It's hard to imagine seeing 15,000 Corvettes in one place. But then again, it's also hard to imagine how Mike Yager, a former tool-and-die maker, was able to turn a business run out of the trunk of his car into a multi-million-dollar industry leader in Corvette parts and accessories. Nonetheless, he did, and it's Mid America Motorworks, the company he created, that hosts Corvette Funfest. An annual customer appreciation party usually thrown in September, Funfest draws 15,000 Corvettes to the Mid America corporate campus in Effingham, Illinois, effectively quadrupling the town's population over a long weekend.
"You've got to come," the Mid America folks told me last year when I was covering the Walter Mitty Challenge. And come I did. Having penciled in the September 19-21 dates on my mental calendar, when the 18th rolled around, I fueled up my blacked-out Crown Vic Police Interceptor and headed north through Tennessee and Kentucky to Effingham. Perhaps it was a travesty to drive a Ford, but what Corvette get-together is complete without a Crown Vic in the rearview?
Theoretically, I could have flown, but somehow it seemed wrong not to drive. Besides, the nearest airport is in Indianapolis. So after 10 hours of road construction, accident cleanups, and endless cups of coffee, I straggled into the Fairfield Inn, past the framed Funfest Corvette Challenge poster on an easel in the lobby. Fortunately, my reservations were made a couple of months earlier: Many of the hotels have special event rates for Funfest, but if they don't have any rooms left, the rate hardly matters.
Now is a good time to point out that Funfest isn't a car show; it's called a "customer appreciation party," and that's pretty accurate. The leading item at the top of the calendar of events reads, "All Day...Have Fun." There's no cost to attend, and there's a vast spectrum of things to do over the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday that comprise the event. From tours of Mid America's facilities to displays set up by Corvette-parts vendors (many of whom will do installations on the spot) and autograph sessions and seminars with some of the top names in the hobby, the only hard part is trying to see everything. In addition, every year Funfest has a theme, usually related to one or more of the cars that reside in Mike Yager's MY Garage museum. Last year, it was Corvette Summer; this year the chosen cars were the Corvette Challenge cars from 1988 and 1989.
Not long after its introduction in 1984, the C4 Corvette went on to absolutely flog the competition in the SS class of the SCCA's Showroom Stock Endurance Championship. With a record of 19-0 during its three years of dominance, the Corvette won the '87 manufacturer's title by 81-7, understandably upsetting other manufacturers--specifically, Porsche, who wasn't used to getting its clock cleaned so monotonously. "While we would be content to thrash our competition eternally," the poster announcing the Corvette Challenge read, "the gruesome sight proved to be too brutal for the SCCA." Sort of. It was actually too brutal for the boys from Stttgart, who threatened to take their toys and go home if SCCA didn't ban the Corvette from competition.
So, with Teutonic efficiency, the best Corvette yet was thrown out on its ear. Enter John Powell, who was running a race series in Canada. Largely by force of personality, he convinced Goodyear, Exxon, and the then-much-smaller Mid America to put up a total of $1 million to start a new, Corvette-only race series. With sponsorships in hand, he approached Chevrolet and asked them to produce 50 factory race cars for the series he had named the Corvette Challenge. Although the General had been conscientiously aloof from racing for decades, Powell's persuasive power carried the day. On March 29th, five months after being tossed out of SCCA, the identical factory racers were delivered to their teams at Chevrolet's Central Office in Warren, Michigan.
Identical in every specification and dyno-tested to prove it, the Challenge cars even had their engines sealed with a special green paint to ensure horsepower parity between competitors. If ever there was a race series about drivers, this was it. And if they thought the SCCA was brutal, that was nothing compared to the Corvette Challenge, which has also been described as "close-order combat." With a million dollars in prize money up for grabs, no equipment advantage whatsoever, and young, aggressive drivers who usually didn't own the cars they were pounding on, the word "intense" barely begins to describe the fierceness of the competition. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to say that Steve Wiedman, who was Mid America's motorsports director at the time and worked the GM parts truck at each race, was also responsible for keeping fresh Mid America stickers on the Challenge cars' front bumpers. The problem? The logos were often scuffed up by other competitors' wheels.
The series drew so much attention that ESPN contracted to cover the series in 1989. What makes this significant is that it marked the first time a network had displayed real-time performance data--such as engine rpm, gear selection, and speed--alongside the in-car video footage of the race. Commonplace now, this was the height of technology at the time, and mind-numbingly difficult to put together.
Nineteen eighty-nine, though, was the end. With some 116 Challenge cars produced, and almost $2.25 million in prize money given away, Chevrolet canceled the program. The day after the last race, the SCCA formally invited the Corvette back into the fold, and the Challenge cars became instant collectibles. Among those who now own Challenge cars are Lance Miller, son of the late Corvettes at Carlisle impresario Chip Miller, and, of course, Mike Yager. Both of them were on the Challenge Car discussion panel at Funfest, along with Ralph Kramer, Chevrolet's director of public relations at the time; former Corvette Chief Engineer Dave McLellan; and Mid America's Wiedman; all of whom were able to share an up-close view of what the series was really like. (For those interested in more information on the Challenge, Mid America's Funfest 2008 book contains an excellent article on the series written by Ralph Kramer. DVDs of ESPN's race coverage are also available.)
Other seminars offered during Funfest included interior installation demos for C3, C4, and C5 Corvettes and a broad selection of performance-related topics. Mike Wood of Nitrous Express gave a seminar on the basics of nitrous, and braking was covered in a presentation by Baer Brakes, whose techs did while-you-wait installations on brake systems purchased at Funfest. Automotive writer Dave Emanuel spoke on tuning and tweaking the C5 and C6, and fellow writer Richard Newton covered suspension and autocrossing. I was fortunate enough to get to spend some time talking with both Emanuel and Newton, which brings up another of the wonderful things about Funfest: Between seminars and autograph sessions--and just plain running into folks while you're walking around--it gives you the opportunity to meet some of the biggest names in the Corvette hobby. From Bob Bondurant and Reeves Callaway, to noted Corvette restorer Kevin Mackay and Corvette Chief Engineer Tom Wallace, Funfest provides a unique chance to interact with people you otherwise might only read about.
It also puts you in the same place with some truly unbelievable cars, such as the new ZR1, which GM engineers brought to Funfest in triplicate. Not only did the good folks from GM show off the supercharged, 638hp beast in walk-around tech briefings, but they also offered rides. This went over swimmingly until one of the ZR1s--the yellow one, predictably--was pulled over during a demo. I don't know the exact speed, but word on the street was that it was running about a hundred...over.
Editor Jay Heath referred to this event in a previous issue as possibly apocryphal. Being of an inquisitive mind myself, I did my best to ascertain the actual facts of the encounter. Mike Yager referred to the exact speed as "about a buck over," high enough to make it what Illinois law refers to as a "general offense" (read: jail time). Although I later overheard the passenger who was in the car at the time say they were doing 120, I decided that going straight to the source--the driver, whose name I'm not printing here--would be best.
He shrugged when I asked him what happened. "You know, it's a ZR1. They wanted to know about the car."
"How fast were you going?"
"I don't know, I was watching the road." He raised his hands helplessly. "That's what you're supposed to do, right?"
With all of the seminars and exhibitors--and the tours of Mid America's Performance Choice manufacturing facility and the MY Garage Museum--it's tough to take the time to simply walk down the rows and rows of Corvettes parked side-by-side. But it's something worth doing; you'll see every generation, from stock, fully restored C1s to restomods that have virtually no actual Corvette parts in them. You can always pony up the $20 for a helicopter ride that will circle you around the area and give you a bird's-eye view, but it's in getting right there next to them that you get a real sense of the broad variety of Corvettes that show up.
Not only do you get to see what others have done with their cars, there's also the opportunity for your car to be recognized, because walking with you down those aisles will likely be one of the celebrity judges. Made up of members of the motoring press and a variety of VIPs from the hobby, the judges get to pick their favorite cars from those who attend, and their selections are announced at the end of every day. From a beautifully restored '54 that was trailered there to a supercharged Callaway C6 Pace Car, the cars selected are as individual as the owners who created them and the judges that chose them (look for an upcoming article on the '68 restomod selected by Editor Heath).
Watching the proud owners as they receive their awards from Mike Yager, you get a new sense of what this event--and the hobby--is all about. Steve Wiedman put it best when we were talking about the Corvette Challenge cars: "It's about the people. It revolves around the cars, but it's really about the people."
Special thanks to Ed Baumgarten, Valerie Corrie, Lori Worman, and Mike and Laurie Yager.