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1956 Chevrolet Corvette SR-2 - Lineage

Hailing an early pioneer of Corvette racing and performance

Steve Temple Feb 18, 2015
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One could hardly imagine the latest C7 Stingray being developed without substantial engineering input from competition Corvettes. Millions of dollars and years of track time went into this breakthrough design. The well-worn expression, “racing improves the breed,” still applies today, and was certainly true during the Corvette’s seminal years from 1956-’57.

Zora Arkus-Duntov, who would eventually become the chief engineer of the Corvette program, was instrumental in improving the performance of the C1. Working with Ed Cole, they started with the Sebring Racers (called SR for short, but never SR-1), followed by the SR-2 high-fin model shown here. The significance of these cars can’t be underestimated, as it’s often been said that they actually saved the production of the Corvette.

Duntov knew all too well that early versions of the first-gen Corvette lacked street cred. The then-new SBC was merely an option in 1955, with an anemic six-cylinder holding sway as the standard engine. He realized that the Corvette needed a massive dose of performance in order to overcome its waning sales, and the SR designs were just the right antidote. They transformed the Corvette from an inconsequential car at the start of 1956 to a world-class competitor by the end of 1957.

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Looking back, the time in which these racers were born was dramatically different from today. In the mid-’50s, Ike was beginning his second term in the White House, and the ink was just drying on Congressional approval of his Interstate Highway System. Imported cars from Europe were little known, and Japanese ones even less so.

In financial terms, GM was bigger than most countries, twice the size of the next nearest corporation (Standard Oil), and was building more than half of all cars sold in the U.S. at the time. From this heady corporate climate came the four Sebring Racers. Lessons learned from these cars were incorporated into the SR-2, which was fitted on the same basic chassis, but markedly enhanced.

The first of three SR-2s built was for Jerry Earl, son of GM Vice President Harley Earl. Prior to this project, Jerry Earl announced he was going to race a Ferrari 250 MM, but his father clearly saw that as an unacceptable choice. So he commissioned a competition Corvette for his son. Chevy already had the 1956 Sebring Racers, but Harley Earl had his designers create a hotter looking Corvette for his son to race.

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Since it was specifically built for track duty, the car was much lighter than a production version by some 700 pounds, totaling 2,300 pounds. The doors weighed only 10 pounds and the hood 20 pounds. The handbuilt body measured about 14 inches longer than stock in the front, and initially featured a low dorsal fin that was largely for cosmetic effect. Later on it was replaced with a more functional high fin, influenced by the Jaguar D-Type of the same era.

Added to the front of the cockpit were twin rounded windscreens. An aero-shaped nacelle behind the driver’s seat covers the rollbar, with an access door for the fuel-filler cap. Headlight fairing cones were fitted for track duty, to protect the lamps from road debris, and the louvered hood was secured with aircraft-grade fasteners.

Other unique features consisted of air ducts for cooling the front brakes and the functional aluminum side scoops in the body side coves. Quite unlike the ducts in the upper rear quarters of the new C7, the rear brake air vents run from the rear of the cove through the length of the car, with connecting passages within the doorjambs.

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A build order from the Chevrolet Engineering Department, submitted to the Experimental Shop & Garage on June 1, 1956, detailed a number of chassis upgrades for a pair of SR-2s, which would eventually become a regular production option (RPO 684) in 1957. They included heavier springs and sway bars, bigger shock absorbers, quicker steering, Positraction, cerametallic brake linings in finned drums, and wider wheels.

The latter were Halibrand magnesium knock-offs. They were wrapped with Firestone Super Sport Tires and racing tubes, and measured 67.0x15. Other SR-2 chassis elements consisted of a bolt-on quick steering adapter, and at the rear, five-leaf rear springs and Houdaille dampers. Additional changes were made to the exhaust system, radiator, and transmission, with slight variations between the first two SR-2s built, so the first one could hit the track right away.

In addition, 2-inch offset air ducts in the front fenders fed into the engine bay. Engine work was handled by famed mechanic Smokey Yunick, who stroked and bored the original 283 engine out to 336 cubic inches. It also served as a testbed for the then-new Rochester mechanical fuel-injection system. A 36-gallon fuel tank gave the car an extended range to minimize pit stops.

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The car was first raced by Jerry Earl and Dr. Dick Thompson, “The Flying Dentist.” It was later entered at Nassau Bahamas in November 1957 by Earl and Bill France, to be driven by Curtis Turner. It won one of the preliminary production car heats, but in the main event, while running with the top cars, he went off track and received a DNF.

After Nassau, this car was sold to Jim Jeffords in 1958 and became the Nickey Chevrolet “Purple People Eater” (the first of four, after being repainted). Jim Jeffords went onto become the 1958 SCCA B-production national champion.

In 1958, the car was sold to Bud Gates Chevrolet in Indianapolis, Indiana, who raced it during 1959 and 1960, whereupon it was then placed on his used car lot for sale. Vern Kispert continued the SR-2’s competition career, drag racing as the “Terror of Terre Haute.”

After several years of hard use, it eventually ended up for sale in front of a salvage yard in Terre Haute, Indiana, with an asking price of $5,000. This illustrious example of Corvette history appeared to be heading to an ignominious end.

Fortunately, Gene Marquis rescued the car from oblivion, keeping it from 1969 until 1986, as it underwent a slow restoration. During this time, the SR-2 had a Traco-built, 283 bored out to 301 cubes.

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After several months of back-and-forth negotiations, the SR-2 then went to Rich Mason of Carson City, Nevada. Rich is a long-time Corvette enthusiast, having owned more than 50 of them over the years. Why this car in particular? “I wanted a vintage racer,” he explains. “And this one is so significant in Corvette history.”

When he purchased the car from Marquis, the body was only slightly battle-scarred, but painted red and with black Ford Thunderbird seats in the cockpit. He switched out the seats for original-spec, lightweight Porsche buckets, and added blue leather upholstery to the interior.

The matching body paint is a color that’s slightly darker than the original pale blue color on the low fin version, but not quite as dark as the later high-fin hue.

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Since the Traco engine was getting weak, he dropped in a dependable 327, stroked to 333, and added a second air meter to the mechanical fuel injection. “It’s not an exotic motor,” he points out. “I just wanted it to run well on the track.”

All of Rich’s conscientious efforts paid off over the years. He vintage raced it every year and won the 1987 Monterey Cup for excelling in both performance and presentation. Unique to this SR-2 is a reverse lockout button in the shifter, which likely dates back to its early development. The interior also boasts the original wood steering wheel, and a column-mounted 8,000-rpm tachometer that was missing when he bought it. “That item is an original unit from a ’57 Corvette, very hard to find,” he says. “And expensive too.”

Mason and his beloved SR-2 parted ways in 2013. Now owned by a good friend, Greg Boehme, it’s a popular favorite on the show circuit. While relishing all the attention it still garners, they both profoundly appreciate what a pivotal piece of Corvette history the SR-2 represents.

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