Back in the day, it was possible for a devoted Corvette enthusiast to order up not just a Vette for racing, but one that could take on the well-sponsored "big boys" who ruled the roost in SCCA A/Production racing back then—and win!
One of those was Milton "Babe" Headley of Paoli, Pennsylvania. In 1969, he ordered up a new Corvette Stingray coupe with the RPO L88 engine option, and then built it into a race car whose current owner calls a "giant killer."
"He won at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen with that car, and he beat the big guys," says Tom O'Brien.
Racing out of Babe's Garage of Paoli (located not far from the shop of Chevrolet drag racing legend Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins), it also competed at tracks such as Mosport and Bridgehampton before Babe sold it to another Delaware Valley-area Vette racer, Scott Perfetto, in 1974.
Its racing career continued—in SCCA's A/Production and GT-1 classes and in its Trans Am Series, as well as in IMSA's Camel GT Series through 1983. That year, Gary Griffith—longtime Corvette Club of Michigan President who'd purchased it from Scott—ran it twice before his untimely passing. Gary's wife later sold it to Corvette shop/salvage yard operator Bob Smith of Ypsilanti, Michigan, where it sat for years until its eventual rediscovery and restoration.
Tom says that when he found it about five years ago, it had been restored, but it wasn't quite track-ready. "We basically pulled everything, tightened everything, and re-assembled it," says Tom of the work that brought it back to 100 percent restored—to the condition Babe raced it. "This particular one was brought back to its racing heritage, not to factory stock," Tom adds. "The dashboard's different, and the electronics in it are different. But the chassis and everything else is 100 percent stock."
The owner of three other L88s, Tom was taken with this one's history. "This car intrigued me because Babe Headley was an independent racer," says Tom. "He had no sponsorship, and he did it out of his little garage. Lo and behold, it became one of the most successful road-racing Corvettes in history. It beat all the big guys!"
And, in the restored condition we saw it in at last year's Corvette Funfest, it looks ready to beat them all again, with its "430 horsepower" L88. Tom, who says that peak power number is actually closer to 610, says it's a handful on the bias-ply tires it raced on back then, but Babe had a few tricks up his sleeve. "Applying that horsepower to those crummy tires they had back then the weight of that Corvette in the back was relatively light, and he did overcome it with some suspension changes," notes Tom.
Babe may have had help getting the hardware he needed, as Roger Penske's original Chevrolet dealership in Wayne, Pennsylvania was just a few miles east of Babe's Garage, and whose parts department—and customer-service work—would have lived up to Chevrolet's 1969 sales slogan ("Putting You First Keeps Us First!") in a big way.
As we mentioned above, this L88 is the fourth one that Tom's owned, and he says this one is definitely no street cruiser. "You're in another world," he says when asked what it's like to drive. "It's not for the weak of heart. It's probably the fastest thing I've ever driven on a straightaway. Cornering-wise, it's a real handful, but it's got the power when you need it. It certainly has the power, believe me!" He adds, "You have to be a driver to get it around the track."
Tom says that he takes it out for some serious track time at least once a year. "We go out at least once a year," he says. "There's a track up by us called Beaver Run, and we take it out there to display it and take some people around the track, and then do about three laps of serious stuff." He adds that he'd like to take it to Like Rock and Watkins Glen—two tracks where it won in the past—and that it brings back a lot of memories for Corvette lovers who saw it in action. "People are contacting me all the time, when they get wind of it," he says of their stories that begin with "I remember this car when it raced at…"
If you're thinking of adding an L88 to your Corvette collection, Tom has this advice: "To find a real L88 is just a treasure, but you've obviously got to be careful." He adds, "If you can find a real one—for a collector, that's the cornerstone of any collection."
Just 116 '69 Stingrays were built with Chevy's top race engine in 1969, following 80 '68 Corvettes built at St. Louis with it the year before, and just 20 production L88-powered '67 Sting Rays.
Speaking of being careful, that's what Chevrolet tried to be when the L88 was on Corvette's option list, making sure that the customers who sought them out were those who'd actually race them, instead of driving them on the street and trying to qualify for a Darwin Award in the process.
That may have been why the L88's factory horsepower rating was five horsepower less than that of the triple-carbed RPO L71 427, which stickered at $437.10 as opposed to the L88's $1,032.15 tariff. (L88 buyers also had to spring for $549.40 worth of mandatory options including the K66 transistorized ignition, J56 heavy-duty brakes, F41 special suspension and G81 Positraction.) These prices were on top of the sticker prices for the '69 Stingrays, which started at $4,438 for the droptop and $4,781 for the coupe. The special aluminum block option for the L88—RPO ZL1—added another $4,718.35 on top of all that.
But Tom has one more piece of advice. "If you find any original ones, please call me—I'm interested all the time!"
|Owner||Tom O'Brien, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania|
|Engine||Chevrolet Mark IV big block (RPO L88)|
|Block||'74-vintage Chevrolet Service Parts L88, cast-iron with four-bolt mains|
|Displacement||460 cubic inches (7.4 liters)|
|Heads||'69-vintage L88, cast aluminum, ported and port-matched to intake manifold|
|Valves||Chevrolet L88, stainless steel, 2.19-in intake, 1.88- in exhaust, with three-angle valve job|
|Camshaft||Chevrolet L88, solid lifter, 0.600/0.600-in lift|
|Pistons||J&E forged aluminum, 0.030-in over, with floating pins|
|Crankshaft||Forged 4.00-inch stroke crankshaft, drilled and chamfered|
|Oil System||Melling HV-77 mechanical oil pump, Milodon 8-quart road race oil pan, remote-mount oil filter and oil cooler|
|Carburetion||OEM L88 850-cfm dual-feed Holley, modified by McLendon Racing|
|Ignition||MSD 6AL electronic, with "Pro Billet" distributor and 8 mm spark plug wires|
|Exhaust||Hooker headers and side-mounted exhausts, no mufflers|
|Transmission||Borg-Warner Super T-10 four-speed manual, with G&G roller bearing tail housing, heavy-duty drive yoke, 11-in Borg & Beck three-finger racing clutch with a Hayes clutch disc, Lakewood safety bellhousing, Hurst Competition Plus shifter and remote-mounted fluid cooler|
|Frame||Restored race-prepared C3 Corvette|
|Suspension||Restored race-prepared C3 Corvette (Front) Heavy-duty coil springs, Bilstein shocks, solid bushings (Rear) Transverse steel leaf spring bundle with Bilstein shocks, adjustable rear camber rods and offset trailing arms and raised solid rear crossmember mounts|
|Brakes||Restored '69 Corvette L88 discs all around|
|Wheels||American Racing Torq-Thrust, 15x11 inches front, 15x12 inches rear|
|Tires||Goodyear "Blue Streak" Sports Car Special, 6.50-15 front, 8.50-15 rear, bias ply|