The National Corvette Museum's Millennium Celebration was an all-out celebration of life in the fast lane. With more than four decades of racing under its belt, the Corvette is still burning up the track (witness recent events like Le Mans and the Viper stompings at the races in Texas and Atlanta).
While the C5-R is making history today, its elders have left an impressive assortment of bona fide Corvette race cars in collectors' caring hands. Many of these historically significant race cars, and the drivers who piloted them to victory, were on hand for this year's event. The most impressive moments came when these legendary Corvettes actually fired up and paraded past the museum entrance, while enthusiasts applauded.
The Motorama Concours d' Performance Exhibit and the "Thunder in Bowling Green" display showcased pedigreed Corvettes from the '50s, benchmark production models and, of course, the C5-R. The racing exhibit featured Corvettes from the glory days of Daytona, Sebring, and Le Mans, including a '56 Competition Type (SR Model), the '57 Chevrolet factory Sebring car, the '60 Briggs Cunningham Le Mans Corvette, a '63 Grand Sport, and an original Z06, also from 1963. Check out the museum's Web site, www.corvettemuseum.com, for these and others.
Racing also made it into this year's Hall of Fame via legendary racers Dr. Dick Thompson ("The Flying Dentist") and John Fitch, the Sports Car Club of America's first national champion. Both were inducted into the Museum's Hall of Fame, along with GM's Executive Director of Design for North American Operations, Jerry Palmer.
Dick Thompson began his colorful racing career in the '50s. Among his many achievements were a win at Watkins Glen in '63, where he drove a Grand Sport; Third Place at Daytona that same year; and, also at Daytona, a win in the GT Class in '70. Looking back over an illustrious career, Dick said, "It was a challenge to make the '56 Corvette into a competitive sports car, but the reward was being in the '60 Le Mans--now, that was fun!"
John Fitch won the second Sebring 12-hour race in 1953 and was named "Driver of the Year" by Speed Age magazine that year. He was the first Corvette Race Team manager, and developed the Fitch Phoenix in 1966, which influenced the design of the '68 shark model. Having lost friends on the race track, he was keenly aware of safety issues, and patented the Fitch Barrier, the yellow sand-filled drum barriers often seen on the interstates. The first manager of Connecticut's Lime Rock Park Raceway, he's still involved in its operations today. He retired from racing in 1966.
Jerry Palmer joined GM right out of college in 1966, and has been instrumental in Corvette design since 1967. Following Bill Mitchell as chief designer, his work on the Aerovette, a mid-engine Corvette concept car, evolved into the design for the C4. He also came up with the basic design for the C5, and is heavily involved in the design of the upcoming sixth-generation Corvette.
This year's celebration also featured the introduction of the 2001 Corvette, a just-for-fun, yet truly competitive autocross shootout in which Chief Engineer Dave Hill, Corvette Brand Manager Rick Baldick, and Corvette Plant Manager Wil Cooksey squared off in Z06s. About 10,000 enthusiasts spread out to view the exhibits in the museum, check out the celebrity-choice car show and the celebrity fashion show, take plant tours, and watch the drag racing, autocrossing, and Z06 demonstration hot laps with Rupert Bragg-Smith and Jim Minneker at Beech Bend Raceway. There were technical and racing seminars, and autograph sessions with Corvette engineers and designers. Some lucky spectators even got to ride as passengers in a 2001 Z06. Sixteen enthusiasts picked up their brand new Corvettes at the museum over the weekend, and one couple actually got married under the big yellow dome, asking Museum Director Wendell Strode to serve as best man! Charlie Cooper of North Carolina won this year's raffle car, a beautiful red convertible.
All in all, it was a busy, enjoyable weekend, although no one would have complained if the gods had cooled the temperatures by about 15 degrees. Special thanks to museum employee Virginia Crump for the delicious homemade baked goods in the media reception room!
It's satisfying to see that the museum is healthy, but it's not so robust that it doesn't need our continued support. Now that membership has grown from 1,600 members in 1997 to 8,000 today, there are that many more of us to help, and to spread the word. Let's keep this thing growing.