1954 Chevy Corvette - Corvette Legends

Dr. Dick Thompson, "The Flying Dentist." Part I

Richard Prince Jul 13, 2010 0 Comment(s)
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For the '58 season Dick only drove a Corvette sporadically. This was due in large measure to the Automobile Manufacturers Association ban on motorsports participation. Association members, including General Motors, severely curtailed or altogether eliminated support for racers, and absent the factory's help Dick limited his racing to just a few events.

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In 1959, Dick saw a lot more seat time in a Corvette, but it was not a production racer. Instead, he competed in Bill Mitchell's famed Sting Ray. The Sting Ray began life as a styling exercise, and along the way Mitchell became so enamored of the design that he decided it had to be built into a functional racer. Mitchell talked GM into selling him the running chassis from the 1957 Sebring Mule (the development and practice car used to prepare for the ill-fated Corvette SS effort), had the Sting Ray body fitted to the Mule chassis, and asked Dick to drive the car. Calling it the "prettiest race car I ever saw," Dick agreed to pilot it for Mitchell.

Dick recognized the Sting Ray's potential even though the Corvette SS, which had an identical chassis to the Mule's, performed poorly at Sebring in '57 and retired early with erratic handling. The problem at Sebring was traced to incorrectly installed rear suspension bushings that immediately came apart. The basic chassis design, which featured a tubular space frame, de Dion rear suspension, an early anti-lock brake system, and numerous other innovative and advanced features, formed the makings of a world-class race car.

This was demonstrated when legendary drivers Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio each took the Mule out for a few laps prior to the Sebring race. Moss turned a very fast 3:28 lap and expressed confidence that he could shave at least two or three seconds off that if he drove again. Fangio went even faster at 3:27.2 and he too felt that with some more time he could cut this down. Just how fast were these laps? Fangio's time broke the Sebring record, which he had set in 1956 while driving a Ferrari 860 Monza to victory.

Dick and the Sting Ray made their debut on April 18, 1959, at Marlboro Raceway. After taking an early lead the car was hindered by brake problems and excessive wheelspin, and wound up finishing fourth. The remainder of the '59 season went little better, primarily because the car was a largely unproven design that needed considerable refinement to iron out the bugs. But the Sting Ray's development was a slow and sometimes painful process without support from Chevrolet. GM wanted nothing to do with racing, and the entire Sting Ray project was financed by Mitchell personally.

"That was a big problem." recalls Dick. "Because Bill was paying for all of this himself, we were very limited in what we could do. The crew was all volunteer and Larry Shinoda was my mechanic. Larry was one of the great automotive stylists, but-and not many people know this-he was also a very talented mechanic and an old-time hot rodder."

But even with the best talent there was just so much the team could do without development money. "For example," remembers Dick, "Zora had utilized a sprint car Halibrand quick-change rear for the Mule chassis. Now it's nice to have a quick-change, but the damn thing didn't have a limited-slip and there was no easy way to put one in it. So Larry welded up the spiders and gave me a solid rear axle, which was an improvement but had a lot of drawbacks in itself."

In Part II, we'll pick up the story of the Flying Dentist in 1960 as he returned at the helm of Bill Mitchell's Sting Ray racer to give the one-off special another try. And midway through that historic season Dick took a detour to LeMans, where he mounted one of the most valiant struggles to bring a Corvette across the finish line ever witnessed.

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