Legendary Corvette racer and engine and car developer John Greenwood passed away at the age of 70. His passion for improving Corvettes drove him throughout his life. But to this author he is best known as a fellow competitor. From 1970-’74 he raced against our L88 Rebel Corvette team at Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Le Mans. Both teams had a healthy respect for each other and we called him Rocket Man because he loved to go fast. John grew up in the Detroit area where his father worked at GM’s Tech Center. He began building engines in his dad’s garage as a teenager so he could go drag racing. His favorite ride was his Satin Silver ’64 Corvette that he would race on Detroit’s infamous Woodward Avenue. When the C3 was introduced, John was smitten and bought a big-block T-top coupe. He immediately started winning with it at parking lot Solo events. Soon he started road racing the Vette and earned his National Competition license. During this time Greenwood opened an engine building and head porting company called Auto Research Engineering (ARE). His shop was located in Troy, Michigan. His creativity in building race winning engines and fabricating race cars was paying off. He was gaining customers and winning races.
Greenwood’s attraction to the C3 Corvette was exactly what Chief Corvette Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov was hoping to develop with his customers. Zora believed winning on Sunday led to more sales on Monday. GM had a corporate racing ban, but Zora and engineer Gib Hufstader quietly provided winning Corvette race teams with technical assistance. Two of these were the Owens Corning and DX Lube Corvette teams. Both gained racing successes in 1968-’70. By 1970, the DX team was gone. Owens Corning, however, was undefeated in their last 22 SCCA races, which was a record at that time. They were expected to dominate the 1970 A-Production championship race at Road Atlanta. Greenwood’s engineering and engine building ability served him well at this race. The upstart “rookie” with a Corvette festooned with a wildly patriotic paint scheme was prepared to do battle. He dominated all of the A-Production Corvettes, including Owens Corning. By the end of the season, Greenwood had won the championship. In 1971, he repeated his A-Production championship and the won the GT class at the Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Donnybrook races.
John Greenwood’s tall lanky frame that was well over 6 feet could always be spotted among the grid crowd. His mood was usually friendly, but intense, because he came to race not socialize.
Burt Greenwood always supported his brother’s racing efforts. He admired John’s ability to build and race the fastest Corvettes at the track.
John Greenwood and Alan Barker brought this 1968 T-top Corvette with an L88 engine to the Sebring 12 Hour in 1970. They qualified third in GT (3:00.230) and 27th overall on Sebring’s 5.2-mile course. The #4 did not finish due to a broken clutch after completing 159 laps. It was destroyed in a crash later in the season.
Greenwood brought two Corvettes to Sebring in 1971. This one driven by Greenwood and TV comedian Dick Smothers qualified 16th (2:57.770) and finished 1st in GT and 7th overall. The team’s second car did not finish. This was the first year that the Randy Wittine-designed American flag paint scheme appeared on the team’s Corvettes.
This success was gaining him attention within GM and with outside corporations. In the fall of 1971, Greenwood landed a major sponsorship package with the BFGoodrich Tire Company. The BFG livery was merged with the American Flag by Randy Wittine and proved to be a huge marketing success. John’s concept of running the powerful, heavy Corvettes on street radials would turn out to be a challenging decision. Their race performance on the track was a different story. Even when the tires were cut to half tread, the big radials had stock street rubber compounds designed for long wear. This caused the tires to heat up and caused the Corvette to lose its grip. This was unlike their competitors who ran full racing slicks with sticky compounds. In the meantime, the Rebel L88 Corvette received a full season sponsorship with Goodyear. This occurred when they won their GT class on Goodyear’s new racing radial tires at Daytona. The tire wars between the two companies began at Daytona and continued throughout the 1972 and 1973 seasons.
As the Goodrich sponsorship contract neared its end, John began looking towards the future. He searched for a way to use his engine’s immense power. His solution was to design a wider body to almost double the size of his rear tires. John and Zora discussed his goals of building a widebody. Randy Wittine from the GM design studio developed sketches and then a full clay mockup of the design. The finished body met John’s goal and it was dubbed the widebody. It was introduced in 1974 and changed the way a Corvette race car looked and performed. John was able to put his engine’s power to good use. The downforce created by this new shape kept the car planted to the track. The 750 plus horsepower engine increased the Corvette’s top speed. The Rebel team was disbanded in 1974. This left Greenwood as the only remaining American team to compete against the European manufacturers. During the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona qualifying, Goodyear clocked the No. 75 Greenwood Corvette at 234 mph down the back straight! Bet the Rocket Man was smiling on that run. Greenwood captured the pole position, but was unable to finish due to an on-track accident.
One of Greenwood’s more impressive accomplishments was saving the Sebring 12 Hour race in 1973. He was able to put a financial package together that enabled the track to remain open. Although there was no race in 1974, due to the fuel crisis, John continued fund and manage the race from 1975 to 1977. Because of his efforts, Sebring continues to thrive today. By the end of the 1976 season the current widebodies could not compete against Europe’s big-turbo cars. John attempted to remain competitive by working with engineer Bob Riley to design a tube frame Corvette in 1977. Only three were built and were quickly sold. This ended Greenwood’s quest for Corvette dominance. Even after his racing ended, he kept his creative juices flowing with ongoing modified Corvette projects. But in the end his impact on C3 Corvette racing was the epitome of his impressive accomplishments. Well done and farewell Mr. Greenwood.
Dave Heinz (left) standing next to his Rebel L88 Corvette on the grid with John Greenwood at the 1971 Watkins Glen 6-Hour race. Both were close to the same height (6’5”). Greenwood/Johnson qualified 17th and finished 5th overall and 1st in GT, Heinz/Yenko qualified 20th and finished 7th overall and 2nd in GT. The two were fierce but friendly Corvette competitors from 1970 to 1974.
The country’s 1972 fuel crisis shortened Daytona from 24 to 6 hours. This was the first time the Greenwood team raced with BFG street radial tires. The No. 48 qualified 20th (2:04.870) but did not finish. The No. 50 qualified 25th (2:07.810) and also did not finish. The Heinz/Johnson Rebel Corvette qualified 12th (2:00.080) and finished 8th overall, 1st in GT on Goodyear racing radials. This victory began a two-year tire war between the Goodrich and the Goodyear shod Corvettes.
The 1972 24 Hours of Le Mans saw four L88-powered Corvettes start the race. Two American teams (Goodrich and Goodyear) brought three entries. This No. 72 Goodrich Corvette with Greenwood driving qualified a blistering 4:18.800 and was 16th quickest overall. Unfortunately, it didn’t finish due to a broken engine. The Heinz/Johnson Corvette qualified 51st (after a pre-race accident) and finished 15th overall. It was the only Corvette to finish Le Mans that year.
The three colorful Greenwood/Goodrich team cars are parked in their pits before the start of the 1973 12 Hours of Sebring. Car No. 50 qualified 9th (3:05.520) and finished 3rd overall and 3rd in GTO. No. 49 qualified 14th (3:06.890) and did not finish, Car No. 48 qualified 8th (3:03.170) and did not finish.
This No. 50 Corvette sits on the 1973 Sebring grid prior to the start of the 12 Hour race. It eventually finished 3rd overall and 3rd in the GTO category behind two factory supported 911 Porsches.
This widebody is one of John’s first cars fitted with this these dramatic aero style panels. It is shown entering Turn 3 during the 1975 24 Hours of Daytona. It took pole position with a time of 1:55.223 and was driven by Greenwood, Vince Muzzin, and Carl Shafer. It did not finish because of a race accident.
The interior of the 1975 pole position winning Greenwood widebody was completely different than a standard 1975 third-generation Corvette. It was all business and designed for quick troubleshooting and rapid interior parts replacement.
Daytona pole position winning driver John Greenwood gets some last minute adjustments from a crew member before the start of the 1976 24 Hours of Daytona.
The widebody aerodynamic body panels were designed to push the Corvette onto the racetrack at high speeds. Greenwood is exiting the Turn 4 banking and preparing to pit for service during the 1976 24 Hours of Daytona.
In 1976, the Greenwood team returned to Le Mans with one entry for the third and final time with this widebody. They qualified 9th (3:54.600) with drivers John Greenwood and Benard Darniche. They failed to finish when the fuel tank split and they never returned to Le Mans. A private collector brought his widebody to Corvettes at Carlisle. It was displayed in the 2004 “Chip’s Choice” special Greenwood car exhibit.
In 1977, a rule change allowed tube frame race cars to compete. Greenwood teamed up with chassis designer Bob Riley and the outcome was this radical C3 “SuperVette.” Only three were built. Notice the 25th Anniversary commemorative paint scheme on this race car, one year before it was introduced on the 1978 model.
Photo: Doug Bergen
Every component under the skin of the SuperVette was designed with racing in mind, including this radical cross-ram fuel-injection manifold. The modified big-block was reported to produce well over 800 horsepower. Former L88 Rebel Corvette chief mechanic Dana English is performing tuning work on this complex engine during a test at Daytona.
From left: Doug Bergen, Rebel/Goodrich driver Bob Johnson, Corvette Repair Owner Kevin Mackay, and GM engineer Gib Hufstader share a laugh at a Corvette event. Bergen owned and raced several L88s and worked on the Greenwood team for 17 races.
Dana English (left), John Greenwood, an unidentified crew member, and Burt Greenwood are preparing their new 1984 Corvette for the 1984 Longest Day Race. Rod Millen joined the team, the trio qualified 2nd overall, and led for a number of hours until mechanical problems developed after nine hours. This dropped them to a 24th place finish.