12 Hours Of Sebring - Grand Designs

Part 2: "Sticking It To The Cobras"

Walt Thurn Nov 1, 2009 0 Comment(s)
Vemp_0911_01_z 12_hours_of_sebring 003_grand_sport_corvette 1/15

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.

Vemp_0911_08_z 12_hours_of_sebring Interior 8/15

Morton-shown here during a low-speed ride-along-has won many vintage races at Sebring, Daytona, Le Mans, and Laguna Seca. He reported that the car handled predictably and was easy to drive fast.

After Sebring, Johnson campaigned the car in various events in the southwestern U.S. He also participated in the revival of the Carrera Pan America race, which had been renamed the Carrera de Costa a Costa. To improve the Grand Sport's range during the event (which ran across Mexico from Veracruz to Acapulco), Johnson's crew mounted a 55-gallon steel drum in place of the factory 36-gallon gas tank. The conditions were so bad during the race that the car's tube frame received several holes from hitting rocks at high speeds. When Johnson returned to Texas he was quoted as saying, simply, "The car needs some work."

After the Mexican race, Johnson used the Grand Sport as a tow car to pull his small formula racer. Incredibly, he was once ticketed for speeding through a small town at 130 mph with the trailer in tow. The car was eventually sold to Canadian David Greenblatt for $8,000. Johnson says he "laughed for a year" at what seemed like an outrageously high price at the time. Little did he know what No. 004 would eventually be worth.

Greenblatt campaigned the car in Canada for a time before selling it to Jim White Chevrolet. White raced No. 004 at the 1977 24 Hours of Daytona but didn't finish. The car was then sold to collector Robert Adams, who retired it from racing and displayed it in his showroom. Jamie Mazotta bought the car from Adams in the early '80s, restored it, and vintage raced it on the West Coast. The Collier Collection purchased the car from Mazotta in 1991, and it underwent a meticulous three-year restoration at Robert Ash's FAV shop in Norcross, Georgia. To its credit, Collier had the car restored to the condition in which it raced at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring, and only original period components were used for the job.

Veteran engine builder Jim Jones from Traco Engineering built the Grand Sport powerplant complete with Weber carburetors. Jones also restored an original 377-cube aluminum small-block for display next to the car. The car was even fitted with Johnson's CB radio and antenna. (Details of the restoration can be found at www.racingicons.com/gs/004/index.html.) The finished car was unveiled at the 2003 Amelia Island Concours Grand Sport Reunion. This event marked the first time all five Grand Sports were gathered together in one place.

No. 004 now spends most of its time in Collier's private collection, but it is exercised regularly and even raced at vintage events on occasion. We were fortunate enough to be invited to Roebling Road racetrack, near Savannah, Georgia, to photograph the car while it was put through it paces by veteran race driver John Morton. It was a thrill to see this legendary racing Corvette at speed once again.

The thrill got bigger when Morton gave us a ride in the old warrior. As a true race car, the Grand Sport is very different from a normal '63 Sting Ray. It's noisy, harsh, fast, and relentlessly exciting. This writer saw this same Grand Sport race at the 1964 12 Hours of Sebring, so it was great to see it running on a track again after all these years. Our thanks go to John Morton for the thrilling ride, and to Scott George and his Collier Collection crew for reuniting us with one of our favorite Corvettes.

« Prev 1 2 Next »

MORE PHOTOS

VIEW FULL GALLERY

COMMENTS

TO TOP