corvettes, handbuilt prototypes and homebuilt specials in the legendary road race. Chevrolet’s rich racing heritage in Europe spans the motorsports spectrum form Briggs Cunningham’s trio of solid-axle Corvettes and John Greenwood’s wide-bodied winged warriors to Jim Hall’s innovative Chaparral coupes and Billy Hagan’s NASCAR-inspired Camaros. The following are highlights from two memorable years for Corvette at Le Mans.
1960: Cunningham Corvettes
It was Briggs Cunningham, a wealthy sportsman racer, aspiring automobile manufacturer and defender of America’s Cup, who first fulfilled Zora Arkus-Duntov’s dream of seeing Corvettes 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 in his beloved race. A fourth Corvette entered by airline pilot Lucky Casner under the Camoradi USA banner rounded out the Corvette quartet. Team Camoradi’s sponsors were chiefly race fans who yearned to see an American entry in the French classic.
When 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. The cars were in near-stock trim, with larger gas tanks, quick-fill gas caps, 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.
Corvette No. 1 crashed 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 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. 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 small-block V-8 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.
1967: Seven Liters 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 big-block Stingray blitzed the Mulsanne Straight at more than 170 mph.
Thirty-eight years later, driver Dick Guldstrand returns to Le Mans this year with Corvette Racing. No one can appreciate the changes that have swept through the sport more than this legendary Corvette racer.
“I was the manager of the Dana Chevrolet high-performance center at the time,” Guldstrand recalled. “It all started when L-88 Corvettes won their class at Daytona and Sebring. Can you imagine the publicity if Corvette had won Le Mans, too?”
“We were really on a high, and of course Duntov was beside himself. He’d call me every day and say, ‘Deek, we got to do this, and this, and be careful of the aerodynamics.’ There really weren’t any aerodynamics; we screwed a piece of aluminum underneath the front end to try to keep the nose down!”
“That car was blindingly fast on the Mulsanne Straight,” Guldstrand remembered. “I’d done quite a bit of high-speed driving at Daytona and Sebring, but nothing like that long straightaway. We were flat-out for two or three minutes, and it was mind-boggling. You’d get down to the kink at the end of the straight, and then go over a bump. You had to be perfect to go through there wide open. The first time I drove it, I used up all of the road and some of the dirt getting through there.”
Today GM Racing’s Le Mans effort involves dozens of team personnel who support the twin C6.R Corvettes. A complete 18-wheeler and 60,000 pounds of equipment accompanied the race team to Le Mans – a far cry from the way it was in 1967.
“We flew the car to the Orly airport near Paris,” Guldstrand remembered, “and when we unloaded the car off the plane, all we had for support was a diesel truck and a four-door Opel – not even a trailer. So Bobby Bondurant and I filled up the gas tank, jumped into the race car, and drove it the whole distance to Le Mans!”
“The car had open sidepipe headers, and red, white and blue paint, so people certainly knew we were coming. The exhausts were blowing straw and dirt 30 feet in the air, and the crowds were getting bigger at every village we drove through. We got to Chartres, and damn near broke the stained glass windows out of the cathedral. A gendarme was standing on his little box in the middle of the square directing traffic, and he gave us a military salute as we went by, just as the exhaust about blew him off the stand.”
“By the time we got to Le Mans, we had a following that was staggering,” Guldstrand said. “The French loved that crazy red, white and blue American car. Unfortunately, the car was much too light for its class because we’d stripped it, so we had to fly the bumpers, the grille and all of the stuff we’d taken off over to France and bolt them back on the car before we could qualify.”
The Stingray’s near-stock 7-liter (427-cubic-inch) L-88 big-block engine was not up to the task for the entire 24 hours, and the Corvette’s day ended shortly before the halfway point. Ironically, the Corvette C6.Rs that will race for Corvette Racing’s fourth Le Mans victory on June 18-19 are also powered by 7-liter V-8 engines – although these powerplants are based on the GM small-block V-8 engine family that includes the 7-liter, 505-horsepower production LS7 that powers the 2006 Corvette Z06 supercar.
“We were leading our class by miles when the engine broke a wrist pin,” Guldstrand explained. “We knew that was a weak point and we were trying to take it easy, but it didn’t survive. Despite how our Le Mans adventure turned out, those were wonderful times with really great people. That’s really what kept Corvette’s racing spirit alive.”
Release Date: June 13, 2005