In 1988, the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) outlawed all Showroom Stock Corvettes from its racing events. The reason? The Vettes had not been beaten in three years of racing against the world's best sports cars, and their competitors complained so loudly that the sanctioning body finally had to act.
To keep Chevrolet happy, SCCA officials devised a marque-specific race series for the Corvette. Chevy signed on and named the series the Corvette Challenge. The Challenge ran for two years-1988 and 1989-and was televised on a then-new cable network called SpeedVision. It was a huge hit with race fans, primarily because it highlighted driver talent over engineering expertise.
Each driver piloted an identical, factory-built Corvette. The racing was noisy, colorful, and grinding, quickly gaining a reputation as a "contact sport" series. Because the cars were so evenly matched, aggressive maneuvers were often the only way to obtain an advantage. Not surprisingly, Chevrolet parts counters sold quite a few body panels to race teams during the two-year series.
Each Challenge ran 50 minutes and was scheduled as a support race prior to a major CART or Trans-Am event. The series produced many top drivers, such as Paul Tracy, Boris Said, Andy Pilgrim, Stu Hayner, and Bill Cooper. Many are still competing and winning today.
To fully understand the genesis of the Corvette Challenge, it's necessary to first take a look at the early days of SCCA Showroom Stock racing. With the exception of safety equipment, these cars had to be raced as delivered from the factory. This meant that if a car came equipped with a radio, air conditioning, and power steering, it also had to run these items on the racetrack.
At the time, the SCCA's premier Showroom Stock event was the Longest Day at Nelson Ledges, in Ohio. In June 1984, John Greenwood, Dave Heinz, and Rod Millen entered a BFGoodrich-sponsored '84 Corvette in the race. This was the first Showroom Stock race for the new C4, and the car was a sensation with the crowd. It qualified Second, and its excellent fuel mileage put it into the lead after the first hour. The Vette held this position for nine hours until it was struck with mechanical problems. The team finished 24th overall in what would be the only non-win for the C4 in Showroom Stock racing.
In 1985, the SCCA expanded Showroom Stock into a full-season racing series.The C4s were undefeated from 1985 through the end of the 1987 season and usually filled the top eight to ten finishing positions. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the SCCA would outlaw the plastic wonders and approach Chevrolet about creating a Corvette-only series.
Chevrolet-along with Goodyear, Exxon, and Mid America Designs-put up a one-million-dollar purse to support the new Corvette Challenge. Fifty-six B9B-optioned '88 Corvettes were built at Bowling Green with 4+3 transmissions and Z51 suspensions. Forty-five were shipped to Protofab in Wixom, Michigan, where they were fitted with competition equipment, including a racing seat, a rollcage, a safety harness, and PBR brake pads and ducting. Protofab also installed a fire-extinguisher system, special Corvette Challenge emblems, and a low-restriction Desert Driveline exhaust. Lightweight Dymag wheels were fitted with half-tread-depth Goodyear street tires.
The first race was held May 1, 1988, in Dallas. At the end of the 10-race series, Stu Hayner was series champion. In 1989, 60 R7F cars were built, and 29 of these were converted into race cars by Powell Development America. The new cars were more like racers than their predecessors, with full rollcages-including side bars-and straight-through exhaust.
Each car's original engine was removed and stored when it was delivered to Powell. Identical race engines were prepared and certified by Chevy's Race Shop, then leased to the teams for $4,000. Bolts and screws on key areas of each race engine were painted with a special paint. Race inspectors then ran a laser light over the engine in a dark enclosure to verify that the mill had not been modified.
Electronic telemetry was also used to check each car's engine performance. Ten cars were randomly selected before the start of each race and electronically monitored by race officials. All of these extra steps taken during the '89 season put an end to complaints about power differences among the various teams' engines.
Bill Cooper became the '89 series champion, winning $167,000 in prize money. Despite the Challenge's growing popularity, escalating costs forced Chevrolet to cancel the series at the end of the '89 season. After the last race, in St. Petersburg, Florida, Chevy impounded the cars and replaced each one's race engine with the stock L98 that was delivered with it. This ensured the "number matching" history of the R7F vehicles.
After the race, team owners put up each Corvette for sale at a low price. Many were sold on the spot. Amateur racers and collectors quickly bought the remaining cars. Today, the Challenge cars continue to grow in value, and why not? After all, where else can you buy a factory-supported Corvette race car at an affordable price? As a bonus, these track-proven cars are fully street-legal.
The late Chip Miller, cofounder of Carlisle events, was an enthusiastic supporter of Corvette Challenge racing. When the series ended in 1989, Chip began collecting these rare cars and campaigning them in vintage-racing events. The Miller family displayed its Challenge-car collection at the '06 Corvettes at Carlisle. The collection included one '88 and four '89 racers parked in the "Chip's Choice" display area.
Two ultra-rare '90 R9G Corvettes were also on display. Only 23 of these were produced for the '90 World Challenge Championship, which the Corvette won. Buyers of these cars were given the option of purchasing a second L98 racing engine from Chevy's Race Shop. The owners were responsible for the installation and maintenance of these engines.
One of the displayed R9G cars was never raced and has 15 original miles on its odometer. Incredibly, it is still wrapped in its dealer-delivery plastic. The second was a well-worn racer from the Tommy Morrison race shop and was driven by Andy Pilgrim. The Challenge cars' enduring appeal was evident in the crowds that assembled around them throughout the event. It's good to see that the Miller family and others are preserving these important Corvettes for future generations.