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.