12 Hours Of Sebring - Grand Designs

Part 2: "Sticking It To The Cobras"

Walt Thurn Nov 1, 2009 0 Comment(s)
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Not long after our photo session, vintage racer John Morton drove chassis No. 004 to victory at the Monterey Historics. (Photo courtesy of the Monterey Historics)

We ended Part 1 of this story last month with a quote from Chevy General Manager Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen, who told Corvette chief engineer Zora Duntov to "stick it to the Cobras." Duntov happily followed Knudsen's order by agreeing to lend three Grand Sports to John Mecom, a young Texas oil tycoon who also loved racing. Mecom agreed to add the three Corvettes to his racing team and let Duntov care for them. Duntov had chassis Nos. 003 and 004 returned to Chevrolet from racer Dick Doane in Chicago and Gulf Oil in Pittsburgh. He and his team refurbished the two cars by adding larger wheels, tires, and fender flares. A 377ci aluminum small-block was also installed with four 58mm DOCE sidedraft Weber carburetors. Chassis No. 005 was completed with the same improved specs, and all three cars were painted in a Cadillac light metallic blue. The finished Corvettes were then shipped to Mecom in Texas, just in time to be sent on to the Nassau Speed Weeks event in the Bahamas.

The Grand Sport driver teams included such legendary figures as Roger Penske, Jim Hall, Dr. Dick Thompson, Augie Pabst, and John Cannon. Many Corvette engineers, meanwhile, took semi-official vacations to watch over their charges. Much to Carroll Shelby's dismay (and Knudsen's delight), the Grand Sports whipped the Cobras. Duntov said later, "Even though we designed the Grand Sports quickly and they lacked proper development, Nassau proved they were more than equal not only to the Cobras but the Ferrari GTOs."

After the big success in Nassau, Duntov set his sights on Daytona. He ordered that the two remaining coupes, Nos. 001 and 002, be cut down into roadsters to improve their aerodynamics. But just five weeks after Nassau, GM officials closed all the remaining loopholes in the corporate racing ban, and Duntov's racing activities were again halted.

While his dream of winning an overall victory at Le Mans in a car of his design would never be fulfilled, he did accompany several production Corvette teams to Le Mans to offer his support and technical assistance. These included the Cunningham team in 1960 and the L88 Heinz/Johnson effort in 1972. This writer met Duntov while spending time with the Heinz/Johnson team, at which time the engineer shared his frustrations over GM's no-racing policy. Ford had captured several overall Le Mans victories, after all; why not the Corvette?

The car photographed for this story, chassis No. 004, has the most colorful background of the five Grand Sports built. Its rsum includes the model's first victory, which came at Watkins Glen in 1963. Later that year, Roger Penske drove the car to Third Place overall and First in the GT class in the Nassau Governor's Cup race. The car was then returned to Chevrolet, rebuilt, and sold to the Gulf Oil Company, where its racing efforts were managed by Grady Davis. Don Yenko and Delmo Johnson both drove the car during its time with Gulf.

Davis eventually sold the car for $8,000 to Johnson, who was also a Chevrolet Dealer in Dallas. Johnson ran the car at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring, along with co-driver Dave Morgan. To prep the car for Sebring, Johnson installed a CB radio and a large whip antenna grounded with an X-shaped patch of metal tape. After suffering numerous mechani-cal problems, the team finished 32nd overall.

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