We asked regular historic-Corvette racing front-runner Eric Dolson what his advice would be to an enthusiast thinking about going vintage or historic racing with a Corvette. His anwer, "Don't!" He then went on to explain, "a period Corvette is a handful at the best of times, and is way too powerful and way too fast to be anyone's first race car. At 160 mph, a lot can happen very quickly. The way to approach vintage or historic racing would be to start off with an MG Midget or something similar with no real power at all, and to learn to race before going anywhere near a track with a Corvette." He has a very good point.
Watching Eric driving Yellow Jacket-his black-and-yellow '69-is a useful lesson in itself. For a start, it's easy to watch him because he's about five hundred yards out in front of anybody else. He's smooth, and you can hear his throttle opening progressively as he comes past the apex of a corner and boots it for the next straight. When the next few Corvettes come along, they look OK going into the corner, but then you just hear a "blap roar" as they floor it and watch the rear ends wriggle as the tires scrabble for grip, and then the visceral thunder as a dozen full-race V-8s open up and hurtle past you down the next straight. That's why Eric is five hundred yards in front and cruising; having 550 bhp under the hood helps too, of course.
If you start racing with a Midget, you have perhaps 95 hp to play with, and you have to learn how to make the most of it. You have to judge how late you dare brake into a corner, and you have to keep it silky smooth, as you're balancing on the edge of grip all the time. If you don't keep it smooth and retain as much momentum as possible, you're going to have to recover all that lost speed by pushing the little engine flat out and waiting for the speed to build up again while everybody else overtakes you. So Eric's advice is sound: budget some time and money to learn to race before you learn to race a Corvette. It's possible to muddle through and to go quite fast by using a Corvette's power just to point and shoot, but that way you'll be in the middle of the pack at best and in the barrier at worst.
Can you afford to race a Corvette? If you stick to vintage racing, there's more of a possibility than with racing any modern Corvettes. Ken Petersen races the red C2 pictured, and candidly says it costs him about two grand for every weekend's racing, provided that nothing goes wrong with the car. Ken also keeps a few spare engines on hand, which is quite a commitment. however, he maintains that racing a historic Corvette is better than drinking or chasing women, and that he can always go out to his garage and just look at something gorgeous.
Almost nobody in the vintage-racing scene tries to drive their race car to the circuit, race it, and drive home again. It's regarded as courageous and eccentric if you do. That means you need a rig comprising of a motorhome or pickup/camper and a trailer for your race car. You'll need something like seventy gallons of race gas and maybe 300 gallons of pump gas for the motorhome, depending on how far away each circuit is. I don't know what gas is going to cost by the time this is printed (about $3 a gallon), but this is not a poor man's sport, whichever way you look at it. Race tires are another thousand bucks a set, and some people with big power and big credit cards will trash a set of sticky race tires in each of the four races of a weekend. If an engine lets go, you can add another twenty grand to that weekend's bill. However, somebody like Eric will get two seasons out of an engine and three or four races out of a set of tires because he's using them to the optimum and not to the maximum.
On the up side, the better of the vintage racing series organizers are keen to keep the spirit of the sport intact, and that means you won't have to keep up with the big spenders by fitting hugely expensive twelve-pot AP Racing calipers and rotors the size of garbage can lids on your car. If you do, you'll be excluded. The same applies to suspension-if your car came with a transverse leaf spring, you'll be running a transverse leaf on the track, albeit flatter and stronger than stock.
When it comes to repairing breakages or damage, you're in luck with a Corvette compared to most vintage and historic racing cars. replacing a GM differential pinion is cheap and easy compared to that of a '63 Alfa Romeo, and if you have an incident you're looking at $2,000 to replace the Corvette front end panels rather than $20,000 for an E-type front end. Bodywork has to be built and rebuilt to original spec, so while a Corvette owner can take advantage of cheap and easy GRP repairs, all the bodywork on an E-Type must be steel.
Choosing the right Corvette to race is a matter of picking which series you want to enter, and looking at the rules carefully to pick the most competitive year and model. There is an option that allows you to pick a "point-in-time" and claim, for example, that your '66 car is prepared to FIA rules for the '67 season, so careful research could get you an advantage.
There can, of course, be other reasons for picking a particular model-Eric Dolson built a '69 Stingray roadster largely because he thinks it's one of the most beautiful cars ever to put rubber on the road. He also likes lots of 160-mph wind in his face, although, aerodynamically, the gain from removing the windshield was probably balanced by the loss of the roof and the ducktail. The open roadster cockpit must be left open according to the rules, so a hard tonneau cover isn't an option. Eric's roadster started off as a small-block, automatic T-top, with the top and ducktail cut off with a Skilsaw and replaced with roadster panels, and the drivetrain changed for a big-block and a four-speed. It was influenced by the '60s/'70s Owen Corning SCCA big-block A Production cars, but was mostly built to emulate the V.V. Cooke big-block Corvette based on the converted 350 that used to beat Porsches and Jags, and was known to many as the "Winningest" Corvette. That concentration on handling, rather than power, has paid off-much of Eric's commanding lead is down to good smooth driving, but he couldn't do it without first getting the car right.
In the Pacific Northwest, many people race with SOVREN, the Society of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts (www.sovren.org). Picking the best Corvette for their race series would require a study of their rules, and also period FIA rules which can apply as well or instead. In essence, you're choosing between Corvettes built up to 1962, which are in the Vintage group, and then from 1962 to 1969, which are in the Historic group. You can use a '70 car if its design continued unchanged from 1969, but it has to comply with '69 specs. There were no pre-'62 Corvettes in sight last summer, which suggests they're not that competitive. The Vintage Sports Car drivers' Association (www.vscda.org) is another such organization with different rules.
To some extent, preparing the car is kept from being madly expensive because you can only use mostly period-correct parts. You can't have titanium, Heim-jointed, inboard-suspended A-arms; you can only have stock steel Chevrolet pressings. You can, however, use an aluminum cylinder block and heads because they were FIA-approved and used when the cars were raced new. Eric runs an aluminum ZL-1 big-block engine, and says it balances the car beautifully. However, he also says that the iron block is stiffer and can be more powerful, and that several other drivers have achieved a very similar weight balance even with an iron engine, so an aluminum big-block is not a guaranteed winner.
Cheating is rewarded by a DNC notice (Does Not Comply), which says publicly that you've been cheating. Repeated significant cheating gets you sent home. However, it's fair to say that most people have their own creative ways of massaging several of the rules up to a point. For instance, you can't help noticing that many of the SOVREN race cars have rollcages that contribute substantially to torsional rigidity. Given the agricultural design of the earlier Corvette chassis, this change would be of considerable help in keeping the wheels parallel. Preparation also involves a cutoff switch, fire extinguisher, trim removal, harnesses, a fuel cell, firewalls, a tow cable attachment, a wired fuel cap and oil drain plug, and a paint job-these cars all look pretty good and are required to look good.
You can't add flares or chop the bodywork, and your tires should stay within the wheelwells. They also have to be vintage-style racing rubber, so although they're grippy, they're also bias-belted or cross-ply, and you're going to spend quite a lot of your racing time sliding gently sideways. The good thing is these tires start to let go progressively and relatively early, so the slides can be controlled. Seriously grip race tires hang on much longer, and then spit you off into the kitty litter much harder when centrifugal force finally overcomes the friction coefficient of the tires, or when somebody bumps you from the rear.
Bumping in vintage racing is an absolute no-no. SOVREN will impose a 14-month ban on anyone who causes an accident through deliberate bad driving. A careful look at the rules and standards of the various racing organizations will reveal who you want to race with. Some people enjoy a more cowboy approach; nothing wrong with that as long as you know where you stand.
Is SOVREN racing just safe exhibition driving, then? Absolutely not. Drivers generally race to about 90-percent flat out. They stop short of Schumacher-style rammings, but up to that 90-percent limit they are genuinely racing. Just go and take a look-they're not trundling around at pace-car speeds; they're giving it some real stick. One competitor has trashed a diff, gearbox, and engine in one season, as well as the usual minor breakages, so a Sunday treasure hunt this ain't. Treasure is definitely not involved at all, in fact, as there's no prize money to win, just points. SOVREN supports a local children's hospital, so charity fundraising is part of their organization's aims.
Friendship and gamesmanship are also part of the fun. asking a close competitor if that's blue smoke or white smoke coming out of his engine and telling another that you've broken your glasses and had to borrow your Grandpa's is within the rules. On the other hand, if you've broken something on your car and the same close competitors can help out, they will.