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Chevy Corvette A.I.R. Racing Program

A Brief, Shining Moment

Richard Prince Dec 13, 2013
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Most readers of the February/March 1968 issue of Chevrolet's in-house magazine, Corvette News, took little notice of this rather innocuous announcement on the editor's page:

"At 1600 hours on November 28th, 1967, three identical Le Mans Blue Sting Ray Convertibles were trucked through the St. Louis plant gate destined for delivery to a single West Coast customer. It's significant that each features the L-88 engine option. Perhaps we'll be hearing more about these cars in the near future."

Air Chevy Corvette Race 2/11

The folks at Corvette News were being more than a little cagey with that last sentence. They knew exactly who the mysterious "West Coast customer" was—a newly formed team called American International Racing (A.I.R.). They also knew exactly where the public would get their first look at A.I.R.'s thundering L88 convertibles a scant two months later: on the high banks of Daytona International Speedway.

The genesis of A.I.R. can be traced back to the epic 1966 film Grand Prix, which follows the fortunes of four Formula 1 drivers over the course of a season. Director John Frankenheimer was determined to make the movie as realistic as possible, and to that end insisted that the staged racing sequences, which were interspersed with a great deal of real Formula 1 footage from the 1966 season, be shot at actual race speeds. James Garner, who had a starring role in the movie, did all of his own driving and in the process fell head-over-heels in love with the sport.

In July 1967 Garner partnered with four other men to form A.I.R., a venture intended from the outset to race cars for both fun and profit. The other principals included Bob Bondurant, Dick Guldstrand, Irwin Sandin, and Donald Rabbitt. Fresh from co-driving a Cobra Daytona Coupe to the 1965 FIA Manufacturer's World Championship for Shelby American and Ford, Bondurant worked on Grand Prix as both technical consultant to Frankenheimer and race instructor for Garner. Guldstrand, who also worked as a tech adviser on the movie, was already something of a racing legend by 1967, having earned his stripes as a driver and racecar builder. Irwin "Sandy" Sandin was a race mechanic who had worked with Guldstrand in the past, and Don Rabbitt was the former public relations man for Shelby American.

According to A.I.R's first press release, "the aim of the company is to build and race automobiles of all types in behalf of sponsors at events throughout the world." They planned to get started in a very high-profile way by building and racing a turbine-engine car. The inspiration for this undoubtedly came from Andy Granatelli's 1967 Indy 500 entry, a radical new design powered by a Pratt-Whitney industrial gas turbine that developed approximately twice the horsepower of the conventional Offys and Fords then propelling Indy entries. In the '67 500-mile race, Parnelli Jones qualified Granatelli's stunning four-wheel-drive STP Turbocar car sixth and dominated the race until transmission failure ruined his day three laps from the finish. Though it failed to complete the race, the car attracted a lot of attention and demonstrated the potential inherent in a turbine powerplant.

Chevy Corvette Sting Ray 3/11

In short order, A.I.R. was on the way to designing a turbine-powered sports racer, with Harvey Aluminum enlisted to provide the body, Garrett AiResearch the engine, and Goodyear onboard for the tires. The turbine program came to an abrupt halt, however, when various sanctioning bodies amended their rules to reduce the allowable inlet annulus for turbine engines. This was done in an effort to achieve greater equivalency between turbines and conventional piston engines.

Still looking for a high-profile start, A.I.R. next turned its attention to racing Corvettes. This is not surprising, given the excitement then building for the coming of the new, third-generation design. Also, Guldstrand and Bondurant both had extensive experience racing Corvettes going back to the 1950s.

In October 1967 A.I.R. arranged a meeting at Riverside Raceway with Chevrolet merchandising manager Joe Pike, an ardent supporter of Corvette racing throughout his 20-plus-year career with GM, and Goodyear Tire and Rubber's Larry Trousdale. On the strength of the experience of A.I.R.'s principals and the publicity value of Garner's name, Pike and Trousdale each pledged the support of their respective companies to a Corvette racing program.

Chevy Corvette Sting Ray L88 4/11

Pledging support is one thing, but actually having the money in hand is another. Though the intricate details of A.I.R.'s financing are murky at best all these years later, it does appear as though money was an issue in the very beginning. In a June 1969 interview with Motor Trend, Garner stated with respect to the Corvettes, "With help from Goodyear, and money out of my pocket, the two cars were purchased and prepared on a 'crash program,' simply because we were without enough lead time." The Motor Trend article later reported that Garner ponied up $65,000 to help fund all those things that go into starting a new venture, including the purchase of the new Corvettes. But the circumstances surrounding the actual purchase of the cars casts some doubt as to whether there was actually sufficient funding available to pay for them.

Herb Caplan ordered A.I.R.'s three Corvettes through Fred Gledhill Chevrolet in Harbor City, California. Caplan, a WWII veteran who accumulated considerable wealth through U.S. Machinery, a company that sold and leased mining and heavy-construction equipment, began racing Corvettes with the purchase of a new '63 Z06. It is likely that he fronted the money to purchase the cars. It is also likely that the cars were ordered through Gledhill because of Caplan's connection to this dealership.

A.I.R. bought three L88-optioned Corvettes with the intention of racing two and using the third as a promotional vehicle and backup, just in case one of the racers got damaged. The L88 option package, which included a high-compression, aluminum-head 427 engine; M22 close-ratio, heavy-duty four-speed; F41 heavy-duty front and rear suspension; J50/J56 power-assisted, heavy-duty brakes; and a number of other competition parts, added approximately $1,800 to a base convertible's $4,320 price tag. This goes a long way toward explaining why a total of only 80 L88 Corvettes were produced in 1968.

Chevy Corvette Sting Ray Rear Three 5/11

Recall that in his Motor Trend interview, Garner mentioned that the Corvettes were race prepared "on a crash program" because the team had so little time. The deal to go racing with Corvettes was cemented in the meeting with Chevrolet and Goodyear at the Riverside Grand Prix in October 1967. The cars were built the following month, and all work had to be completed in time to take the green flat at the 24 Hours of Daytona on February 3, 1968.

Because time was so short, Guldstrand, Guldstrand Engineering chief mechanic Robert McDonald, and a man named Perry Moore, who had worked for Herb Caplan over the years, flew to St. Louis to pick up the Corvettes and drive them back to California. Per the announcement in Corvette News, on November 28th the cars left the Corvette assembly plant via truck—but they didn't go very far. Rather, they were delivered just up the road to Gene Jantzen Chevrolet, located at 5400 Natural Bridge Road, between the Corvette plant and GM's St. Louis Fisher Body plant.

Guldstrand, McDonald, and Perry took delivery of the gleaming Le Mans Blue cars there and drove them some 1,844 miles to Guldstrand's shop, housed in an old Hughes Aircraft Quonset hut on Jefferson Boulevard in Culver City, California. All three men held vivid memories of that memorable trip, driving brand-new L88s at very high speeds in very cold temperatures for much of the way.

As planned, two of the three Corvettes were fully race prepared in Guldstrand's shop. All three cars' L88 engines were immediately pulled and brought up the street to a non-descript little building sandwiched between Helen's Café and Jim Narin's Machine Shop. The building's modest size and faded Champion Spark Plug sign belied what lay beyond its brick façade. This was home to Traco Engineering, the legendary engine-building and development shop of Jim Travers and Frank Coons. Traco engines were highly successful everywhere from Can-Am and Trans-Am to Indy, Pikes Peak, and Bonneville.

Goodyear 6/11

While the engines were being prepared at Traco, the crew back at Guldstrand's shop was working feverishly to prepare the cars, blueprinting drivetrains; welding in rollbars; tweaking suspension, steering, and brake parts; and stripping unneeded parts not required by the rules.

After productive test sessions at Riverside and Willow Springs—with Bondurant, Guldstrand, and Dave Jordan driving—the cars were trailered across the country to Daytona for their race debut. Guldstrand and team newcomer Ed Leslie would drive car No. 44 in the race. Before getting involved with racing, Leslie, a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross for Bravery, accumulated 1,550 hours as a pilot in the China-India-Burma campaign during WWII, and another 1,300 hours flying 30 bombing missions as part of the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command during the Korean War. His racing career, which began in 1957, was equally distinguished in everything from lightweight XKEs, Coopers, and Lotuses to works Cobras and, of course, Corvettes. Herb Caplan was also listed as a driver for the team, though it is unclear whether he actually logged any wheel time during the race.

Scooter Patrick and Dave Jordan, meanwhile, were tapped to drive the sister No. 45 A.I.R. Corvette at Daytona. Patrick had enjoyed great success in a wide variety of cars, including Otto Zipper's Porsches, Shelby's Toyota 2000GTs, F5000s, and the incredible McLaren Can-Am cars.

Jordan was equally successful in a diverse racing career that spanned from 1959 to 1972. He frequently co-drove Porsches with Patrick and also competed successfully with BMW, Lola, Ferrari, Toyota, Sunbeam, Brabham, Ford, and other makes. He was asked to drive the Corvette for A.I.R. when Bondurant left the team at the end of 1967, largely because of extensive foot and leg injuries he suffered in a devastating crash at Watkins Glen in his Can-Am McLaren.

The A.I.R. Corvettes showed what they were capable of in practice and qualifying at Daytona. Both cars reached top speeds approaching 190 mph, and No. 44 earned pole position for the GT class with a time of 2:04.05 (110.613-mph average), while No. 45 was second with a best lap of 2:05.02 (109.553 mph). But in spite of their impressive qualifying speeds, excellent preparation, and stellar driver lineup, the A.I.R. Corvettes did not fare well in the twice-around-the-clock race.

Car No. 45 was leading GT after nine hours of racing when Jordan began feeling water droplets hitting his face. A head bolt had pulled out of the block, allowing coolant to leak, which in turn overheated the engine. After 263 laps Corvette No. 45's race was over.

The other team car soldiered on, but not without its own problems. Both cars had been lowered to the extent permitted by the rules. While this helped minimize drag and the lift that Corvettes of the era typically experienced at high speed, it had an unwanted side effect: It also reduced airflow around the differential, which led to dangerous heat buildup. Chevrolet had not yet homologated a differential cooler, so the team was not allowed to use one. Overheating of the diff led to seal failure, resulting in fluid loss that ultimately killed the bearings and gears. The crew replaced the differential three times over the course of the race, losing huge amounts of time in the process.

Chevy Corvette Sting Ray 7/11

When it was over, No. 44 had completed 373 laps—213 fewer than the GT class–winning '67 Sunray DX Corvette and 300 fewer than the race-winning Porsche 907. Though the No. 44 car was still running at the end, it was not classified as a finisher because it failed to complete enough laps.

The team left Daytona disappointed with their results but proud of their tenacity. Even after it became clear they had no chance of a decent finish, they worked hard throughout the entire race to keep No. 44 running, and they were gratified to see it take the checkered flag.

They returned to Guldstrand's shop in Culver City and immediately got to work on the cars. The 12 Hours of Sebring was only about seven weeks away, and the crew was determined to apply all the lessons learned at Daytona as they prepared for the equally demanding contest in Sebring.

It was not to be, however. Garner and the team's PR man, Don Rabbitt, decided that they would have more success raising sponsorship money if A.I.R. was competing for overall victories rather than just class wins. To that end, they bought two new Lola T-70 coupes for Sebring, and just like that, the Corvette program was finished.

Though shocking to some crewmembers at the time, the team's sudden switch to purpose-built racers was entirely consistent with A.I.R.'s founding goals. While all of the principals were driven by their personal passion for the sport, their intention from the start was to run A.I.R. as a for-profit enterprise. Their business model consisted of partnering with manufacturers and other interested corporations to provide complete, turnkey racing operations that included all promotional activities, advertising, and testing, in addition to the racing itself.

Chevy Corvette Sting Ray Center 8/11

This business model is embodied in our feature car, which was A.I.R.'s third L88. It was acquired specifically to serve as a promotional vehicle, as emphasized in this paragraph in an October 1967 letter from A.I.R. to Chevrolet's Joe Pike:

"The whole program is keyed to our sponsors' needs—maximum exposure for their dollar. This activity will primarily be accomplished before the events, taking a lot of undue pressure off the race team. With the third car available to our sponsors and news/public relations/media, we will eliminate all the remaining scheduling problems and misunderstandings."

The promotional car did yeoman duty at Daytona, helping to give Chevrolet's newly introduced third-generation Corvette a great deal of positive exposure. And as you'd expect from an L88-optioned Corvette with a Traco-prepared engine, it was not there just to look pretty. Scooter Patrick and the other drivers were more than happy to take journalists and sponsor guests out on the track for a couple of hot laps, reportedly putting the fear of God in more than a few people.

The promo car was licensed for street use, and after Daytona it was occasionally seen tearing around Culver City and surrounding towns. It also made publicity appearances at various events and places in California, including an A.I.R. promotional party at Clippinger Chevrolet in West Covina. But with the purchase of the Lola T-70s, money was in short supply, so A.I.R. put all three Corvettes up for sale.

The two race cars were sold to privateers who continued racing them. Bob Wingate, a star Corvette salesman at Clippinger, bought the promo car. He drove it a little bit and used it as a draw for customers before selling it to Bob Smithers toward the end of 1968. Smithers drove the car on the street for three years, its A.I.R. paint scheme still intact.

Steven 9/11

In 1971 Smithers sold the car to Bob Ryan, who street drove it for a while before painting it white, adding a full rollcage, and making other modifications to prepare it for Solo I and then A-Production competition. Ryan raced the car at Riverside, Road Atlanta, Westwood, and elsewhere for several years with some success. He also had his share of mishaps, including a bad shunt in the rain at Riverside and a worse one a few years later at Portland.

Following the Portland crash, Ryan sold the car to Charlie Slover, who was well known in California racing circles by virtue of his competition-cylinder-head business, Slover's Porting Service. Slover owned it for about 11 years before selling it to Gary Neuer. In an ironic twist, Neuer had purchased the No. 45 racecar from A.I.R. some 21 years earlier. But when he acquired the promo car from Slover, its appearance was so altered that he didn't realize it was one of the A.I.R. L88s.

After subsequently learning the Corvette's true identity, Neuer considered restoring the car back to its former glory before ultimately selling it to current owner Bob Radke. Radke, who's well known in serious Corvette circles for owning and restoring a documented, highly unusual "factory shop order" '67 coupe (see www.67fso.com for more information), entrusted the car to noted restorer Steve Luvisi, proprietor of Automotive Expertise Unlimited in Huntington Beach, California.

But Radke, an entrepreneurial tech genius and devoted gearhead, didn't just drop the car off and come back when it was done. Instead, he played an active role in the restoration, scouring the country for needed parts, restoring many of the subassemblies himself, and obsessing over every single aspect of the project.

Radke also created a website dedicated to A.I.R. (www.airl88.com) and spent a great deal of time tracking down the previous owners of his car. This not only yielded a trove of interesting information, but also led to the acquisition of various original parts, including the instrument and central gauge clusters that were found in Ryan's attic, as well as suspension and engine parts that Slover had in storage.

Chevy Corvette Sting Ray Top 10/11

Radke also invested the time needed to locate just about all of the A.I.R. team members, who were kind enough to share pictures, documentation, and many fond memories with him. In 2003 noted car collector Bruce Meyer held an event at the Petersen Automotive Museum to celebrate the A.I.R. team. James Garner and the rest of the crew attended, as did various automotive luminaries such as Carroll Shelby. Garner's feature film, The Racing Scene, chronicling some of A.I.R.'s races, was shown to a large and appreciative audience.

As the photos of our feature car illustrate, the long and arduous process of bringing this old warrior back to life was worth all of the time, work, and money. At the 2009 National Corvette Restorers Society National Convention in San Jose, the efforts of Radke and Luvisi were recognized when the car was given the NCRS American Heritage award. Simply stated, the quality of the restoration and attention to detail are second to none, making this car a poignant reminder of that time long ago when a group of guys passionate about racing came together with the first three '68 L88 Corvettes for one brief, shining moment.

American Internationa Racing Corportation Chevy Corvette 11/11

A.I.R. team principals aggressively marketed the racing program to potential sponsors, as is evident from this 1967 press-kit intro.

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