The world in which the Corvette SR-2 was born was different from the world today.
Back in 1956, most of America's roads were still covered in dirt, there were only 168,903,031 people in the country (about 121 million less than in 2002), most families, if they had any cars at all, had only one, and Congress was still debating the Interstate Highway Act. No American had ever heard of Honda, Toyota, or Nissan, and Volkswagen's success was but a pinprick irritant to Detroit's Big Three. And in 1956 General Motors was the biggest, most successful company the world had ever seen. With annual sales of $13 billion, GM was twice the size of the second largest company, Standard Oil of New Jersey (predecessor of today's ExxonMobil).
Time magazine had in fact named Harlow H. Curtice, GM's 11th president, as Man of the Year for 1955, not because GM had grown even larger, but because he embodied a bold and robust, uniquely American capitalism. Curtice, though, couldn't possibly manage GM singly or autocratically. The company was just too big (bigger than most countries), and the division managers ran their fiefdoms with near autonomy. GM's executive ranks were filled with alpha-type males, constantly jockeying for the best jobs, most prestige and, on occasion, to build the best cars. The SR-2 was a product that reflected GM's arrogant, testosterone-rich, flush-with-success culture.
The Corvette entered its fourth model year with the '56, only its second with V-8 power, and its sports-car credentials had yet to be earned. But the '56 body styling was new and more aggressive. Zora Arkus-Duntov began working on the car, and Chevrolet Chief Engineer Ed Cole was determined to earn the world's respect for the Corvette.
Grandfather to the SR-2 was the modified '56 Corvette Duntov brought to Daytona Speedweeks in February 1956 along with essentially stock (though not thoroughly stock) Corvettes for John Fitch and Betty Skelton. Until then, the Corvette's competition career had been limited to say the least, and non-existent at the factory level.
Using bits and pieces that were either already or about to be available for the small-block V-8, Duntov had an engine making 240 hp for a preliminary run on the beach at Daytona in January. He managed a two-way average speed of 150.58 mph. In February, some reworked heads and a compression-ratio bump to 10.3:1 had the V-8s making 255 hp. Duntov's modified Corvette had a single-seat cockpit, a short windscreen, and even a faired-in head restraint; and it steamed to a thrilling 147.300 mph average speed over the sand. Fitch's '56 did 145.543 mph and Betty Skelton managed 137.773 mph. Most importantly during that competition, the best a Ford Thunderbird could do was just 134.404 mph. GM's appetite for Corvette glory was whetted.