After a slow start, the Cor-vette quickly established its reputation as a formidable competition machine. In fact, by 1957 there were few production cars that could challenge it on a road course. The roster of drivers who piloted Corvettes in competition in the ensuing years reads like a who's who of racing history and includes some of the finest drivers the world has ever seen. Many have become legends.
One Corvette racer, though lesser known than many, ranks up there with the best. This man, one of the most capable and successful drivers ever to pilot a Corvette, was not a professional road racer-he was a dentist.
Dr. Dick Thompson, aptly nicknamed "The Flying Dentist," won five SCCA national championships with Corvettes between 1956 and 1962. And in doing so he played a pivotal role in transforming a low sales volume anomaly in the vast GM empire, destined for probable extinction, into a world-class sports and competition car.
Dick was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and learned to appreciate sports cars from his father. His dad, with Dick as navigator, participated in numerous rallies with the SCCA Washington Region.
Though he had no thoughts of racing it, Dick's appreciation for sports cars led him to purchase a brand-new MG TD in 1951. When he picked the car up the dealer told him about the local MG club, which he promptly joined. The club organized rallies and members took their cars to a few local tracks where they did time trials, but nobody was doing any kind of serious racing with the little British sports cars. Then a friend told Dick about an upcoming race at Watkins Glen. He, his wife, and a couple of friends drove to the Glen to watch the race, and while there somebody else told them about an upcoming race in Sebring, Florida, in March 1952. This was the inaugural 12-hour contest and, explains Dick, "we were young, not too knowledgeable, and decided we'd go in the first 12 Hours of Sebring."
Having never raced a car in his life, and after seeing others race for just the first time, Dick and his friend Bill Kinchloe loaded up the MG and headed south. By virtue of good fortune and innate driving skill, the pair drove the entire 12-hour race and finished an astounding 8th place overall, ahead of 24 other cars. And they managed this feat while knowing almost nothing about endurance racing.
"During the first pit stop," remembers Dick, "I pulled in and everybody was sitting in the pits having lunch and nobody moved a muscle. It was about a five minute pit stop, I would guess. It was a 12-hour race so we figured what's the hurry, 12 hours is a long time!"
Dick's good fortune and good finish at Sebring launched his racing career. He successfully competed in the MG at numerous events up and down the East Coast during the remainder of 1952. The following two seasons saw him in a Porsche Super, which he drove to consecutive F-Production national championships.
In 1954, while racing the Porsche at Andrews Field outside of Washington, D.C., Dick drove a 1954 Chevy Corvette. A local Chevrolet dealer brought the car out to the event just to demonstrate it, not to race, and he asked Dick to take it around for a few laps.
"I was impressed with the car," remembers Dick, "because it handled very well, comparable to my Porsche and the Jag I replaced it with."
Though he recognized that Chevrolet's little-regarded sports car had the makings of a competitive racer, Dick did have a couple of complaints. "The '54 had the old six-cylinder and Powerglide, which were not really suitable for racing. And the car had very poor brakes, a problem which was not entirely solved for a number of years."
In 1956 Dick went to Sebring to drive a factory-backed Mercedes 300 SL with Paul O'Shea. It was there that John Fitch first spoke with Dick about racing a Corvette in SCCA events for the '56 season. Fitch was manager of Chevrolet's Corvette team at Sebring and led the crash development program that quickly molded the car into a competitive machine. Chevy brass had hoped Fitch would continue to campaign a Corvette after Sebring, but he had other commitments. When Chevrolet asked Fitch if he could suggest someone else, he immediately thought of Dick Thompson. Dick remembered his favorable impression of the Corvette he drove at Andrews Air Force Base a couple of years earlier and readily accepted the offer.
For numerous reasons Chevrolet could not openly support a Corvette race program, so they sought a privateer who would do a competent job on their behalf. In return, Chevy promised to support the effort behind the scenes.
"Because of SCCA rules and official Chevrolet policy I had to buy the car," recalls Dick, "but they sold me the Corvette at a very reasonable price, supplied parts and a mechanic, and took the car back after each race to evaluate it."
Dick's first event in his new Corvette was at Pebble Beach, and his performance there was very im-pressive in spite of a bad start. "In practice I didn't do very well," he remembers, "because those old four-barrel carburetors would starve out in the turns and of course, the brakes didn't last very long."
Frank Burrell, a brilliant engineer who was instrumental in the '56 Sebring effort, was on hand to assist. The day before the race Burrell worked his magic, recalls Dick. "Frank told me, 'Don't worry, by tomorrow that will be fixed, just don't ask me how.' I started on the grid in sixth and by the first corner I knew I really had something because it didn't starve out at all. By the end of the first lap I was leading. I passed four 300 SLs and thought 'this is going to be a piece of cake!'"
Dick would have won the race, but with one lap to go the brakes disappeared altogether. This was not entirely unexpected, since the Cerametalix linings that had been fitted the night before were, according to engineer Burrell, much better than the stock linings but still only good for one hour of racing. Tony Settember's Mercedes passed the hobbled Corvette on the final lap to take the win and Dick finished a respectable second.
"By the last lap I had no brakes whatsoever," remembers Dick. "I used the transmission to slow the car down and when the race was over I killed the engine in the pits to stop the car. When we pulled a drum off all the brake parts just fell out on the ground!"
Dick was very happy with the car in spite of the brake problem, and looked forward to the next race at the Seattle Seafair. "I was very impressed with the car," he says. "Strangely enough-and people don't believe this-it was a very good-handling car. The power-to-weight ratio was better than the 300SL. The only thing it didn't have was brakes!"
Many in the racing community, particularly on the West Coast, did not take the fledgling Corvette seriously. Was Dick's impressive performance at Pebble Beach some kind of inexplicable oddity, or was this fiberglass upstart created by the boring transportation folks at GM a genuine contender? Those who were surprised to see Dick and his Corvette lead the pack at Pebble Beach must have been utterly shocked to see them repeat the performance in Seattle. He led the race right from the beginning and, in spite of again finishing without brakes, got the checkered flag a full 30 seconds ahead of Paul O'Shea's Mercedes.
Dick went on to race the Corvette at most of the major SCCA events in '56 and, together with Frank Burrell, as well as other engineers and mechanics from Chevy, he made considerable strides in improving the car's performance.
"Frank and I went through the season and we learned quite a bit concerning how to make the brakes last until the last lap, and on many a last lap I went without any brakes at all."
As they found ways to make the brakes last longer Dick found ways to drive the car that much harder. As the brakes got better, his lap times got better, but he still often finished events sans brakes. While the thought of racing with no brakes is unnerving to most of us, Dick was not particularly troubled by it.
"In those days," he explains, "with those hard little tires, you could get it sideways nicely, so about 100 yards before a turn I'd get it sideways and slide off the speed. People don't understand that now, when they drive on slicks, but you could get those things sideways and still control them after a fashion while sliding off the speed to save the brakes."
While people today, racing with the benefit of super-sticky tires and state-of-the-art disc brakes, may not understand how a solid-axle Corvette in a four-wheel drift on just about every turn could win a race, there is no doubt that Dick's driving technique was superior. By season's end, the Flying Dentist in the previously sneered-at '56 Corvette earned the C-Production national title.
Dick again campaigned a production Corvette for the 1957 season, but thanks in large part to the work he, Frank Burrell, and the others from Chevrolet did in '56, the '57 was a much-improved racing machine. Rochester's now-legendary mechanical fuel-injection system was introduced as an option on the enlarged 283ci engine. This made the already fast Corvette even faster, both in acceleration and at the top end. The extra horsepower was now transmitted through a smooth shifting, durable four-speed rather than the '56's three-speed. For '57, a limited-slip "Posi-traction" differential really helped the car to hook up. And for all-out racing a comprehensive chassis package was made available as an option. Code-named RPO 684, this option included stiffer springs front and rear, bigger shocks, a thicker anti-roll bar, a quick-steering adapter, and wider wheels. To help the Corvette where it most needed help, RPO 684 also included vented brake backing plates, finned drums, Cerametalix lining, recalibrated wheel cylinders, and special ducts to carry cooling air to the brakes.
When Dick began racing it in 1956 his Corvette was usually the only one entered in the event. But as he repeatedly finished ahead of the Jags, Mercedes 300 SLs, and other popular cars, people began to take notice. By midyear there were typically two or three Corvettes in addition to Dick's. At the June Sprints at Road America, for example, Bark Henry and Fred Windridge were both driving Bob Rosenthal-sponsored Corvettes. By September there were nine Corvettes racing at the Thompson, Connecticut, Nationals. Corvettes, clearly, had become a dominant force in SCCA road racing.
In an effort to make the races more competitive for 1957 the SCCA Contest Board realigned the classes, grouping the Corvettes with the Jaguars in the newly created B-Production class.
"The realignment really didn't make any difference to us," says Dick, "because we could handle any other production car without any problems regardless of how it was classified. All of the improvements to the '57s made a dramatic difference, and we were really just racing other Corvettes."
By season's end Dick had won his class at Sebring, taken the checkered flag at Road America, Virginia International, and Cumberland, and finished high at most of the national races. All of this added up to a second consecutive Thompson/Corvette national championship.
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.
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.