The Corvette Returns To Trans-Am Racing in 1998

The Corvette Is Back!

Michael Johnson Sep 1, 1998 0 Comment(s)

Step By Step

Here is the No. 19 Eckler's-sponsored C5 Corvette campaigned by Jim Crist at Homestead. Unfortunately, an incident on lap 21 would find his day on a sour note.

The Corvette has returned to Trans-Am competition, and in a big way. This year, the Mustangs and Camaros are going to get an eyeful of the Rocketsports Racing C5 Corvette's rearends. The Corvette's successful introduction into Trans-Am racing began back in 1973. That year, Corvettes finished third, fourth, and fifth in points behind the dominant Porsches of legends Peter Gregg and Al Holbert. In 1975, Corvettes took the top four spots in points, with seven of the top-ten finishers at the end of the season being Corvettes. John Greenwood finished atop the leader board that year with three first place victories, and took home a whopping $7,725 for his trouble. The Corvette would continue to enjoy Trans-Am series success up through 1988, with Darin Brassfield taking the last victory for a Corvette in a Rocketsports Racing Corvette at Mosport, but all that is going to change.

When Paul Gentilozzi finally "tired of carrying the Camaro banner without factory appreciation," he knew it was time to change. The Camaro in Trans-Am trim has "always been aerodynamically deficient compared to the Mustang," said Gentilozzi. Furthermore, by choosing to run the C5 Corvette, he is trying to show Chevrolet what they’re missing by not being involved in Trans-Am racing. And with a major sponsor in National Tire & Battery and increased TV exposure on TNN and Speedvision, the Trans-Am Series will only get larger and more competitive, meaning more exposure for the manufacturers as well. Maybe these two aspects will lure Chevrolet back into Trans-Am racing, and with Paul Gentilozzi and his Rocketsports Racing teammate Bill Saunders behind the wheels of their AutoLink-sponsored C5 racers, the Corvette is sure to be represented well.

The C5 makes a good race car for two reasons: "The amount of flat body surface and its small greenhouse area (cockpit)," says Gentilozzi. This combination means a slippery surface and just the right amount of downforce exerted on the car during racing action. And not only does the C5 make a good race car, it makes a nice race car. Another reason Gentilozzi chose the C5 Corvette was to create "excitement beyond the battle between the Mustangs and the Camaros." And that's exactly what Paul has done in the first two races of the season. He led flag to flag at the Long Beach race, and although his latest victory at Homestead wasn't as easy, he still brought home the checkered flag over the Valvoline-sponsored Mustang driven by the talented Brian Simo. Bill Saunders lost Third gear early in the race and subsequently dropped way back, but he fought back and made his way back up to seventh before suffering a flat tire late in the race. He ended up finishing in 12th place. Saunders finished fifth at Long Beach, and it will only be a matter of time before he starts his charge to the front of the pack right alongside Gentilozzi.

The Eckler's Corvette Parts and Accessories No. 19 C5 also made its debut at Homestead, making it the third Corvette in the race field. The Toy Store's Jim Crist was at the wheel after blowing an engine while testing the weekend before the Homestead race. They were forced to go with their backup engine, which was down about 100 hp compared to the front runners' 650hp engines. That engine did get them into the show, but on lap 21, Paul Alderman's No. 68 Ford Mustang spun in front of Crist and left him with nowhere to go. Crist and Alderman made contact, resulting in a damaged front suspension for the No. 19 Eckler's C5 Corvette, ending their day. Crist ended up in 30th place, two spots better than his qualifying effort.

The Rocketsports C5 Trans-Am Corvette

"We've converted our existing cars to accommodate the Corvette body," said Gentilozzi. What that means is they removed the Camaro bodies they used during last season and fitted the Corvette bodies to their existing racing chassis. By doing this, Gentilozzi knew he had a proven chassis and that wasn't a worry. They've always had success when introducing a new car, and 1998 looks to be a repeat of this scenario. The AutoLink-sponsored Corvettes utilize a Pratt and Miller Special chassis and "all cars start out as a pile of steel tubing on the shop floor. After 20 days of welding and cutting, the pile of tubing is made into the first step to a finished race car. The car will remain at Rocketsports for at least four more weeks until all the components are ready. A completely finished car costs between $160,000 and $175,000," according to Rocketsports Racing.

The body is made of a carbon fiber Kevlar honeycomb composite material and is manufactured by Kerry Hitt of Advanced Composite Products in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The only help they received from Chevrolet was in the form of design assistance from Brian Miller, an aerodynamicist with GM. There were no wind tunnel tests prior to racing the cars, they just built the bodies. Miller did some tweaking, SCCA approved the body, and the rest is history. By the time you read this, Lou Gigliotti will be switching from his current Mustang Trans-Am car to a Corvette, and it won't be long before there will be several C5 Trans-Am cars in action. By the way, if you like the looks of the C5 Corvette Trans-Am car, a bolt-on body kit will be available soon from Advanced Composite Products (717) 323-8237.

The engines are carbureted 5.1L, 310ci Chevrolet V-8s, and produce roughly 650 hp and 430 lb-ft of torque. At Elkhart Lake, the cars are capable of reaching 185 mph with a five-speed Hewland ST transmission at the SCCA-imposed rev limit of 8,200 rpm, even though their engines are capable of turning 9,000 rpm without hurting anything. The reason the engines are carbureted and have a rev limit is to ensure a level playing field among competitors. The cars have power rack-and-pinion steering, and an independent front suspension utilizing a double A-arm with coil-over-shock and sway-bar setup. The rear suspension consists of a live axle, four-link with Watts linkage and adjustable sway bar.

BBS three-piece modular alloy 16x12 wheels are wrapped with BFGoodrich G-Force radials. The BFGs are the spec radials for the 1998 season, and allow the racers to go all-out the whole race and have improved lap times by more than two seconds over last year's Goodyears. The C5 race car weighs in at 2,600 pounds, and before the Homestead race, that number grew by 50 more in Gentilozzi's car, in the hope that someone could keep up with him.

Paul sees only good things for the C5 Corvette Trans-Am car, as long as the good folks with the SCCA continue to allow it to race. However, everyone in the Trans-Am series not racing a Corvette seems to be letting their opinions be known about how the C5 represents an unfair advantage. They're growing tired of getting their tails handed to them by "America's sports car."

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