Additional photos Courtesy of Mike Ellis
In times of international conflict, the United States Army Rangers are called upon to lead the way.
Unfortunately, Sergeant Brad Crose of Orange Park, Florida, who was one of the first Rangers to deploy after 9/11, was killed in action on March 4, 2002, while on a mission to recover Navy SEAL Neil C. Roberts during The Battle of Takur Ghar (Roberts Ridge) in Afghanistan. This American hero left behind his family, and his Corvette.
In 2012, Crose’s mother, Sheila, contacted her son’s fellow Ranger, Master Sergeant Eric Stebner, and asked him if he was interested in the ’81 Vette, which she had bought for son four years before he deployed.
The car had been sitting uncovered and untouched since 2005, and for Sheila, it served as a painful reminder of her fallen son. No longer could its deterioration be ignored. Guilt was setting in that this last major piece of him was wasting away before her very eyes, and she had no knowledge of how to restore it to its former glory.
Stebner promptly contacted a friend, Mike Ellis, whom he had met years prior through Ellis’ work designing vehicles for the U.S. Department of Defense. Stebner needed help since he was deployed overseas, and he knew Ellis had significant experience with -- and passion for -- Corvettes. “Nobody was sure the exact condition of the vehicle, whether or not it would run, or what exactly it would need to ensure Brad’s pride and joy didn’t die the certain death that it was headed for,” Ellis says.
“After talking to Sheila, who clearly was torn over this decision to let the car go, I knew I only had a small window of opportunity to recover it [for] Brad’s close friend and Ranger buddy. Sheila even calls Eric a son.”
In December 2012, Ellis headed north from Tampa to Jacksonville to retrieve the Corvette. “My heart sank when I finally saw it,” he remembers. “The Florida weather had not been kind to it…no shade from the sun or shelter from the rain for at least six years. The tires were flat and dry rotted, the tops had leaked, the interior was an absolute mess, the battery was dead, and the list goes on.”
Ellis thought to himself, What have I gotten myself into?
“…But Eric is my friend and Brad is an American hero, so I was already personally committed to this project,” he says. “And seeing his mom’s emotions only further confirmed the need to rescue his Corvette and ensure that somehow it would ride again.
“The challenges ahead of me were many,” he explains. “When I told Eric I would recover the Corvette, I thought it would be something I could bring to my house and work on in my garage, with my own lift and tools. But the state of disrepair, combined with too many cars and projects going on here, forced my hand. I absolutely couldn’t let it sit outside another day, but I didn’t have room to tie up my lift in my garage, either.
“So I got home, left it in the trailer, and the next day drove it down to my good friend Tracy Lewis at RX Products in Bradenton. We spent the first hour trying to get it to run, and succeeded. The motor sounded quiet and relatively without issue, so we tried to drive it inside. There was no reaction from the Corvette when I shifted the automatic. Five quarts of transmission fluid later, it would move under its own power, and we put it on the lift.”
He continues: “The details of what I found were not terrifying, but certainly more than I was going to be able to handle on my own, given my obligations at MacDill Air Force Base [in Tampa] and general lack of time. The challenge was to have the Corvette done by May and ready for the 2013 Hot Rod Power Tour, because Eric was scheduled to redeploy to Texas on May 10, and the tour was only three weeks after that!
“Not only that, but Eric would depend on this car, since he had no other vehicle to drive when he returned. He had no idea of the shape it was in, but it was not something I wanted to concern him with.”
VETTE was fortunate to document the Corvette’s restoration from its planning stages to its completion. Follow along with us as we share some of its highlights, and in doing so pay tribute to fallen American war hero Staff Sergeant Brad Crose.