Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 - Corvette Legends

The Last ZR-1 In Pro Racing.

Hib Halverson Jan 5, 2010 0 Comment(s)
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Flooring it down a track's longest straight could be the most fun you can have driving a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, other than maybe giving a ride to a hearthrob like Jennifer Lopez. But if the ZR-1 is a race car weighing only 2,800 pounds, having about 520 hp, a 7,500 rpm redline, and no passenger seat, who needs Jennifer Lopez?

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Needing to test this, coming off a turn my boot was flat on the floor. At about 4,000 stuff really began to happen! My head snapped back as the car got a little loose. I straightened her out then watched the Monster Tach climb past 6,000. The exhausts, 2 feet from my ear, began a roaring, 32-valve howl. Just short of 7,500, I shifted.

But, I'm ahead of the story.

Eight days before, Monday, Nov. 1, 1999: I got to work to find a voice mail from Pirate Racing's Jim Van Dorn, "Hey! You comin' next Sunday? If you are, you can drive 'em. Call me, dude."

I called back "Where at?"

"Rupert's, just outside of Pahrump. Shoot some photos for us then you can drive both."

"You sure? I got no recent seat time in a race car and a lot of my driver's stuff got lost when I moved last year."

"Driving the 'Phoenix' really ain't that bad, and the C5 is even easier. Rupert will be there to give you a few pointers. Jus' bring a helmet. You don't really need a suit for an 'informal test,' do ya?"

Pahrump, Nevada, is known for searing summer heat, as a tourist jump-off point for trips to Death Valley, farming, a casino or two, legal whorehouses, and the Spring Mountain Motorsports Park. In the winter the track is home to the Bragg-Smith Advanced Driving School and occasionally serves as a race car test track. In the summer, it's useless for anything other than car-company hot weather testing. Good thing I was there in November.

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The Pirate Racing ZR-1, dirty, battle-scarred, and maybe a little tired after two seasons of racing, was sitting there waiting for me. She got right in my face with brilliant purple/yellow/white paint, two sewer-pipe exhausts under the driver's door, and Goodrich g-Forces on A-Molds all around.

Then, I opened the hood to a incredibly bright, yellow engine. "Fer crissakes, Van Dorn, you you guys really have an 'attitude' problem," I giggled, taking in the sight of the screaming-yellow-zonker of a motor.

"That's us Pirates," "JVD" quipped as I squinted at the 5.7-liter LT5.

I was a little apprehensive. My study of this car's performance in two years of SCCA Speedvision World Challenge racing showed she could be fast, but also high-strung, temperamental, and a little unreliable. Hearing crewmembers call her "the bitch" did me no good. If cars are females, this one was a riot grrrrl. "You wanna piece o' me, sucker?" she seemed to ask.

It was bad enough that I'd never driven this car before, but I'd never seen the track on which I was going to test it, either. Now seemed like a great time for those "pointers" Van Dorn mentioned. Track owner Rupert Bragg-Smith was nearby talking to some of the Pirates. "Tell me about your track, Rupe?" I asked pensively. Bragg-Smith looked northeast to the farthest part of his facility. With the confidence owning your own race tack must bring, he said "Uh-it's pretty technical," and turned away. Guess that'd be all the "pointers" I was to get that day.

Van Dorn helped me strap into the old ZR-1, then pointed out the master switch, the fire system button, the ignition, pumps, and other important switches. He fastened the window net and quipped, "The rev limit's 7,500. Have a blast, dude."

I flicked on all those switches, pushed the starter button, and the LT5 roared to life. It settled to a 1,000-rpm idle, and I daydreamed as 10 quarts of oil warmed up.

Set the Way-Back Machine for 1992 Only two ZR-1s have been successful in professional racing. One is the Morrison Motorsports/EDS/Mobil 1 World Record car currently in the National Corvette Museum. The other is the racer I was sitting in.

Number 75 was built by Kim Baker for the final three races in the '92 World Challenge series. It was one of the last in a line Bakeracing Corvettes done during the late-'80s and early-'90s, and the only ZR-1 to ever win a professional road race. Mercruiser, which back then manufactured the LT5 engine for GM, sponsored the car and built its race engines. Baker, along with Jim Minneker, Don Knowles, Ray Kong, and Peter Hanson, drove the Bakeracing/Mercruiser Corvette to victory at the Mosport 24 Hours in Canada that year.

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How about this curious twist of fate? The ZR-1's greatest achievements in motorsports came at 24-hour events: the World Speed Record, set March 2, 1990 at Ft. Stockton, Texas, and that endurance race at Mosport on August 16, 1992. Even more weird? Kim Baker, Jim Minneker, and Don Knowles were drivers in both events.

"I bought the car from an insurance company," Baker told me in a telephone interview. "It was a zero-miles, '92 ZR-1 that got torched at a Chevy dealer. We stripped it to the bare frame, then built a race car using all the stuff I'd learned from previous Corvettes. We finished it a week before Mosport. I set it up the way I did other cars, then we took it up to Canada. It was the best-handling, best-running car I ever built, right off the trailer. We qualified well and won by a pretty good margin. We'd have won by even more, but late in the race, we had a fuel system problem that slowed us a bit."

After the season, Baker traced that to substandard materials used in the plastic duckbill on the end of the fuel pickup. Because the car's production-based fuel injection bypassed fuel back to the tank, the gas would get hot. The duckbill would soften from the heat, then slowly restrict as the pumps sucked hard on the fuel, causing the car to starve for gas. Fortunately, at Mosport, Bakeracing had a huge lead in the closing stages of the race. At the very end, Stu Hayner in a Morrison Corvette was gaining seven seconds a lap, but the ZR-1 still won by more than half a lap.

"A week after Mosport," Baker continued, "we ran Road America (Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin) and got the pole, but had trouble again with the pickup. We finished second. Sears Point (Sonoma, California) was the last race of the season and I finished second there, too. Again, the fuel pump pickup got us."

Racing is full of shoulda-coulda-wouldas. Had that duckbill been made of the right material, the Bakeracing/Mercruiser ZR-1 woulda not only won Mosport, but shoulda won again at Road America and Sears and coulda ended the year as World Challenge Champion. After the '92 season, sponsor interest in the World Challenge dropped for several years. Bakeracing did not enter the '93 series. Over the next few years, Kim Baker rented the ZR-1 to different racers who ran it in various events.

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Pirate Racing Jim Van Dorn owns a Corvette service shop in Palm Desert, California, and has been a hard-core "ZR-1-er" since buying his first ZR-1 in 1990. His shop specializes in them and his office is a sort of ZR-1 shrine. His quasi-religious regard for the cars has driven him to own two streeters: a '91, 620hp hot rod he calls "The Weekender," and a 512-mile, '93 40th Anniversary Edition. Van Dorn had a key role in the two great ZR-1 enthusiast gatherings of the '90s, "Thunder at Stillwater," the October 1993 event honoring the end of LT5 engine production at Mercruiser and "The Legend Lives," the May 1995 happening at Bowling Green, Kentucky, that marked production of the last ZR-1

Later in '95, Van Dorn crewed for Doug Rippie's attempt at running the 24 Hours of Le Mans with a ZR-1. Though Rippie's adventure came up short, Van Dorn was hooked. He and buddies on the ZR-1 Net e-mail list barnstormed the unusual idea of a grass-roots-funded, volunteer-crewed race effort with a ZR-1 in the World Challenge GT class. They called it "Pirate Racing," an appropriate name for a band of enthusiast/volunteers intent on hijacking the World Challenge with a three-year-old, out-of-production car that SCCA didn't even want in the series.

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In 1997, Pirate Racing surprised the Corvette hobby by raising a significant amount of money in a short time via the Internet. We've heard it was around $20,000. Not only were the Pirates able to raise that grass-roots investment, but they also secured enough corporate sponsorship to do a partial season of World Challenge. That fall, the Team bought #75 from Kim Baker, gave it an overhaul, and was ready for the season opener at Topeka, Kansas, in May 1998. In fact, Pirate Racing's major sponsor, Les Stanford Chevrolet in Michigan, funded two cars for Topeka: #76, powered by a small-block V-8, driven by Bill Cooper, and crewed by Doug Rippie Motorsports, and the #75 ZR-1 with a Lingenfelter LT5, Scotty B. White at the wheel, and crewed by the Pirates.

The Team's '98 World Challenge season began in two big ways. Cooper set the track record and won from the pole. Scotty B. White started fourth and wrecked late in the race. That earned him an ironic, 13th place finish. The team ran the rest of the year with just #75. After Topeka, the Pirates' best finish was an eighth by Scotty B. White at Grand Rapids.

In another interesting twist, former owner Kim Baker was in the car for the Lime Rock event. He qualified third and was there when a rod bolt fell out. The car made it part way down the next straight, then the rod cap tore off and the engine blew up and set the car on fire. No one will forget Speedvision cameras zooming in on Baker as he bailed out of the still-rolling car's flaming cockpit. Fortunately, Kim was no worse for wear and finished 18th on that memorable day in Connecticut.

The Pirates missed the next two events while rebuilding after the fire. Expectedly, the car's official nickname became "The Phoenix." The most famous driver in Corvette racing of the '80s and '90s, John Heinricy, was in #75 at Watkins Glen and finished 22nd with engine problems. Scotty B. White was back in the car for the final '98 event at Colorado Springs and finished 15th.

Pirate Racing ended the season out of the top 10 in points. Naysayers looked at their performance as a money-pit failure caused by unreliable engines, an inability to recover quickly after the Lime Rock fire, and a team too inexperienced to prepare the car consistently. Optimists saw it as a challenging, first-year learning experience for an enthusiastic and promising race team. Realists saw the team as lacking consistency but having learned a lot in its first season. More importantly, they got results for their sponsor. Stanford Chevrolet was pleased with the effect backing a race team had on its sales volume. In fact, the Stanfords were so happy that they increased their support for 1999. They purchased two of the '99 C5 "kit cars" GM built for racing, then sub'd them out to Sports Fab in Milford, Michigan, for preparation.

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The 1999 World Challenge began at Mosport, where the ZR-1 was victorious seven years before. Bill Cooper sat on the pole. He led most of the race, but faded to fourth six laps from the finish when the throwout bearing came apart, damaging the clutch and the transmission. Until then, no one had anything on "Coop" that day. Number 75 almost went two-for-two at Mosport.

Lime Rock, a week later: redemption after the disastrous fire the year before. Cooper qualified fourth and finished second. Mid-Ohio the next weekend: reliability once again ate the Pirate's lunch. On start-up, before the first practice, a valve lifter broke. The only lifters for LT5s come from GM, and they have a history of reliability problems. The Pirates thrashed to get their spare motor, a 40,000-mile modified streeter out of Van Dorn's hot rod, installed. Down 75hp compared to the first engine, Bill Cooper stunned observers when he qualified second. In the race, he kept the Stanford car in the top five for 21 laps. On lap 22 he passed Bobby Archer's Viper for second and one of the secondary cam chains came apart, destroying the motor. The Pirates DNF'ed in 21st place and Cooper went from second to fourth in points. That had to hurt.

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Six weeks later, the World Challenge moved to Road Atlanta near Braselton Georgia, one of the fastest tracks on the circuit. The "Southern Dash Weekend" was a GT class double-header with two qualifying races on Saturday morning, a race on Saturday afternoon, and a second on Sunday. Pirate Racing kicked ass that weekend. Coop qualified on the Saturday pole and second for the Sunday race. He finished second on Saturday and third on Sunday. The team's best race weekend since Topeka in '98 ended with Bill Cooper regaining second place in points.

If the Pirates were heroes in Hotlanta, they were near-zeros back in Canada a week later. During practice at Trois-Rivieres, their only engine, which had already run four races at Atlanta, broke (what else?) its cam chain. Desperate for points and refusing to give up, the Team "modified" the engine to run on five cylinders. Posting no qualifying time, they started 16th. The engine barely ran and Cooper finished next to last. He took a points hit again, ending up back in fourth.

In an interview last winter, we asked Jim Van Dorn about the team's engine program. He answered, "Yeah, we had troubles with the LT5. Some think it's inherently unreliable, but that's not the full story. Last year, World Challenge officials allowed Dodge and Porsche engines to be more powerful compared to the Corvettes. We had to do a wild motor to be competitive. We had go with way-high compression, wild cams, and a rev limit right at the edge of the cam chains' reliability. We qualified in the top four in all but one race last year. With two poles and two outside poles in just the first five races, I think the LT5 is one heck of an engine. We just were asking more than the cam chains could deliver sometimes."

A footnote to the above: some observers of the '99 World Challenge believe SCCA's Technical Administrator for the series, Mitch Wright, was biased in his decisions as to power output of various engines used in competition. It has been rumored that SCCA felt the out-of-production C4 body style was a threat to win when run with an LT5. For that reason, Wright was easy on Dodge and Porsche engine configurations, but was tough on C4s.

After Trois-Rivieres, #75 was mothballed when the first of the team's two C5s finally debuted at Grand Rapids. The most successful ZR-1 in road racing would appear in competition one final time at Monterey, California. It was the last race of '99 and the only time that year the Pirates fielded two cars: Bill Cooper in the C5 and Rupert Bragg-Smith in the veteran ZR-1, with a freshly overhauled engine detuned with production camshafts rather than the radical, full-race grinds run previously. Bragg-Smith, running with 520 hp rather than the usual 580, managed the 16th qualifying spot and finished 14th.

The '99 season ended with Cooper fifth in points-the best of the Corvettes, but a Viper, a pair of Porsches and a Toyota Supra did better. More coulda-woulda-shoulda? Cooper's fifth-place points finish came in part because tough old #75 took him to a pair of seconds, a third, and a fourth. Had it not been for overstressed stock cam chains, the outcome woulda surely been different.

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Driving the Phoenix When the oil temperature reached 150 degrees Fahrenheit, I whacked the throttle a couple times.

Whummba! Whaauuummmmmbababa!

Oh, I'm gonna like this a lot, I thought. I pushed the ZF six-speed into first, gave the motor some gas, and let out the clutch.

For my test, the Phoenix was still running the not-so-radical cams installed for the Monterey event. Two Mercruiser employees, Scott Skinner and Greg VanDeventer, both of whom once worked on the LT5 program and now moonlight doing racing LT5s, built this engine and the "full-on" motor that did so well at Atlanta. The stock LT5 camshafts were forced on the team by a lack of LT5 cam "blanks" on which racing cam profiles can be ground. The last of the Pirates' good cams were in the engine they broke at Trois-Rivieres.

"Only" 520hp would still be more than adequate, considering the car's weight and my lack of experience driving it. The engine with stock cams was only a little more powerful than the LT5 in our "Purple Project" car which, coincidentally, was also done by Skinner and VanDeventer. That realization comforted me a bit as I entered the front straight and went up through the gears.

Stopping power is something the Pirate Racing ZR-1 does not lack. Less weight than a stocker along with Brembo four-piston calipers grabbing 13-inch cross-drilled rotors up front and production '96 Grand Sport front brakes on the rear means, when you stomp on the brakes, you slow down-right now.

Even with 25 more horsepower, 4.09:1 gears, and 2,800 pounds, this car didn't feel much quicker than our project ZR-1 below 4,000 rpm, perhaps because: 1) the race motor has no secondary port throttles, which reduces torque below 3,500 rpm and 2) its heads are ported to beat hell. The solution? Well, duh-don't run the engine down low.

No port throttles, radical heads, headers, and no catalytic converters make the power disparity between #75 and our project car quite noticeable above 5,000 rpm. Not only is there more power, but the race engine peaks near 7,000 rpm, whereas the motor in the project car peaks at 6,500. In first and second gear #75 blows the tires away easily.

Tires proved to be the Phoenix's weakness in my brief drive. While the car's handling was pretty good considering it was set up for another track, the set of BFG g-Forces on the car were a little used up. That had me sliding around a bit out there.

The creature comforts in the Pirate Corvette, even for a race car, were pretty crude. No wonder it's called the "Bitch." The pedals were angled wrong to the driver, were too close together, and there was no dead pedal. Fixing that stuff would make the car easier to drive, but, as JVD told us, "That kind of thing isn't high on our priority list. Also, Coop doesn't care much about creature comforts. He just wants to win."

Maybe so, but we think it's a good thing the '99 World Challenge had no endurance races. Another race car quirk was the Lexan windshield. Lexan is great for light weight and to meet safety rules, but talk about waves and distortion. That, coupled with the front sections of the rollcage restricting the driver's view, made vision to the sides of the track difficult. Again, this is a case in which the car's regular driver would have an edge through experience, whereas I had trouble picking out apexes through the distorted Lexan. So, not only must Cooper never suffer back pain or leg cramps during a race, but he turns-in by ESP because he sure can't see anything through that blurry Lexan.

With less overall weight, less weight on the front, a racing suspension that uses specially valved Bilstein coilover shocks, and fabricated stabilizer bars, the Phoenix turns better than any ZR-1 I've ever driven and seems adequately damped. The only time the car became a handful was in low-speed turns. Then, the car seemed a bit loose. It might have been the trashed tires, but for whatever reason, she was loose. When you are aware of it, loose can be fun-not the fastest way around a race track, but plenty of fun.

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Off the 13th turn, one of the really tight ones, is where we began this story. That downhill straight is long. On it hard, I went to just before the 7,500 rpm limiter in second and third gears and was wide open in fourth until I backed off (OK-it was before Coop would have lifted), braked hard, then went into that last big sweeper. Near the end of the sweeper, I backshifted and was on the brakes again for the 90-degree lefthander. Through that, hard on the gas for a sec, then braking again for a sharp right that put me back on the front straight. Exiting that last turn, I had everything just right. I balanced the wheelspin and throttle so the car slid to the outside of the track, then gave it wide-open throttle, saw 7,000 or so, shifted and was back on it again when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Pirates waving me in. My half-dozen-or-so laps of fun was over.

I exited the track, pulled up next to the Pirate Racing trailer and let the motor idle a minute while I pulled off my helmet and goggles. I cut the engine as JVD undid the window net. My pulse was still racing. What a blast that last lap was! The noise at 7,500 rpm, the acceleration, the lateral "g"s in turns-I was pumped. I climbed out of the car, and Van Dorn handed me a cold Pepsi, looked me in the eye a second, then nodded his head and said "Well-not bad for a magazine hack, but I don't think Cooper's going to be worrying about his job."

Well, how 'bout me as your test driver?" I deadpanned.

We both busted up.

Phoenix Postscript I was probably the last person to drive Pirate Racing's ZR-1 in World Challenge trim. For the 2000 season, C4s are no longer eligible for competition and, even if they were, no doubt that SCCA would stack the deck enough against the LT5 engine that a ZR-1 would no longer be competitive.

After our test at Spring Mountain Motorsports Park the car was put in storage at Pirate Racing's facility in California. The team has indicated it may sell the car to a club racer or an open road event competitor. Rather than that, we'd like to see it donated to the National Corvette Museum. If that was to happen, the NCM will own both of the most successful ZR-1s in racing, and #75 would be saved for all our hobby to appreciate.

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