Like many good event organizers, the people behind the yearly Corvettes at Carlisle show are ever mindful of history. So, it was no surprise that last year's show celebrated the 10th birthday of the '96 Corvette Grand Sport. The Grand Sport (GS) was a limited-edition model (only 1,000 were built) intended to evoke the Corvette's racing heritage and commemorate the final year of C4 production. The Carlisle event saw 131 GS cars on display, including one of the '63 racers upon which the '96 version was based.
The original GS is perhaps the most talked-about-and certainly the most valuable-Corvette built since the car's introduction in 1953. GS No. 001, displayed at the Carlisle show, is one of only five C2-based GS cars built by GM. Two (Nos. 001 and 002) were roadsters, and three were coupes. All five reside with collectors and are rarely seen.
Before we proceed any further, a little background: GM management's support of a 1957 American Automobile Association ban on racing was a serious blow to Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov and the Corvette team. A racer at heart, Zora knew that the Corvette needed to win on the racetrack in order to be successful in the showroom. He fought the racing ban in many creative ways, but his goal of racing Corvettes at Le Mans remained unfulfilled. When the Sting Ray was under development, Zora and his team saw an opportunity to build a special Corvette.
The Sting Ray was a tremendous improvement over its predecessor, but it had one major flaw: weight. So, Corvette engineering started working on a 2,000-pound, high-horsepower project car called "the lightweight." This car would become the Grand Sport. The engineering team's goal was to build 125 examples and get Federation Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) approval. The cars would then be sold to amateur racers and, hopefully, raced at Le Mans.
Work progressed in secret, and the proper paperwork was submitted to the FIA for approval. Five cars were completed, and testing began at various racetracks. In 1963, three cars (Nos. 003, 004, and 005) were loaned to Mecom Racing in Houston, who raced them at Speed Weeks in Nassau, Bahamas. The lightweight Vettes blew the Cobras into the weeds.
Zora's next goal was to run Daytona in February 1964. Unfortunately, word of the project leaked out to GM's senior management. He was ordered to stop all work and to destroy all of the tooling for the cars. Zora complied but found a way to sell the three existing coupes to private teams. He kept the two roadsters tucked away in a secret place.
The three coupes were successfully raced at various racetracks, including Nassau, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Road America. However, without factory development and backing, they faded quickly from the racing scene by the end of the '65 season.
In late 1965, retired sports-car driver Roger Penske bought the two remaining roadsters from GM. He formed a new Corvette team that included a '66 standard coupe with a prototype L88 engine and a prototype L88-powered GS roadster. He intended to race both cars at Daytona and Sebring. The coupe ran at Daytona and won its class, but the GS missed Daytona. Dick Guldstrand and Dick Thompson drove the GS at the '66 12 Hours of Sebring, where an off-course excursion put the car out of the race after 65 laps.
Penske realized the car was out of date and sold it to John Mecom, who in turn sold No. 001 to amateur racer Jerry Hanna. Penske then sold the second remaining roadster to his friend, George Wintersteen. Wintersteen raced the car in the '66 United States Road Racing Championship series. At the end of the season, he sold the car to John Thorne for $6,700. Today, the five original GS cars rarely change hands. When they do, the selling price reaches seven digits.
GM engineer John Heinricy began his racing career in 1984, the same year the fourth-generation Corvette was introduced. He would go on to win many races in C4s during the car's twelve-year production run. As assistant chief engineer for the Corvette in 1996, Heinricy was a proponent of designer John Cafaro's heavily racing-inspired Grand Sport styling theme.
The '96 Grand Sport's paint was modeled after GS No. 003, which A.J. Foyt and John Cannon drove at Sebring in 1964. Each GS received the same red-white-and-blue paint scheme, along with special badging, a color-keyed interior, and a pair of fender flares designed to accommodate the 11-inch rear wheels. Under the hood, an uprated 330hp LT4 engine powered the six-speed cars. Each coupe and convertible carried a GS-only VIN. Collectors and enthusiasts-including Heinricy, who owns No. 001-quickly snapped up the cars. Like most Corvette enthusiasts who have caught the Grand Sport bug, he has no plans to sell it.